Importance of free elections can never be overstated

Thursday, June 25, 2009 | 12:50 p.m. CDT; updated 8:40 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, July 1, 2009

"When people cease to complain, they cease to think." Napoleon I

I have told this story before, but I think it deserves to be told again.


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In 1970, I was among 20 students from NYU and New York Institute of Technology observing the presidential elections in the Republic of Haiti. We visited three polling places in the capital Port-au-Prince on election Sunday and watched as armed police and military patrolled each site. Not to keep peace, but to intimidate.

The ballot proved a great reading. It glorified the qualifications of the single presidential candidate. He was a high school graduate, spoke multiple languages, was marrying into a wealthy family and, oh yes, his father was the current Life President of Haiti. It asked one question, “Should Jean-Claude Duvalier be the next Life President of Haiti?” It had one answer, “Response: Yes.” There was no “Response: No.” “Baby Doc” won with 97 percent of the vote.

This is where I learned that voting was sacred and a privilege, not a “right,” and it should never be ignored.

For the past week or so, I have been watching the events unfolding in Iran. OK, Iran’s theocratic republic government is different from the dictatorship of Haiti’s Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier, but not much. Iran does promote “open and free” elections. The “open” part is what is under dispute.

It is the counting process that has thousands in the streets protesting President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s  re-election. Can an election be so lopsided that the winner received two-thirds of the vote? It is not unheard of, even in open elections. But in Iran, it is highly questionable.

Let us travel back to November 2000. Do you remember that election, Bush v. Gore and the hanging chads? Remember the election tallies in Florida were so disputed that it took a ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court? Remember seeing some protests, Republicans and Democrats, in Washington, D.C. and Tallahassee, Fla.? Absolutely, but not tens-of-thousands willing to risk their lives for a political movement.

I have spent my spare time the last week watching the raw video shot by the citizens in Iran posted on YouTube, Facebook and Yahoo Videos. It is simply incredible to see the faces of the Iranian patriots demanding a recount, demanding transparency of the election system. To tell the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Hoseini Khamenei, that the election is a secular process and not sectarian is risking jail for treason and heresy. To demand that Caesar and God have separate domains, “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's.”

Can you imagine tens of thousands of Americans taking to the street to protest for their candidate and against what many believed to be a flawed counting process? Bush won the election by five (that is “5”) electoral votes and Gore won the popular vote by just over 540,500 votes, which should have released the masses in support and protest.

We did not see major protests. We did not see tanks or Army forces in the streets. Americans held their collected breath and waited for the process to run its course.

The Iran election protests concern the privilege Americans seem to take for granted — voting. The Haitians did not take voting for granted. After the overthrow of Duvalier, the lines were miles long to participate in a free and open election. The Iranians are certainly not taking the “election” of Ahmadinejad for granted. Even within the Iranian Supreme Council, there are split loyalties.

It is unfortunate that this is all happening in the middle of the summer. Students in our public and private schools and colleges need to be brought into the discussion of what Americans take for granted and some do not trust. There is a fine line between a patriot and a dissident.

Free and open elections are a “right” and privilege cherished around this planet. We can learn a lesson from the protests in Iran. Why are we not teaching the privileges and sanctity of citizenship to our children?

David Rosman is an award-winning editor, writer, professional speaker and college instructor in communications, ethics, business and politics. He welcomes your comments at


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