How Cambodia can help the USA

[Published by the Cambodia Herald on 26 June 2015.]

Phnom Penh, 26 June 2015

Dear Mr William Heidt:

Congratulations on your nomination to be the new US ambassador to Cambodia.

I was interested to read in press accounts of your interview by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that you said your “priority” as ambassador would be to “strengthen Cambodia’s democratic institutions” and specifically to push for “free and fair” elections for commune councils in 2017 and the National Assembly in 2018.

I found these remarks a little strange in two respects. First, I had the impression that the normal priorities of embassies are protecting and assisting visitors from their home country, and facilitating trade and other forms of cooperation between their own country and the host country. I hadn’t realised that the first duty of ambassadors is now to tell their hosts how to run their elections. (Perhaps I should have guessed from the behaviour of your predecessor, who often gives public instructions about how to conduct Cambodian elections or about what laws the National Assembly should or shouldn’t pass.)

Second, it is strange indeed that the US government should be telling Cambodia – or anybody – how to conduct free and fair elections. Do you remember the 2000 US presidential election? Prior to the election, Florida Governor Jeb Bush – the brother of Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush – removed tens of thousands of Black voters (a majority of whom vote Democratic) from the electronic voting rolls. Bush won Florida, and thereby won the presidency, by fewer than 600 votes – although he had to get a Supreme Court order to prevent a recount in Florida (apparently, in US law, a recount is considered unfair to a candidate who has been declared the winner by his brother).

Between 2000 and 2004, electronic means were increasingly introduced into the voting and counting in US elections. This makes the accuracy of votes depend on the honesty and computer skills of the people who manage the systems or have access to them – and their ability to prevent hacking.

As votes were counted on the night of the 2004 presidential election, shortly after midnight, the televised election experts were predicting that John Kerry would win Ohio, which would have made him president. But then there was a “glitch” in the computer system that was compiling Ohio’s vote. The system had been contracted out by Ohio’s secretary of state, a Republican, and was located hundreds of kilometres outside of Ohio, in Chattanooga, Tennessee; the same system housed the email of Karl Rove, an influential Republican political consultant and long-time adviser to George W. Bush. After an hour and a half, the “glitch” was overcome, and the computer showed a statistically surprising 6% shift in the votes, giving Bush the victory.

Some Democratic officials were suspicious and went to court. A federal court ordered that the Ohio ballots be collected in a single location so that they could be examined. But in 55 of the state’s 88 counties, the order was not carried out, and the ballots were destroyed, thus making a recount impossible. (I think the US government calls this system “rule of law”.)

More and more US elections are being conducted electronically, usually on computer systems that are “proprietary”, which means that the public has no way of checking on how they operate. These systems usually leave no paper trail or other record that can be used to check their accuracy.

Congressional elections are, if anything, even less free and fair than presidential elections. Vast sums of money and the manipulating of electoral boundaries almost guarantee a lifetime job for most people elected to Congress. Typically in House of Representatives elections, 90-98% of incumbents are reelected. In the 2014 election, only 77 of 435 House of Representative electorates were considered to be competitive, and in fact only 19 of them shifted from one of the two parties to the other.

Prior to the 2014 election, the average of five different public opinion polls gave Congress (House of Representatives and Senate) a 14 percent approval rating, but the incumbent reelection rate was 95 percent. Given those statistics, another is not surprising: this election also had the lowest voter turnout in 70 years, 36.4%: why bother to vote if it won’t make any difference?

Since you are a diplomat, I assume you were able to refrain from bursting into laughter at your Senate hearing when Senator Tim Kaine (Democrat from Virginia) suggested that the fact that Prime Minister Hun Sen’s sons are also involved in politics is something to worry about.

“What can the United States do to promote a more vigorous democracy not confined just to a single family?”, Kaine asked, according to the 25 June Cambodia Daily. The paper also reported your reply, to the effect that there was no danger of Cambodia turning into a Hun Sen dynasty. If I had been in your place (I wouldn’t have been, because I’m not diplomatic), I would have replied: “We can pressure them to adopt our system of confining what we call democracy to two families”.

The above considerations are beginning to make me think that Cambodian ambassadors to Washington have been lagging behind the times: I can’t find any record of their offering the US government advice on how it could improve its elections. This is a pity, because I think Cambodians could provide some very useful suggestions.

For instance, while US elections look like degenerating into a situation in which the outcome is determined by which side has employed the best computer hackers, the voting in Cambodian elections is done on paper ballots, which are retained for at least as long as there is any serious possibility of a need for a recount.

These ballots are not counted by a computer whose instructions nobody understands, but by people: election officials. They conduct their count by opening ballots one at a time, holding them up and showing them to everyone present, and then recording each vote. Every party that had a candidate in the electorate can have its representatives observing this process, and most polling stations also had NGO observers present during the most recent national election. Observers signed the reporting forms to indicate that the count was correct. The same transparent procedures were followed at each stage of compiling the votes.

This is why, even though the losing CNRP claimed it had somehow been cheated of victory, there was no Florida or Ohio in the 2013 Cambodian election. There was no province the opposition could point to and say: “The vote totals here are wrong”. But if they had made a case for a recount anywhere, at least there would have been ballots that could be inspected and recounted, not just computer blips that might have come from anywhere.

In fact, the CNRP did find a few locations where election officials had written results on the wrong form or had similarly failed to follow prescribed procedures. At its request, the relevant papers were opened and re-inspected. This did not cause any change in the results.

It seems quite clear to me that the Cambodian procedure for voting and counting votes is far superior to the system generally used in the United States. Cambodia should offer to send several electoral experts to the USA to explain to the Congress what is needed to begin to bring about free and fair elections in that country.