Verify Some, But Mostly Trust

On the Day After, in Mexico for a New America Fellows trip to the Ciudad de las Ideas conference in Puebla, Mexican TV's late-night "Tecer Grado" (the Third Degree) news commentary show gave me some thought-provoking perspective on the election back home.

The first half of the discussion about the U.S. election was marked by incredulity at how rickety and amateurish the most-vaunted democracy's electoral process really is.  "You've got a presidential election but each and every state can organize it in whatever way it feels like," said Joaquin Lopez Doriga, the network's main anchorman from Washington, as if explaining the most exotic customs of a more primitive civilization.  "And even within states, people may even have to vote in very different ways, as it varies by county."

When another panelist asked why federal electoral authorities didn't intervene to impose standards and uniformity, Lopez Doriga pointed out that there is no federal electoral authority.  There was a shocked silence for a moment as this sunk in.  But who counts the votes? Who vouches for the legitimacy of results?  Another panelist added to the consternation by saying "he'd read somewhere" that the U.S. doesn't even have federal voter registration rolls, and that there are an estimated 2 to 3 million people registered to vote in more than one state.  Amateur hour!

For a short time, the discussion acquired a smug satisfaction -- ah, the superiority of Mexico's electoral process, with its globally admired independent Federal Elections Institute and its sophisticated (and very expensive) universal ID card system (which is seen as empowering and franchise-expanding here, as opposed to debates in U.S.), its legions of juror-like citizen poll watchers and so on and so on.

And yet.  The conversation suddenly took an unexpected turn. The fact is, various of the commentators noted, the American system works.  For all its antiquated absurdity (electoral college, no impartial electoral authorities and so on), the thing works.  The Americans put on this bizarre contest with its odd rules, and by the end of the day, without any official referee proclaiming any official results, one side gracefully concedes after the long bitter battle.

There was on the show (and many of the analysts on air aren't prone to celebrate anything American) a sense of wonder and awe at what they witnessed Tuesday night, including the role of the media, the accuracy of polls and Romney's graceful concession.  

It was as if all the Whos up in Whoville had been deprived of all the trappings of a proper 21st Century election, but still managed to come together to pull it off.  Because while they didn't have what most other countries might deem essential to holding election, the Whos had one thing no money or legislation could buy -- trust in their system and traditions; social cohesion.  

Mexico's electoral system, like that of other countries trying to overcome a less democratic past, boast electoral systems brimming with safeguards.  These are electoral systems designed for societies and democracies characterized by mistrust.  And for all its state-of-the-art electoral institutions, the runner up in Mexico's last two presidential elections refused to concede graciously the way Mitt Romney did Tuesday night.  

"No amount of safeguards and precision in the system can provide as much trust in the system as having the losers abide by results," one of the Tercer Grado panelists noted with a sigh.

The flawed, makeshift U.S. electoral system is the kind of system you can only tolerate in a society characterized by trust.  It's the equivalent of keeping your doors unlocked in the good old days.  Elections are volunteer-driven civic rituals that never had to be professionalized to the same degree they have been in much of the rest of the world.

Of course the credibility of the system, and our trust in it, has been tested in recent years, never moreso than in 2000. Lawyers were on call Tuesday in Ohio and elsewhere to pounce if necessary, and growing segments of our population resist accepting the full legitimacy of many of our elections.

So the trendline is worrying.  But I am glad Mexican TV helped put things in perspective and reminded me of our intangible comparative advantage as a democratic society -- trust.   Trust we need to cherish and preserve.