‘Rigged’ elections are no joking matter
We, like many of you, watched Wednesday night’s presidential debate and are counting the days to Election Day which will end an election cycle that feels like it has lasted for a lifetime. We have our own political views and preferences for who should win this election and you should too. But above those political differences, all Americans should take pride in how we freely conduct elections and accept their results. Donald Trump’s statements to the contrary were troubling because they went beyond his zeal to occupy the White House; they undermined the foundation on which that house is built — American democracy.
Trump’s statements troubled us not only because we’re American (proudly born and raised in the Carolinas), but because we run a strategic communications firm that specializes in, among other things, campaigns, elections, and democracy-building across the globe. Our clients hire us because they know that we, as Americans, really know how run campaigns and hold elections. Our clients know that we’re not deterred by hard-fought campaigning and contentious elections because, in America, political egos might get bruised on Election Night, but violence doesn’t break out in the streets; upsets might kill a politician’s career, but no one actually dies.
Now, many will say that Trump was joking or he says outrageous things to get attention or even that the media and his opponents cherry-pick his words and blow them out of proportion. We don’t accept any of those excuses because we’ve recently seen first-hand how rigged elections and playing coy about accepting their results have real-life deadly consequences.
Many of you have probably not been following the recent elections crisis in Gabon, a small, yet vital, country in West Africa. We’ll give you the short version: Gabon has been ruled by the incumbent President, Ali Bongo, and his father for the last 49 years. In August, Dr. Jean Ping (our client) ran against Ali Bongo and, according to domestic and international observers, won by a substantial margin. On Election Night, Ali Bongo collected the ballots, saw that he lost, but still proclaimed himself the winner with fabricated results. (‘Fabricated’ is an understatement because he even claimed a 95 percent margin of victory in areas where those who voted “for” him far exceeded the number of eligible voters.)
Dr. Ping demanded a recount by Gabon’s highest court. Before his petition could even be considered, Ali Bongo had the ballots incinerated. The Constitutional Court still conducted a “recount,” which they characterized as more of an “examination” of the voting results (we can only assume from the ballots’ ashes?), and certified the fabricated results. The Court’s Chief Justice quickly swore in Ali Bongo, making him president until 2023. Incidentally, the Chief Justice is also Ali Bongo’s step-mother.
The crisis is on-going in Gabon where Ali Bongo refuses to leave his childhood home (a.k.a. the presidential palace) and Dr. Ping is essentially under house-arrest. You probably won’t hear much from Gabonese citizens inside the country because Ali Bongo has imposed an “internet curfew” so they can’t freely speak out on social media.
So, now you can probably understand why we find Trump’s statement that he won’t accept the election results if he doesn’t win — facetious or not — so unsettling and dangerous.
Here’s some real talk, particularly for our colleagues in the communications business. On Election Night in the United States of America, candidates’ press teams have to field questions from media about candidates’ optimism (or pessimism) about exit polls and early returns; prepare victory (or concession) speeches; and bask in their candidate’s victory (or wallow in their defeat) while making plans for their next client, campaign, candidate, or project.
Gabon’s Election Night was strikingly different for us. To even reach our candidate, we had to send coded messages through contacts across several countries because Ali Bongo had tapped Dr. Ping’s phone and cut off the entire country’s internet. We had to keep a running total of vote counts by province as well as disputed accounts of exactly how many dozens of people had been killed and injured during protests, including outside Dr. Ping’s home and campaign headquarters. In the days following the election, we fielded media inquiries simply asking, “Is your candidate still alive?”
As the charade of Ali Bongo’s “recount” unfolded and the reality set in that he would not accept the elections results, it was heart-breaking to hear Gabonese-Americans ask us, “What do we tell our young people when they say they have no pride in their country or confidence that they can make it better?” It was a sobering reminder of how fortunate we are as Americans to have that pride and confidence as the backbone of our democracy.
Our American good fortune didn’t come by accident. We built that — through more than two centuries of hard-fought and contentious elections whose winner we may not always have agreed with, but whose results we accepted for the good of our country.
From now until November 8th, let’s do what Americans do best. Let’s rally, make phone calls, go door to door, tweet, and, most importantly, vote. For millions of us, our candidate will win and for millions still, our candidate will lose. But the day after the election, Americans will have so much in common: We’ll all be relieved that this election cycle is finally over and we’ll still be the envy of millions of voters all over the world.
Calvin Dark and Rasheedah Thomas are principals of CD Global Strategies Group, a Washington, DC based communications and public relations firm.
The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.