What an inspiring sight democracy at work is! Millions of citizens queued up outside polling places and refusing to move except into the space vacated by the person in front. Long lines beginning before daybreak and continuing well into the next morning well after the polls had officially closed - going on, in fact for three days. That was the unforgettable picture of Freedom Day in South Africa in that country's first national election in which everybody, regardless of race, could vote. The event had such a powerful effect that April 27 is a public holiday in South Africa.
This week we saw repeats of that event, this time in a country that brags about being the epitome of democracy. Leading up to the official voting day, November 6, people gathered in their thousands to vote in early polling in many of the 50 political entities which make up the "Untidy States of America". But in several cases, the state authorities had tinkered with the voting mechanisms to actually make it harder for Americans to vote than it used to be.
The authorities who operate the voting systems in Florida, Ohio, Georgia, Tennessee and West Virginia, for instance, are members of the Republican Party who have seen that traditionally people who take advantage of early voting overwhelmingly support their opponents, the Democrats. So they cut the number of days as well as hours the advance polls would open. In Kansas, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Wisconsin, the political rule-makers demanded that voters show government-issued identification before they would be allowed to vote.
In a Catch-22 scenario, many of these official forms, such as passports and drivers' licences, require birth certificates, which many people born in the south or in Puerto Rico don't have, or have great difficulty obtaining. There used to be a time when some US states, particularly those in the south, instituted a poll tax as a prerequisite to vote. These taxes emerged in the late 19th century after the brutal Civil War as part of the so-called Jim Crow laws which continued to support the suppression of black and aboriginal people. The 15th amendment to the US constitution extended voting rights to everybody, but state authorities continued to find ways to carry on their heinous practice.
One favourite device was the literacy test, used to disenfranchise black people and poor whites. Even then, it wasn't employed equally. A typical scenario would see a dirt-poor redneck farmer come in and be asked, "Hey, Bubba, spell cat", while the same official would shout at a dignified black man, "Hey, boy! Before you can vote you gotta spell category, catastrophe, catalogue and catacombs!" The current disgrace led one former state official, a Republican, to remark that this is the sort of thing Americans expect to see in a Third World country.
Those long lines also drew the attention of Barack Obama, who was sent back to the White House for another four years. In his victory speech in Chicago on Tuesday night, the re-elected president praised the people for their fortitude in staying in those lines, but added, "By the way, we have to fix that."
It won't be easy to fix that, but it can be done. While the states are responsible for arranging votes on matters within the states, it is the Congress which controls federal voting. In the past, rules set by the Congress for federal voting usually led to the states falling in line. Yet it is still curious to outsiders that the way you vote in one state, or even in one county, is different from how it works in the next.
Both countries that share borders with the US - Mexico and Canada - have much simpler electoral systems. In Mexico, an autonomous body known as the Federal Electoral Institute runs federal elections, while state and municipal elections and those within the Federal District around Mexico City are organised by local or regional institutes. To the north, federal elections are organised by Elections Canada, which sets voting and campaigning rules, maintains the voters' lists, prints ballots, hires polling staff and adds up the results. The provinces and cities have their own election machinery which runs on the same general lines.
One other aspect of the US voting system that would drive many outsiders bonkers is the complexity of the ballot. The voter is asked to decide on so many things that a visit to the polling booth can take 10 minutes or more. In addition to choosing the president and vice-president, the voter has to select a member of the House of Representatives, sometimes a senator, in addition to state representatives such as house member, senator, governor and lieutenant-governor, county officials, judges, sheriffs, as well as deciding, for instance, whether people of the same sex can marry each other, whether an individual can possess small amounts of ganja for personal use, or even - in the case of Los Angeles (epicentre of the pornography industry) - whether actors in porn movies should be obliged to wear condoms.
I recall a colleague at the CBC who covered one US election campaign many years ago telling me that the ballot in Nevada was the size of a broadsheet newspaper page! In Miami-Dade County this week, with people still in line well after midnight, the ballot was 10 pages long and had 18 sections.
End of a bitter campaign
All this concentrated effort came at the end of a seemingly interminable campaign marked by nastiness and enmity and which consumed a record US$6 billion. And what has come of it? Essentially, the same. Obama is back in the White House, but the House of Representatives remains in the hands of the Republicans while the Democrats have picked up a couple of seats in the Senate and will have the general support of a couple of independents. And the Opposition Republicans appear determined to continue the same obstructionist tactics that made Obama's first term a nightmare.
The first big task facing all of them is what's known in Washington jargon as the Fiscal Cliff. On New Year's Eve, a number of factors come together and none of the politicians who have just ended one of the most acrimonious election cycles can ignore them The tax cuts introduced by George Bush II expire and a payroll tax credit expires as well. If the politicians do nothing, a series of across-the-board budget cuts and tax increases will automatically take effect, putting the US into a serious austerity regime - even more severe than many strapped European countries have dared to try.
And this is where the fun starts - the Republicans say the budget should be re-arranged using spending cuts alone while the Democrats insist that the rich must pay more taxes. The president says he will veto any proposal that doesn't include higher taxes on rich people.
A lot of head-butting lies ahead!