What American Voters Can Learn From Liberia
Last week, I took my first trip to Liberia, the stepchild nation of America, to witness something remarkable. What the United States has done routinely for more than two centuries — hold nationwide elections — was anything but routine in this undeveloped country hanging onto the edge of Africa’s southwestern coast. When you see it on a map, Liberia actually looks as precariously perched on the continent’s underside as it feels when you are on the ground.
Prior to joining the international election mission that sponsored me, I had read the history that so ironically mirrors America’s — oppressed people sailing across the sea to found a land of liberty, where they subsequently subjugate indigenous people and fight a bloody civil war a century later. I had authored a report on focus groups that were conducted in Liberia this past summer, wading through the mystifying Pidgin English of its people to uncover and understand their thinking.
I thought I was ready. I was not.
I was expecting to be surprised, and I was — by nearly everything, even the things I had anticipated. The bustling markets filled with cheap Chinese plastic and piles of tropical fruit. The tall palm trees of the plains and the soft, dirty sand of the downtown beaches. The smell of cooked rice, the ubiquity of faith, the honking of horns, the chirping of crickets. The constant, bizarre juxtaposition of aspiration and reality — like the sign I saw that read “House of Fashion,” painted brightly onto a squat, concrete block that was anything but glamorous with its corrugated metal roof and discolored walls. The urban chaos and rural squalor, the pastoral beauty, the endless jungle — I could have filmed every inch of it and still felt like I was missing something.
But, as with all places one visits, it is the people who are most worth remembering.
Liberia’s decades of conflict, its devastating Ebola epidemic, its long legacy of poverty and illiteracy, all led me to wonder if I would find a population that was combative, cynical, defeated, or suspicious. I am sure that many of them are many of those things, but the Liberians I met were almost to a person unabashedly friendly, curious, hopeful, and determined. These are people who want their lives and their country to be better.
And, at least on Election Day, they made it happen. In a country where the transfer of power from one democratically elected leader to the next has not taken place since 1944, a peaceful election is not something to be dismissed. Less than a generation has passed since its last president was arrested (and later convicted) of war crimes. Yet Liberians were insistent that these elections must “go well” and, to all appearances, they did. They were more concerned about the process than the outcome, a sure indication of maturing democracy.
While witnessing a peaceful election was both remarkable and reassuring, I was most impressed by Liberians’ determination simply to turn out, which they did in numbers that shame the US, where nearly half of all registered voters typically stay home on Election Day. While official figures have not come in, as an accredited observer who visited six precincts in a remote electoral district, I estimated turnout at 70–75% in my area. (This was based on a comparison of the initial count of ballots cast versus registered voters in the polling places I observed.) Other observers noted similar numbers.
This would be impressive and unprecedented in the US. For Liberia it is practically a miracle. The citizens I saw coming to cast, count, and monitor the ballots in this election were nothing less than heroic in their dedication and determination to see the will of the people respected.
With no public transportation and very few private cars outside the capital (or in it, for that matter), most voters had to either hitch a ride or walk. In my travels around remote Gbarpolu County where I was deployed, I saw only a handful of pick-up trucks, each with a dozen people standing and sitting on the back. I had to wonder how many of them made it to their destination, considering that petrol is sold in mason jars by the side of the road, and even such “filling stations” were few and far between outside Monrovia.
More often I would see two or three people, many of them mothers with small children nestled in their laps, riding on a motorbike — a relatively common form of transportation since it burns less fuel and can more easily traverse the deep, rust-colored muck of the unpaved roads. In the current rainy season, these “roads” get washed out, cratered with potholes that turn into small ponds, and rutted with tracks a foot deep. Graveyards of abandoned vehicles get swallowed up by the encroaching jungle. Hulking metal skeletons litter the bogs of mud, blocking the path of the occasional Land Rover — like the one I was in — that might otherwise stand a chance of passing through.
And yet, as we drove along through the dips and darts, the sludge and squish, I realized how many people were simply walking those muddy paths through miles of jungle, buzzing motorbikes, and swarms of insects. Women with babies on their backs and improbable loads on their heads; workmen with shovels, machetes, and rubber boots; teenagers who were unaccompanied and unafraid. Many of them trekked for two or three hours, suffering the mosquitoes, heat, humidity, and rain, with rarely an umbrella or raincoat in sight (and certainly no rest stop restrooms), just to get to their polling place. Just to cast a vote.
Sitting here in my comfortable American suburban home, with Uber and Lyft just a smartphone away, it is impossible to fathom the lives that people are living on the other side of the Atlantic. Would I go through all of that just to mark a box on a ballot? Would you?
Liberians did, and more. I saw a young woman with a twisted leg and crippled foot, in the farthest village we visited, literally at the end of the road atop a mountain, who hobbled with a crutch across an open field just to make her choice in the sacred privacy of the voting booth — in this case, a screened off corner of a thatched roof schoolhouse. The very first voter in the polling place where I started on Election Day was an elderly gentleman in traditional African dress, leaning against a walking stick as he slowly shuffled into the room, proud to show his registration card. Just after him came a tiny, ancient woman, frail and unsteady, with a head wrap as big as her body, who had trouble reading the ballot — unsurprising in a country with illiteracy rates estimated around 85% and multiple tribal languages spoken by people in different regions. And yet, she voted.
She knew, as many others did that day, that this election is a historic one for Liberia. Its peaceful conclusion will signal a significant step toward stability, economic recovery, and democratic resilience. Although many voters were unsure about the process, or about whom to choose, they were clear and unwavering in asserting their right and their duty to participate. They did not take it for granted, nor take their responsibility lightly. When asked what would keep them from voting, more than a few people actually responded, “nothing” or “maybe death.” Maybe.
And yet, we in America, with every convenience available, with the advantage of education, with easy access to participate and make a change — we fail to show up to our own democracy. Would we queue for two or three hours in the sweltering heat or the pouring rain to make our voices heard? We complain if we have to miss our favorite TV show or spend an extra 30 minutes on our way to work, even with the promise of bake sale goodies and a free sticker that says, ”I Voted!” It’s too much trouble.
The argument that our politicians are all the same, that our vote makes no difference, that the system is broken, just doesn’t wash. Yes, it is imperfect, like all human endeavors, and yes, our politics need fixing. That is all the more reason to take part. Democracy is not a spectator sport. You have to show up to win. Voting is the minimum requirement.
Liberians could make the same argument, and with far more credibility. They had 20 presidential candidates to wade through on a ballot that was two feet long, and nearly 1,000 individuals from dozens of parties vying for 73 seats in the House of Representatives. They know their system is imperfect, they know their politics need fixing, and that is precisely why they came out to vote.
Bear in mind that the people of Liberia had already overcome these same logistical and physical obstacles earlier this year to register, then to verify their names on the voter list, another time to replace their voter cards if needed, and finally to vote. Moreover, upwards of 5,000 nonpartisan Liberian nationals monitored the process and tens of thousands more represented their political parties as poll watchers or staffed the polling stations on Election Day, staying til the early morning hours in stifling, un-airconditioned rooms to count the votes by lantern light.
In a country with less than 2.2 million registered voters, not to mention the infrastructural challenges across the country, that’s a pretty impressive feat. They had minimal help from the UN this time around and the eyes of the international community upon them. I was impressed.
Like many Americans, I spent election night this past November in front of a television, watching the news unfold in real time. The great majority of Liberians, however, have limited access to the Internet or even TV, and the country’s top newspaper circulation is only about 5,000. Thus, they will listen by radio over the course of two weeks as results come in — by truck, motorbike, or even canoe — and preliminary results are shared bit by bit. Some remote villages will hear from the town crier, a system set up to share information in rural communities.
And with a runoff almost sure to be held between the top two contestants, Liberians will go through this same laborious process all over again — although thankfully the rainy reason will have ended by then.
Still, paved roads are few and the same challenges remain regarding transportation, electricity, and other infrastructural deficits. The danger is real that a largely uneducated population with low access to information can be manipulated by factions who formerly waged war on one another. I thought that “fake news” was bad in America until I began sorting through the plethora of rumors and “advertorials” that besiege Liberian media.
That they were able to pull off this election at all, much less to do it without violence and with such high participation among its people, is astounding to anyone who has set foot in this country.
The people of this small, poor West African nation, looking across the Atlantic to the country that helped to found it, see in America their role model. You can recognize it in the design of their flag, their system of government, and their constitution, not to mention the cultural influences you find on any radio dial or in any well-stocked grocery store. I’m sure that Liberia has not always gotten the best from us or learned the most useful lessons we had to teach. What I am sure of, though, is that in this one regard, when it comes to showing up on Election Day and doing their part for their country, we in America have much to learn from them.