From the Chair - November 2020
I have been an election junkie for as long as I can remember.
Watching the US election process on TV was possible because my Dad worked for General Electric where he somehow acquired a box containing the parts of one of the earliest commercially available black and white television sets which he constructed at home.
So, I have been glued to the TV watching the Republican and Democratic conventions since they were first broadcast on US television. Even spread over several days, they were far more exciting than the election itself which was usually resolved in a day.
Even then, though, I knew from my Dad, who was also an election junkie, that the transparency of broadcast TV was mis-leading. Behind the glamour of each US State having a chance (pre-COVID) to command the stage with their flags, balloons and band music, all important decisions were made by mainly older white men in smoke-filled rooms outside the view of the cameras.
Transparency is fundamental to democracy
Transparency, democratic participation, and accountability demonstrate the integrity of a nation. Elections are an opportunity to observe the state of the nation in this regard.
Through the transparency that modern television broadcasting can provide, good journalists can even get into the (no-longer smoke-filled) back rooms when key decisions are made.
CNN has set a new higher standard of transparency for the 2020 US election through its television coverage.
It seemed like an interminable wait for the US election result. But transparency and democracy were reinforced as CNN refused to call the election until every vote was accounted for, if not completely counted. CNN’s well-informed coverage, backed up with its magic state and county maps, knew when enough of the votes had been counted.
This knowledge was supported by Attorney Generals in each of the 50 states. The televisions showed their professional state-by-state, rules-based approach to keeping track of who had voted, when, and from where. COVID-19 added to the preparation as many people preferred to vote by mail instead of in person. Larger numbers voted by mail in some locations than had voted on Election Day in 2016.
The turnout of nearly 65% of eligible US voters, was considerably above the 60.1% turnout in 2016. Learning about getting voters out may see a continuation of an upward US voting trend in the future.
With the US election held on Tuesday 3 November, it took nearly 5 days for there to be a clear winner. The final result called by CNN, was 10 days after election day. Democratic candidate Joe Biden was declared to be the winner with 306 electoral college votes to the Republican Donald Trump’s electoral college total of 232.
Biden also won 50.8% of the popular vote compared to Trump’s 47.2%. With 78,606, 682 votes counted for him as of 15 November, Biden had the highest number of votes ever in the history of the US. At 73,069, 979, President Trump had the second highest number of votes ever.
There was minute by minute real-time coverage with CNN cameras, following voters everywhere including going inside the offices where votes were being counted and interviewing the managers who pointed out that the voting was overseen by one Democrat, one Republican and two independents.
Media as propaganda
Despite CNN's transparent coverage of how the votes were counted, 12 days after the election, 70% of Republicans believed that the “election was stolen.” This fallacy was given credence by an incumbent President who refused to concede while making unsubstantiated claims of election fraud.
Much of this is a result of what is bad about the media. In the US, the media which dominates rural America, offers an echo-chamber of propaganda – slanted coverage, unproven conspiracies and outright lies.
In the US politically aligned broadcast media along with social media divides further by channelling information that builds on the fears of particular interest groups and religious affiliations. The US election demonstrates the huge challenge faced by the world in reconciling press freedom with factual reporting.
Meanwhile the President’s own Homeland Security reported that the US election was the “cleanest in history.”
Media and transparency
The media also plays a major role in New Zealand elections. It's assisted by the efforts of the Electoral Commission to enrol voters and to make voting accessible.
All votes were counted and reported for each electorate with the media reporting a winner on election day itself. Fortunately, our Electoral Commission had the vote counting exercise for early voting well organised. This meant that the election outcome was clear to viewers pretty much within a couple of hours of the polls closing.
The Electoral Commission was able to speed up the counting of special votes by counting them centrally, to free up the local booths to count their votes. The total number voting in New Zealand was 2.919,086. It was a 94.1% turn out, up on 2016 when the turnout was 92.4%.
Now the real work begins
Both countries got the vote out. The 2020 voter turnout was up in both New Zealand and the United States compared to the previous national elections. Kudos to the media and electoral commissions for the transparent processes for enrolling voters, providing information about voting options and for counting the votes.
When leadership is about power and control, the government and the people it governs are vulnerable to corruption. With the highest number of new COVID-19 cases and deaths every day for months, it is unsurprising that the US is a place where incomes, happiness, trust, and life expectancies are all getting worse.
Both New Zealand’s PM, Ardern, and the US President-Elect, Biden, have received half of the popular vote. This gives them both a mandate to lead their countries through the Covid-19 crisis into economic recovery.
The challenge they face is how to engage with the half of their country who voted for their opposition. Hearing their voices is a way to demonstrate that all votes do count.
Even with the transparency of the media reporting on the outcomes of strong electoral systems, democracy is not guaranteed. That takes leaders who can set a tone from the top, capable of building trust even amongst those who voted for someone else.
Thank you for your support
This is my last column as Chair of Transparency International New Zealand. Thanks for your courage to join with me in progressing serious and urgent actions to protect and extend integrity in our beautiful Aotearoa.
Suzanne Snively, ONZM
Transparency International New Zealand Inc.