Use it or lose it


I was 5 years old when my Norwegian-born mother became an American citizen. She never stopped stressing the importance of voting. She pointed out how lucky I was to be American, and that it would be a crime to skip an election. I never have. 

Years later, while working in both Russia and Ukraine, I started election observing for a

local group in Kiev, and then later occasionally for IRI (International Republican Institute), which does nonpartisan work overseas. I discovered that I loved the experience. As an election observer, I was to look for specific elements to ensure that the election is conducted with integrity. Observers, who always work in pairs, are told that there should be no campaign literature in the polling facility, the ballot box must be visible, voter IDs must be checked, and the process should be orderly. Teams of election observers visit different polling stations throughout the day. In addition to working with a partner, we were provided with an interpreter, car, and driver. Since I speak Russian, I didn’t need the interpreter, so it freed me up to talk to more voters and observers.

Even when the outcome was predictable, the whole election process in the former Soviet Union was colorful. Election Day in the USSR was always a holiday. Designated voting buildings were cleaned and filled with fresh-cut flowers and decorative photographs. Election officials decked themselves out in their good clothes, and the whole affair had a festive air. 

One time, though, in Ukraine in 2004, the occasion was far from celebratory. When we arrived at a local polling station in the eastern city of Donetsk to observe the presidential election, we were met with voters fleeing the site. We entered the building, and were shocked to find Plexiglas ballot boxes slashed, and ballots strewn all about the floor. The remaining voters huddled in a corner of the room, pointing to an office in the back. There we discovered the local election official, a woman, in charge, cowering with the police officer assigned to protect the polling station. We told her that we would report the incident to the authorities. When we went back outside, we found that the tires of our car had also been slashed. That slowed down our travel to other polling places, as another vehicle had to be procured (but not our resolve). That election was subject to so many irregularities, including one district reporting 127 percent of the population voting, that it later required two additional elections before a winner was declared.

My enthusiasm for monitoring the voting process was such that I took and passed an exam to be an official OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) observer. In 2005, I was part of a 70-member international delegation observing the Azerbaijani presidential elections. This assignment took me up to the remote mountainous area near the Russian border. We traveled through large, uninhabited areas seemingly populated only by sheep and an occasional shepherd. It made me feel I was traveling back into biblical times in a modern Mercedes bus. Most of our election-observing flock spent the day at local voting stations. But my partner and I were assigned the night shift at the regional Central Election Headquarters, where all the cast ballots were brought for official tabulation, so we started at 10 pm. 

At the end of the day, all the local polling stations put their paper ballots into a box with an accompanying placard signed by all the election officials. The town driver and policeman then set off with this precious cargo for our post at the Central Election Headquarters. During a previous election, the ballots had been tampered with on this journey, so fear of a repeat offense caused some locals to jump into their own cars and chase the police car. It soon became an Indy 500 race. While hazardous, it prevented the escort policeman from stealing any ballots. It was exciting to hear the screeching of brakes and watch as the cars careened into the Headquarters parking lot. 

My partner and I sat in an alcove, observing the technician who transferred the paper ballots into the computer. Late during that long evening, we spotted the technician entering an altered ballot figure. We reported it to OSCE headquarters in Baku, as we were not allowed to interfere with the local precincts. A few days later at the official OSCE closing ceremony, the election was declared marred by fraud. We were relieved and proud to think that judgment was partly based on our efforts to protect the integrity of the electoral process from a small town in the Azerbaijani mountains.

Today in America, with a presidential election looming before us in the middle of a pandemic, voting has again become a big issue, for several reasons. Mail-in voting is increasingly important, as physical voting can lead to physical propinquity. Thus, in recent state elections, there have been fewer polling stations open, causing people to wait interminable hours to cast their ballots. While many Democratic politicians have been strongly promoting mail-in ballots, the president and many followers have been opposed. The president has even gone so far as to suggest that children might be stealing ballots from mailboxes. This is particularly strange, as he himself votes by mail-in ballot. But what began as a partisan divide has become more snarled as the president has pushed to shut down or privatize the U.S. Post Office. Certainly, the volume of ballots is a new issue. It has been observed that mail-in voting in the recent New York primary caused long delays in counting the vote. 

Perhaps we should consider encouraging more foreign observers like OSCE to oversee our election.

The president has even suggested that the November election be postponed, although he doesn’t have the authority to cancel or postpone an election. 

At this tumultuous time, with the election and virus both competing for our attention, I am reminded of my mother’s declaration of how lucky I am to be an American. It seems particularly fitting to close with the words of the late John Lewis: 

“Voting and participating in the democratic process are key. The vote is the most powerful nonviolent change agent you have in a democratic society; you must use it, because it is not guaranteed. You can lose it.” 


Grace Kennan Warnecke is the former chairman of the board of the National Committee on American Foreign Policy, and author of the memoir “Daughter of the Cold War.” She is a seasonal resident of Vineyard Haven.