You can’t blame people from other countries for expecting a wild and turbulent Election Day in the United States following this year’s bitterly contested free-for-all between Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and Democratic rival Hillary Clinton.
Hundreds of people have been arrested or received police citations at the political rallies and party conventions surrounding two of the most unpopular major-party candidates in recent memory. But to the surprise of some foreign election experts visiting polling stations in the United States, the scene on Tuesday has been pretty tranquil compared to what the bare-knuckle campaign foreshadowed.
“It’s highly organized. It’s been done well,” said Emad Alsaiah, a member of the High National Election Commission of Libya, told Foreign Policy in a school gym used as a polling place in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of Washington, D.C. Some two dozen election experts from Nigeria, Tunisia, Jordan, Indonesia, Australia, Ukraine, and several other countries joined him to see how this year’s election — the subject of frenzied international reporting — would play out at the polls.
Alsaiah visited three polling stations in the Washington area on Tuesday as a part of an international delegation sponsored by International Foundation for Electoral Systems, a non-profit that supports elections in developing countries.
Alsaiah, whose home country is plagued by militia violence and in some places has descended into all-out anarchy, noted that the bitter acrimony between Trump and Clinton made for a “very unique” election campaign. “But in terms of the management of the electoral process, nothing has changed,” he said.
A former United Nations official from Britain who joined the IFES delegation echoed that notion.
“Many of us arrived feeling a bit cynical about this American election for obvious reasons,” said Mark Malloch-Brown. “We thought we were coming to a kind of blood sport more than an election. What is very impressive is this civic infrastructure of federal officials who care deeply about making the election work, and all these volunteers.”
“For all the screaming and hollering in the actual political discourse, people actually have a pretty good handle on this,” he added.
Not everything went to plan in their visits to polling stations in D.C. and Maryland. Alsaiah noted that long lines at a polling station in Maryland caused lengthy wait times, up to an hour in one case. “There were complaints,” he said.
Almost every foreign national interviewed by FP noted their surprise that U.S. elections aren’t fully automated, and that local and state officials largely run the show.
“I thought in America the entire process would be electronic,” said Mahmood Yakubu, chairman of the Independence National Electoral Commission of Nigeria. “But in some places it’s not electronic, and other places, it’s half electronic.”
Malloch-Brown echoed that thought. “These are quite primitive systems compared to what’s out there,” he said. “But it kind of works.”
Photo credit: John Hudson