Although some Texans are apparently not too keen on the concept of international election observers, this Texan is a fan. As such, I gave up my customary weekend loafing to serve on a joint U.S./U.K. team observing Saturday’s presidential, parliamentary, and local elections in Sierra Leone. Our embassy in Freetown is a small one, so Embassies Conakry and Monrovia each sent a few teams to cover the voting in their respective border areas. My team was working in Kambia District, right up against Sierra Leone’s border with Guinea.
Holding an election in a country like Sierra Leone is a completely different proposition from holding an election in the United States. Most of the population is illiterate, has relatively little experience with voting, and lives in tiny villages with no electricity located miles and miles of unpaved road from the nearest town of any substance. The logistics of the whole process – registering and educating voters, training staff, transporting supplies, and counting and verifying the votes to make sure that the election results are a true representation of the will of the people – are daunting, to put it mildly. It’s a huge task, but especially in a country that’s still fragile from a decade-long civil war it’s vitally important to get it right.
It’ll be a while before the final results are tallied and verified and the observer organizations make their official declarations on how things went, so there isn’t much I can say about what I saw in making my rounds on Election Day. What I can say is that it was a treat for me to get out to some of those remote villages and see the people – old men, pregnant women – who were willing to walk for miles and stand in line for hours in the blazing tropical sun for a chance to make their voices heard.
The increasingly exhausting and exasperating multi-year marathon the American presidential election is turning into gives one plenty of reasons to be cynical about democracy: red states and blue states, zillion-dollar campaign budgets, a cacophony of negative campaign ads, endless statistic splicing, Super PACs, gaffe-watches, vitriolic Facebook messages from normally pleasant people, and spin, spin, spin. But seeing all the Sierra Leoneans lining up to give their thumbprint to the candidate of their choice reminded me that none of those things are what democracy is all about. No matter who wins this particular election, no matter what the final verdict is on its fairness, just seeing the commitment of ordinary people to the democratic process gave me new hope for the whole concept of government of the people, by the people, for the people.
It sounds corny, I know, but it’s true. So thanks Sierra Leone, and good luck!