US: An Election of Firsts

Joe Biden is the oldest first-timer American President-elect, eventually President. His Vice-President Kamala Harris is the first woman to be ever elected to this office in the US

By Dr RN Gopee

Even as the voting was going on, several American commentators were themselves saying that the American election system is broke. For me what seems bizarre about this system is that – again as pointed out by these commentators – every state has different election laws, for example as regards the timings for closure of voting booths or accepting ballots being mailed. One would have thought that the country that prides itself to be the oldest democracy in the world today would have a central statutory body organising its elections, much like is present elsewhere (Electoral Commissioner Offices). Even in tiny Mauritius for that matter!

The other puzzling thing is that there is no voting by electronic machine, which has resulted in the uncertainties if not chaos in the counting of the electoral bulletins. In contrast, in its last general elections, the largest democracy in the world, India, had 900 million plus voters registered to cast their ballot at one million booths, all equipped with foolproof electronic machines that would issue a slip to the voter after s/he was done to confirm that the vote was that of the registered voter. And the results were declared without any hitch in the expected time frame. With less than a quarter of the number of voters, it is a wonder why a country so advanced in technology as the US still resorts to the older, traditional ballots. So much of acrimony could have been avoided had electronic voting been in place.

Election officials make their way to a remote village via tractor in Assam state for electronic voting. Photo – Getty Images

Whatever be, the broke system delivered its verdict even as outgoing President Donald Trump’s lawyers were busy filing charges contesting the procedures and the results in different states, and asking for stopping of counting in some states. 74 million Americans voted for the Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden; leaving him not far behind was Republican Donald Trump, at 70 million votes. Considerable, however one looks at it. But there has to be a winner, and a loser – though Trump is yet to accept that he has lost the election.

The result has highlighted some firsts in a US election. Joe Biden is the oldest first-timer American President-elect, eventually President. He was also third-time lucky, having failed to make it to the Presidency twice before: his patience and perseverance have paid off.

His Vice-President Kamala Harris is the first woman to be ever elected to this office in the US; she is also the first woman of colour to hold such a post; also the first Black and American-Indian in that position. Prayers were said for her over days ahead of the voting in the village of origin of her mother Shyamala in Tamil Nadu; there were more prayers, jubilation, and distribution of sweets in the Indian tradition when her victory was announced, and hope expressed that someday she would visit the village in her capacity as Vice-President.

At Thulasendrapuram village in Tamil Nadu state, once home to Harris’ maternal grandfather P.V. Gopalan, celebrations broke out with locals lighting firecrackers, praying at its main temple and waving posters bearing the 56-year-old’s face. Photo –

It must be noted though, that she has always identified herself as Black, having a father of Jamaican origin, an economist whom her mother (herself a nutritionist) met when they were studying at Stanford in the 1950s. They divorced after a few years of marriage, and it was her mother who brought up her and her sister Maya.

Perhaps if Donald Trump had not been as rough spoken as he been all through his four years as President he might have had a greater chance of serving a second mandate. Pro-Republican analysts pointed out some of the positives of his mandate: the American economy has grown by 2-3 trillion USD; unemployment is low; he has countered the ambitious rise of China, and has brought back jobs that had been outsourced to the dragon; he has given due concern to the military and strategic security of the country by refusing China’s 5G; he has thawed relations with North Korea; he has brokered the deal between Israel and a few Arab countries, reducing the perennial tension Israel-Palestine conflict – among others.

Others will highlight the negatives. And those of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris too will no doubt surface in due course.

But for the time being, let them bask in their moments of glory, and let the traumatized American people too savour their hope of ‘return to normalcy’, as a Mauritian friend of mine, a senior medical researcher formerly at Harvard, wrote to me on Sunday last. These extracts from his mail reflect the new American mood, if I may put it this way, and may it not be betrayed!

‘I had thought that in this election, the forces of tribalism, silent, would prevail to add to the traditional Republican/conservative electorate. In this group, overwhelmingly white, they seemed to project a palpable anguish that a way of life they had come to expect, was ebbing away.

…But last night, as Mr Biden declared victory with humility, calling for unity, another America prevailed, the America that Has Always Been There, the America That Has Always Been Great.

That America where brighter possibilities exist in face of indomitable odds to shape our fates into a better tomorrow, that boundless enthusiasm…
I think for the rest of the world, the most potent view of the true American ethos, ‘America as an experiment and an idea’ was on display in Mr Biden’s statement: “And we lead not by the example of our power, but by the power of our example.” 
This is a time for jubilation, well deserved for the winners.

Yet for me there is sorrow too, for the lives we have lost needlessly because of the pandemic, and more we will lose needlessly in the months to come before there will be normalcy, if there ever will be normalcy.

As private citizens, we will make sure that we continue to force the moral compass North, to strive for justice, dignity and prosperity for all.

We begin the project of healing the soul of the nation even if there will be hard work, and heartbreaks along the way. That is the American spirit.’

For me, the great takeaway from Biden’s speech is: ‘And we lead not by the example of our power, but by the power of our example’. (italics mine)

A qui de droit

* Published in print edition on 10 November 2020

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