Voters, Fans, and Hong Kong: Post Election Thoughts

On Tuesday night, America re-elected President Obama to four more years in office. And like many of you, I stayed up to watch the “election night drama unfold” on the Big Boards of various television networks, their state maps turning a shade of either red or blue with each reported result that came into the newsroom. It was another historic event in our country’s history, and I—like everyone else—wanted to watch the aggregate of individual state results as they “came in live,” despite the abundance of compelling data and statistical resources that clearly (and as it turns out, very accurately) predicted how the Presidential race would likely play out prior to Election Tuesday.

Personally, I must confess that I’m not really into politics. But the process by which an election race is run and won fascinates me, and I’m especially intrigued by how our culture of elections in the US parallels our attitude towards sports and other types of competition. It’s a big contest where ultimately there will be a winner and a loser.

From an observer’s perspective, political races are a lot like sporting events. Despite Vegas bookmakers’ odds, you never know until the game is officially over. Theoretically, anything can still happen, hence the pent-up excitement and the desire for gratification, though it might not be so instant. Just like in my state, where getting official election results takes a little more time. Some of our state races are very close, and as of the latest figures from this morning, there were still just under 600,000 ballots yet to be counted.

I live in Washington State. Since 2011, all of our voting is done by mail. Our ballots only need to be postmarked by Election Tuesday, unlike in Oregon, where ballots must arrive by Election Day. I guess we are a state of procrastinators because as of Monday night, less than half of the 3.9 million registered Washington voters had sent in their ballots. The rest of our ballots trickled in on and after Tuesday, which explains why our election results often take longer to count and verify relative to the rest of the country.

And because I had already filled out my ballot and mailed it in, I didn’t experience much of the inconvenience that many Americans had to go through on Tuesday in order to cast their votes. (See this thoughtful post about a more “authentic-standing-in-line” voting experience.) But even though I personally didn’t have to stand in line for hours, I still believe that I participated in a larger American political narrative, which prompted me into thinking about the importance of engaging in a respectful political dialogue, especially when our political process can be so divisive and distasteful these days.

Political ads and spin are an inevitable part of the election process, just as trash-talk is an inseparable part of a good pick-up game. Though these days, the heightened concentration of media attention on 10-12 swing states seems extreme to me. Just look at how much and where each candidate (and his supporters) spent on TV ads in the days leading up to November 6th. I guess I’m relieved I don’t live in a swing state, otherwise the annoying TV ads and robo-calls would have really gotten out of hand.

Four years ago, I had just moved back to Seattle after six and half years of living and working abroad in Hong Kong. After my then-fiancée (now husband) and I had sent in our ballots, we settled in to watch the election coverage on the Ave with a group of friends at Schultzy’s, an old college establishment that’s (amazingly) still there. On the night of Obama’s sweeping 2008 victory, I found it truly ironic that the most ebullient and vocal member of our group was a Canadian who drove down from Vancouver BC to Seattle to watch the election coverage “in person, in the USA.” And yet, he could not vote or participate in our election.

To him, it was like watching the Super Bowl.

And in a way, our general elections are like the Super Bowl, except it’s every four years, so I guess that makes them more like the Olympics or the World Cup—except Americans don’t throw very good parties for the Olympics or for soccer. Our Election Parties look a lot like our Super Bowl Parties, where attendees have exchanged their Nike NFL gear for repp ties and blazers. But in this case, the “fans” do actually have a small say in the outcome of the event, which makes the aggregate of the electoral process more than just a pure spectator sport. And I would argue that the outcome of our various elections probably has a far greater impact on our own personal lives in comparison to Super Bowl victories (though certain die-hard football fans would beg to differ…)

I suppose I can’t blame all the various television networks and political analysts for amping up the anticipation of how close our presidential race would be. We all know that a nail-biter generates more exciting election coverage and traffic than a blowout, despite all the meta-analysis and statistical data that can accurately forecast an outcome. Would you still watch or go to the big game if you knew it was going to be a blowout?

A realistic downside to all of our sophisticated analysis and forecasting is that voters may very well just stop participating because they already know the likely outcome. Why bother? It’s always been an issue for those of us living on the West Coast. Growing up here, I can clearly remember when the networks and the media would handily declare the winner of the presidential election even before my parents had a chance to go out to the polls to vote because of the time difference (for those of you who are old enough, I’m thinking specifically of 1980, ‘84 and ‘88.)

The US national voter turnout rate for presidential elections is significantly lower as compared to other developed countries, hovering between the mid-upper 50% to low 60% range. According to the latest data, 2012 election participation rates are forecast to be lower than they were in 2008. Participation rates for congressional races are even lower still. And compared to countries where voting is mandatory and enforced by laws and fines (like in Australia, where participation rates are in the 80% range) our turnout rates are understandably lower. As Dr. Howard Steven Friedman argues, convenience severely impacts (and often trumps) voter turnout. This partially explains why the voter turnout rate in Washington State is generally higher than that of the national average. He argues that the two-step process of first registering and then voting in person weeks later deters many would-be voters. In my case, I’d agree that voting by mail is much more convenient than waiting in line to vote in person.

I also can’t help but think back to the last 2008 election cycle and to my previous life in Hong Kong. While I was a resident there, I could not vote. And even amongst my expat friends who had just become permanent Hong Kong residents after seven consecutive years of residence, few of them decided to participate in the local election process (which remains quite complicated, as I’ll describe below.) Most of us couldn’t be bothered, so long as the Hong Kong government continued to keep our salaries taxes flat at 15%. As expats, we didn’t feel like we were really a part of the system, and so we didn’t have anything to lose. We didn’t care about Hong Kong—aside from how we could maximize our time and earning potential while we were there because we all knew it was only a matter of time before we’d eventually return home. All of my American expat friends would half joke about giving up our US passports in order to avoid paying the requisite US taxes in addition to the HK taxes we already paid.

I admit that my previous attitude of disengagement towards the political process and my American self-loathing has been somewhat shallow. This is ultimately the reason why I’m trying to make more of an effort these days to be informed and to actually care. Besides, being back in the United States has its perks and privileges. As I’ve said before, we are infinitely blessed and privileged in this country to have a mostly working government, and to be able to engage in choosing our own leaders.

I just have to look at what’s been occurring in Hong Kong over the last four years to be starkly reminded of this perspective shift, especially in light of Hong Kong’s ever evolving relationship with Mainland China.

American expat blogger in Hong Kong, Expat Lingo (Jen Brown) recently posted a very good article on how today’s Hong Kong is the “Great Chinese Experiment in Freedom.” She references a recent Op-Ed piece by Keane Shum in the South China Morning Post on Hong Kongers’ right to protest, despite the Mainland’s terse response to the waving of an old Hong Kong colonial flag at rallies.

This colonial flag-waving controversy, coupled with a massive student protest earlier this year in reaction to a Beijing-backed education plan to teach mandatory patriotism classes in local Hong Kong schools on the eve of the Legislative Council (LegCo) elections point to an ever-encroaching Mainland China on Hong Kong’s sovereignty, and Hong Kongers’ reaction to the encroachment. The student protests effectively forced the Hong Kong government to back peddle on its pro-Beijing education policy on the eve of the LegCo elections.

I’m guessing that voting in HK is a very different exercise from voting in the US. Universal suffrage for the election of the city-state’s Chief Executive and for all of the seats in the LegCo is not yet allowed under the Basic Law. Currently, the public elects just over half the seats in LegCo, and the last September election saw heightened voter participation in light of the student protests.

These recent Hong Kong examples have helped me to put the relative ease of my own voting experience here in the US into better focus and perspective. I heartily agree with Expat Lingo, and also hope that the Great Chinese Experiment in Hong Kong is a success. But at the same time I’m more grateful and privileged to live in a country where my vote does seem to actually count.