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Guest opinion: Time in Congo offers voting lessons

Events of the past few years in several states have given me the unnerving feeling that I have seen this before.

I spent 28 years in the thinly camouflaged dictatorship of the Democratic Republic of Congo, and am reminded of an election that took place there in the 1960s. 

Voting was mandatory, not a choice, and non-voters could be fined.  I was the prefect (director) of an elite school in the town of Kimpese (cockroach in the Kikongo language). Ballots consisted of a green card for President Mobutu Sese Seko’s party slate, or a red card against. No other candidates were allowed.

 A voting site was in the school auditorium next to my office. At voting time, my secretary left to vote, but soon returned. He had intended to vote, but since poll workers had “conveniently forgotten” to bring red cards, he told them that because he had no choice, they could vote for him, which they did. His duty, however, was fulfilled. 

I remember also a former student who wrote a letter to the president in which he stated that he was voting against the proposed new constitution and indicated why he was doing so. He spent six months in jail.

 A few years later, while I was working in rural development, our carpenters were asked to make the voting boxes for the collective in which we were located. We also furnished a Land Rover and driver so the local chief (equivalent to county commissioner) could check on voting stations.  Our bill for service went unanswered.

The important item in that election was the salient instructions that came down from the president. They were as follows: “At each level of government, the head man was to examine the results that came in. If he detected an ‘error,’ he was to correct them before forwarding them on to the next level.” 

We often wondered how the results changed as they moved up the chain of command.  Since regions (equivalent to our states)  had three different levels below them, we also wondered about the relationship of the final tally to the actual vote.

I do know that the leading candidate for the Senate from our part of Bandundu Region, who was the only candidate from the principal tribal group, lost out. Since voting was almost always along tribal lines, we couldn’t help but speculate:  He probably had received at least 90 percent of the votes, but was not acceptable to the president, who viewed him as an opponent.  He undoubtedly was “corrected” out.

In our own country, despite the end of the Civil War 150 years ago, the battles rage on with new, more strident adherents provoked by the election of a black president.  Confederate States of America President Jefferson Davis said that war was over slavery, but over time “slavery” mutated into “states’ rights.”

Today, some states exercise their rights by gerrymandering voting districts, switching polling places at the last minute and imposing restrictions that impede many voters in the guise of combating voter fraud, but actually to minimize opposition.

I see a huge danger in lockstep voting, as well as too much power in the hands of one party. I would imagine that the gerrymanderers would probably find Mobutu’s instructions interesting and worthy of research. There is always a danger in refusals to compromise, or voting against a proposition simply because the other party proposed it, as has been evident recently. Differences of opinion are both normal and good, but one-party rule can lead to what my family lived through for most of our time in the Congo.

Why should it be anathema to any state to adopt Washington’s redistricting process by which a majority of four members – two from each major party – must agree on a new map, or implement our voting by mail. Could it be loss of control?

I like having plenty of time to research the voter pamphlet and other information without feeling pushed and forgetting important things.  At polling stations I always felt too rushed. 

Voters, wake up!

We must ensure that those we elect have the good of us all as their primary focus, and not the privileged few.  We must stay alert and informed. Much electioneering is filled with half-truths and unfounded allegations.  Primaries are upon us, and it is very probable that voters who think that voting, especially primary voting, is not important have the most to lose when they neglect it.

Harvey Polley, a 1951 graduate of Whitworth College, was a missionary and teacher in the Democratic Republic of Congo.


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