Early Voting In The US

Election Day in the US will see millions of people around the country line up at polling stations ready to cast their vote. Unlike Sri Lanka, something I have noticed in the US is that the number of polling stations are far fewer and casting the vote itself would also take up to ten minutes. This means that people are left standing in line for hours. So the US election authorities have made it easier by making use of “early voting”.

Early voting is very simply an opportunity for voters to turn up before election day and cast their vote either in person or via mail.

Each State in the US has a separate time period for early voting which is determined by the state authorities. It can run from anywhere between a week to ten days. This election has seen an unprecedented prediction of over 46 million people casting their votes early.

The idea behind early voting is to ensure that on election day everybody can cast their vote before the polling stations close.

However, despite the opportunity to vote early the majority of the country still choose to come out on November 6.

Visiting the polling station at Elmhurst School in West Toledo, I was greeted with the sight of long voter lines. Speaking to the people I learnt that they had been in line for over two hours. Jessica Litzch said she had been in line for almost two hours and was tempted to leave and try again later.

“I never got down to voting early simply because I never had time with work. My boss said I can take time off to vote today which is why I am here”, she explained. Litzch added that she has to go back to work and will not wait to vote now but would try again in the evening.

Frank Bedford left the polling station complaining that he had been standing in line for 2 hours and could not afford to spend anymore time there. “I run my own business and cannot afford to keep it closed for too long”, he said.

Bedford added that it was unlikely he would come back and vote since he does not leave his shop until 7pm. He admitted that not making use of the early voting was a mistake.

Judging by the news from elsewhere in the county the lines seem to be even longer. One report suggests that in Florida voters are having to stand in line for almost 3 hours. Despite these time constraints the voters are, by and large, choosing to stand in line.

Of course a surprising aspect is that traditionally voter turnout in the US is not high. An interesting development considering all the assistance voters are given.

Democrats have complained that their voter bases are lazy and do not often turnout in full force on election day. Early voting would no doubt assist the Democrats.

The US Electoral System; No Simple Process

November 6, 2012 1 comment

While the whole world prepares for the United States presidential election, many, both inside and outside America, are still unsure how the system works. The 2000 presidential election debacle involving George W. Bush and Al Gore fueled this confusion with Gore winning the popular vote but still failing to win the election.

In the US, despite a candidate winning the most number of votes he or she can still fail to win the election. This is due to the use of the electoral votes, which was designed to give all 51 states an opportunity in having a say in the election.

To understand how the US election system works, it is essential to understand the electoral college system.

In order for a candidate to win the Presidential election, he or she must obtain 270 votes out of a total of 538 electoral votes.

Each state in the US is assigned a certain number of electoral votes depending on the number of Representatives and Senators in the House of Congress. While each state has two senators, the number of their Representatives is dependent on the number of districts in the states.

Each state has one representative for every district in the region. This means that those states with a larger population have a higher number of electoral votes as they would have a larger number of districts.

For example the state of Wyoming has a population of 568,000 and so has only a single district. This means that it has in total of 3 electoral votes (two senators and a representative).

The largest state in terms of electoral votes is California, which currently has 55 electoral college votes (2 senators and 53 district representatives).

Each state is based on a winner takes all system, this means that if a candidate wins 51% of the vote in that state he will take all the electoral votes from that state.

It is through this process that allows a candidate to win an election but still fail to win the popular vote. All of the states a candidate wins could be by a small margin, while the states he loses could be by a large amount. If this was to happen, provided the candidate wins the required 270 electoral votes, he can win the election but not win the most number of votes. This happened in the 2000 election between Bush and Gore.

This will mean that states with a larger number of electoral votes will be focused on more by the candidates than those with fewer votes.

In the unlikely event that at the end of the election the candidates are tied on 269 electoral votes each, then a second vote will be taken from the electors in the state. This means that each state has a single vote, and whoever gets the majority will win.

This would mean that each state has equal say and the candidate who has won the most number of states would win. If this was to occur this time around, judging by the polling maps Republican candidate Mitt Romney would win as there are currently more states supporting the Republicans.

This complicated method adopted by the Americans has left both political commentators and it’s voters highly critical of the process.

Neal Carruth, supervising editor of the National Public Radio, described the electoral system as being flawed and not truly representing democracy. He said that the disregard of the popular vote in the US is in contradiction to the idea of Democracy. “You could have a situation where the President is not the popular choice, yet is able to win enough electoral votes to win the election. This was seen in 2000, and led to some very serious questions about the system”, he explained.

Carruth did admit, however, that the likelihood of the system being changed was very slim.

Criticism extends to the voters who, unlike the political analysts, cannot understand the process. Mark Duggan, a shop owner in Washington D.C, explained that he supported Romney and could not understand how the possibility existed that the Republican could lose. “When you watch the news and talk to people it is obvious that there is a larger support base for him than there is for Obama. Yet our system somehow could allow the unpopular candidate to become President”, he said.

If Obama is be re-elected but loses the popular vote he will be the first ever President to do so.

Duggan admitted that he did not fully understand the electoral process here, “the idea of electoral votes is too confusing. It should be a simple situation of the candidate with the most number of votes wins”, he said.

With several key states still undecided (swing states), both Romney and Obama are in with a chance to win. On election night both candidates will be keeping an eye on the all important 270 electoral votes, knowing that will be all they need to secure victory.

Volunteers; Backbone Of A Campaign

At 64 years, Marie Jenson has been a volunteer for the past 6 presidential elections in the Democrats’ camp. Back in 1988, while Democrat candidate Michael Dukakis was soundly beaten, winning only 111 electoral votes, Jenson was bitten by the election bug.

“I was forty years old and a stay at home mother when I first volunteered. Elections were not the most important thing in my life, but one day I decided I wanted to go out and help the Democrats. It had been a tough 12 years for the Democrats, Jimmy Carter had been a flop and we needed a boost”, she explained.

She believed that if the Democrats were to come back in to office, they needed the people to reignite the voters passion for victory, “something volunteers had to do at the grassroots levels.” During her first campaign, Jenson spent three months handing out campaign buttons, ever since that election Jenson has made it a point to turn to volunteer for the Democrats at every election.

The 92′ election was where Jenson tasted victory as a supporter, and she says that it was at that point she realized how important the role of the volunteer is. “Clinton’s campaign had us out in force, I was volunteering in Ohio and I travelled all over the state urging people to come out and vote for him. His margin of victory is indication that we were successful”, she said.

In 2012 Jenson is back in the Democrats camp having spent the past three months canvassing on the ground. On the day before the election (November 5) she spent her day walking from house to house in Toledo, along with dozens of other volunteers, urging Democrats to turn out and vote. “By now we know where those who support the Democrats live, it is of utmost importance that we get them out to vote”, the volunteer explained.

Her work as a volunteer has seen her carry out work ranging from calling up registered voters urging them to vote Democrat, to sitting outside shopping centers handing out Democrat badges. “It is the job of the volunteers to remind the voters why they should vote for the candidate, President Obama has spent the election period telling the country what he will do in the next four years. It is our job to remind the individuals and ensure they all hear his message. I was in Columbus Ohio a week ago and a man told me that seeing how tirelessly the volunteers were working had convinced him that turning out to vote was important. That is all that we can do” Jenson explained

Of course it has not always been thankful work, often Jenson has been forced to listen to Republican supporters run down President Obama’s policies, while also having undecided voters flat out refuse to vote. “It is frustrating when a person refuses to vote either way, this is their opportunity to make a change if they are unhappy. Sometimes I have had doors slammed in my face, other times I have had to stand next to a republican volunteer trying to convince an undecided voter. This is all worth it, if at the end of the day we know we have done all we can”, she said.

Her brightest moment during the campaign came a few weeks ago when during a campaign rally in Cleveland Ohio, President Obama personally thanked her for all the work she did. “The President asked me about myself and my family, and thanked us all for the hard word we were doing for both him and the party. It is a small gesture like that which is thanks enough”, she said.

Election day will Jenson’s busiest, “I will be traveling to the houses of those we know who will be voting for the Democrats urging them to get out there early and cast their ballot. It is our last opportunity to ensure we win, this will be a fight but I am convinced America will make the right choice.”

For Jenson, and thousands of other volunteers, all their hard work will come to an end on November 6. Yet regardless of the result, most of them will be back in four years trying once again.

Indecision And Division Leaves Ohio Up For Grabs

The state of Ohio is considered the biggest swing state in the 2012 US Presidential election. With 18 electoral votes up for grabs, both campaigns have been tirelessly wooing voters in the state for the past month.

Recent polls show that as of Thursday (November 1) Barack Obama has a slender lead of 2 percentage points. However, early voting has the President ahead with a sizable lead of 60% to 34%. Despite this clear lead, early voting in the state of Ohio has been much lower than expected, meaning that election day voters will have the final say.

Republican candidate, Mitt Romney, knows that if he is to win the election it is essential that he wins Ohio. Democratic candidate, Barack Obama, will have all but ensured victory if he is able to win the electoral votes on offer.

While the candidates, and their campaign teams, have been hosting rallies and meeting with the voters, it appears that neither Obama nor Romney are any closer to securing the support of Ohio.

In Toledo, Ohio all of the different voter groups have numerous demands from the candidates.

Students at the University of Toledo explained that their biggest concern is the lack of jobs awaiting them upon graduation. Daniel Stevens, a third year engineering student, said that he was concerned that he would not be able to find a job to repay all of his loans. “Going to university in America is very expensive, I have been forced to take a few loans to pay off my student bills. If I am able to get a job after graduating I will be able to repay these loans. But in recent years the economy has been very poor and getting a job is not assured”, he said.

Stevens added that due to the economy being in a bad shape the cost of repaying the student loans have increased. “Both campaigns have promised to improve the economy but neither have really been able to convince on how they will do this. President Obama has had four years to do so, he now says that was not enough time. If we elect him again he will only have another four years, what guarantee is there that he can do what he needs to. Mitt Romney on the other hand has not really showed any proper plan to rebuild the economy. As far as I am concerned, this election is to choose a candidate who is less likely to worsen the situation”, he explained.

Jennifer Burton, a second year Arts major, agreed with Stevens that the cost of education was too high and needed to be addressed by the next president. “The economy was in bad shape when President Obama came in to office, in the four years he has done a lot to set it right. It is too much to expect him to have everything perfect in only four years, I will definitely be voting for him again he is on the right track”, she said.

Burton added that she was sure Obama was the proper choice as she felt Romney would only assist the wealthy class of America. “President Obama has promised to increase taxes on the wealthy, that has to be done if they want to improve the economy. Romney will only protect the wealthy because h knows they can get him elected. Does it not the way an economy should be handled”, the student explained.

Jordan Parker, an unemployed African-American high school graduate, believes that the current state of the economy has put further education out of the reach of lower income families. “When President Obama was elected we all thought he understand the issues facing us poorer people. In the four years that he has been president there has been no change to the economy. I cannot afford the college fees, and that means my education stopped after high school”, he said.

Parker said that he had wanted to become an electrician after leaving high school, but because of the expensive college fees and high repayment schemes for loans he was forced to abandon those plans. He explained that as a high school graduate job opportunities were limited, forcing him to look for part-time work in convenience stores.

“I was a supporter of President Obama when he started, but his term has made little difference to my life. I know that Mitt Romney will not make any difference to my life, I do not see myself going out and voting this time”, Parker explained.

While the younger generation appear to be divided and unconvinced on who they should vote for, the retired people of Ohio have already picked their candidate for President. Bill Mathews, a retired glass factory supervisor, and his wife Donna Mathews expressed their support for Romney in the upcoming election. “President Obama has done nothing but weaken an already fragile economy with his policies. As Americans we have always prided ourselves on welcoming immigrants, but a strong President needs to know when to say enough. I have lived in Toledo all my life and I have seen a change in the people who live here. In the past 30 years there has been an increase in the number of Latin Americans and Arabs living here, and unfortunately that means fewer jobs”, he said.

The Mathews explained that they were not racist, but simply believed that there should be greater controls on the number of immigrants living in the area. Donna Mathews said “Bill was forced to retire early as they were laying off people at the factory, one of the reasons was because they could get cheaper labour from the immigrants who have moved here.”

Bill Mathews said that he supported Mitt Romney as they believed he understood the need to protect American citizens from outside influences both economically and physically. “Governor Romney has continually expressed his distrust towards the Chinese, unfortunately President Obama has allowed companies to outsource work to the other countries taking away money from families back here in the States. The Republicans are dedicated to protecting us, and for that they have our vote”, he said.

Sam Redmond, a former employee at the Chrysler factory, threw his whole hearted support behind Romney. “I am 69 and am suffering from arthritis, my medication is expensive and the current insurance packages do not cover it. Last month Senator Paul Ryan met with a lot of us and promised that the Republicans would make health care more affordable for the lower income families. President Obama has had four years to do so and still has not been able to. At this stage in my life health care is my main concern, for that reason alone I will be supporting Governor Romney”, he said.

Redmond added that he did not have anything against Obama and believed if there were not as many issues facing him as there are, he would have been a good President. He explained that he felt Romney would a stronger leader and someone who would be able to make smarter decisions under pressure.

While the retired people of Ohio seem to be leaning towards Romney the minorities are clearly backing Obama in the election.

Mohammed Al Fayar, a local shop owner in downtown Toledo, said that he wholeheartedly supported Obama both on his domestic and foreign policies. “The economy was in a bad state when President Obama took over, since then it is improving, another four years and we will be in a much better state. The Republicans do not know how to protect small businesses, furthermore they do not care about us migrants,” he said.

Al Fayar expressed his belief that Obama’s foreign policy showed an understanding towards migrants. “We must not forget it was the Republicans under George W. Bush that instilled an anti-Islam feeling amongst Americans. President Obama may continue the war in Afghanistan but he is also sympathetic to issues facing the Muslim world, his treatment of Palestine is example of this. This is a President who will be supportive of all groups”, he said.

Martha Fernandez, a waitress at a restaurant, said that it was because of the Obama administration that she was able to finally get her green card and remain in America. “I spent five years in and out of America trying to get my green card during the Bush administration, within 8 months of President Obama taking office I was approved for my green card. I was not able to vote last time, but I will certainly be voting on this occasion for President Obama”, she explained.

Fernandez who is a mother, is hopeful that she can bring her daughter over from Mexico to live with her. “I have had to show that I can support both myself and my daughter in order for her to get a green card also, 5 years ago that would not have been possible. Jobs for minorities were scarce back then, now under President Obama jobs are more easily available and more importantly people are able to migrate to this country more easily”, the waitress said.

With less than two days remaining for the election, the indecision that remains in Ohio may prove to be influential in the final outcome of the election. While both parties can claim to have support amongst key groups in the state, neither can boast of having a substantial lead.

It appears that this deadlock will only be decided on election day.

Halloween In America

I went last night to observe Halloween first hand in Ohio, and it certainly was an experience like none other.

In today’s modern word Halloween seems to be celebrated by everyone, costumes parties are held all over and even in some countries kids go trick or treating. But it got me thinking why is Halloween so big in America, in fact this event kick starts the holiday season (thanksgiving and Christmas are still to come).

The origins of Halloween are now unknown with many people divided over the reasons. Some people say that Halloween is celebrated on the eve of the feast of the All Saints (a celebration of all the saints, both known and unknown, in the Christian faith). Others have suggested that Halloween is celebrated to mark harvest festivals and festivals of the dead. This is a commonly accepted origin due to the need and want of people to scare their neighbors.

Interestingly, when reading up on the event I found that the original settlers in North America opposed Halloween. It was only accepted and embraced by North Americans when there was a large influx of Scottish and Irish settlers towards the end of the 19th century. Even then it took almost another 50 years before it was assimilated in to mainstream culture.

Today, Halloween is celebrated all over America by every American. Just like the movies show I was treated to streets full of kids dressed in costumes going from house to house asking for candy. The traditional scary Halloween costumes seem to have been discarded as kids chose to dress up as their favorite superheroes. In fact I only saw a handful of kids who were dressed up as ghosts, vampires, demons etc.

The assortment of costumes certainly did not confine itself only to the children, as the adults also partook in the celebrations.

House themselves retained the scary look with decorations depicting dead bodies, ghosts at the windows and grave stones on the front lawns. In fact a couple of people told me that the local neighborhoods get together every year and hold a competition to judge the scariest house.

At the end of the night kids returned home with their bags stuffed with chocolates, which parents told me would be consumed over several days (hard to see that happening), teenagers went for parties and the parents prepared themselves for the clean up tomorrow.

As much as the candy and costumes are part of Halloween so to are the pranks.

Some houses were clearly victims of such pranks, I asked some kids why they were pulling a prank on one house. They responded “Mr…. lives there and whenever our football goes over in to his yard he never returns it, this is the one time we can have our revenge.”

Today Halloween is over, the kids have hung up their costumes for another year and the parents are putting away the decorations. But there is still a sense that the holiday season has only begun here in the United States.

Hurricane Sandy Leaves Media In A Spin

October 30, 2012 1 comment

Hurricane Sandy has taken the US by storm, literally, and in doing so has swept aside the focus that has been on the Presidential election.

For the past two days cable news has been dominated by coverage of the storm; live reports from the ground showing the impending arrival of Sandy, explanations of precautions that can be taken, continuos updates of the situation and safety messages from the authorities.

This hurricane will most probably cost the US millions in damages, but their continuous coverage and preparations will hopefully have prevented any casualties.

Coming from Sri Lanka, a country that has suffered it’s fair share of natural disasters in the form of floods, it is interesting to see the impact media can play in preventing the after effects of such an event.

Earlier this year Sri Lanka experienced a tsunami warning following an earthquake off the coast of Indonesia. For many this brought back memories of the 2004 tsunami that ravaged the coastal belt line. I was out this year covering the evacuation that was taking place following the alert, and while the authorities did a fairly good job the media fell short.

Only one private media channel had continuos coverage informing the people, the state television and radio only gave updates. Newspapers, online editions, also failed to inform the public on the goings on. This was clearly highlighted by the fact that people elsewhere in the country were unaware of the threat.

However, while the US has been caught up in the media frenzy surrounding hurricane Sandy, it should be mentioned that here in Toledo local news agencies are fairly uninterested. I was told that since national news has the story covered, they were more interested in the local happenings.

So while media in the US has done an impressive job in covering the election, something Sri Lankan media can learn from, local media seems untaxed by the goings on. An interesting occurrence.

Goodbye Washington, Hello Ohio!!

The weekend is coming to an end, and with it starts the final week of campaigning for the Presidential election. As for me, I bid farewell to Washington D.C. and say hello to Ohio.

I spent Saturday (my free day) exploring the capital, and it was an amazing experience seeing all that history in one place. Americans have been known for their “patriotism”, and this was clearly on exhibition in D.C. at all of their monuments.

The Lincoln Memorial is one electrifying place to visit, while housing a giant sized statue of Lincoln it exemplifies the pride the Americans have for their colourful history. Further down I had the opportunity to visit several other memorials all in place for the numerous wars America has been part of, I wonder whether there will be one for the war in the Middle East.

While exploring D.C. I also had an opportunity to meet the locals firsthand. I made the mistake of exploring the city without a map, thankfully more than enough people were willing to help out.

With D.C. somewhat explored it was now time to pack my bags and head off to Ohio. A quick layover in Chicago gave me a taste of what was waiting for me at the end of the road. Bitter cold winds tearing at my face was both a welcome change and a stark reminder that this is the fall season in the US.

I arrived in Ohio this afternoon (Sunday) and after a quick tour of the area settled in at the hotel. Planning on exploring downtown Toledo in a bit before getting ready for the first day of work tomorrow. With nine days till the election, and Ohio and its 18 electoral votes up for grabs, it’s going to be an intense few days.

More updates to come and a more detailed look at the election campaigns.