The Sunday before the presidential election in the United States, Nicaragua will hold their municipal election which is equivalent to our House and Senate elections.
Why vote on a Sunday, you ask?
Simple: so more people can vote.
Also, compare voter turnout between these two contrasting countries. In Nicaragua, a country ravaged by civil war and revolution, now at peace, 75 percent of registered voters cast their ballots in 2011 presidential election (Inter-Parliamentary Union). In the historic 2008 election, 5 million more voters cast their ballot than in 2004, rendered only a 64 percent turnout (U.S. Census Bureau).
With such low voter turnout in the United States, why have so many bills to change voting laws been introduced on the eve of the 2012 presidential election? Since the beginning of 2011, the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, a non-partisan public policy and law institute that focuses on the fundamental issues of democracy and justice, reports that 180 restrictive bills have been introduced in 41 states. Cases of voter fraud – non-citizens or non-registered voters voting – have been minimal across the country. With less than half of registered American voters turning out for the 2010 election, it hardly seems right to pass laws to make it more difficult to either register or vote.
Larry Fisk, an activist and attorney from Minnesota, and Richard Luckemeier, and a retired engineer from Alamosa, Colorado, observed the 1990 Nicaraguan elections with The Carter Center.
“People feel connected to their government in Nicaragua. Government and solutions to day-to-day problems work at the neighborhood and village level. The average person in U.S. doesn’t feel part of the process; that if they are in trouble, there is a
system to help them,” Fisk said. “The two countries are vastly different. You can feel the confidence of the people in Santa Domingo in a way you can’t feel it here.”
The similarities between the United States and Nicaragua, despite their vastly different GNP, are startling. UNICEF reports that 16 percent of the Nicaraguan people actually live in poverty, but the United States’ poverty rate of 15 percent (U.S. Census Bureau), even with a higher standard of living.
“After the 1990 elections which we observed,” Luckemeier said. “It took the Sandinistas 15 years to return to elected office, but now the government provides healthcare, education, housing, and are solving local problems from a national level. That’s what we should be doing in the United States.”
Government spending between the two countries can be compared as well. The United States spends, according to UNICEF, 24 percent on health, 3 percent on education, and 19 percent on defense; Nicaragua, 13, 16 and 6 percent, respectively. A third world country that has in recent decades recovered from a civil and guerilla war spends five times as much of their budget on education as the most developed country in the world. Even with its crowded and inadequate classrooms, UNICEF reports that 85 percent of males and 89 percent of females are literate in Nicaragua.
Even with less than ideal condition, Fisk reports that teachers he talked with during his 2011 trip are enthusiastic about their work.
With only three percent of the total U.S. budget dedicated to education, it’s no wonder Chicago-area teachers, at press time, were striking and marching for better conditions, assessments, and contracts. That small financial commitment may also have something to do with the 14 percent of American adults who do not have basic literacy skills, 55 percent of whom did not finish high school. Forty-four percent of people in the United States have average, workable language skills but only 13 percent are proficient (The National Assessment of Adult Literacy).
Luckemeier, who travelled to Nicaragua last summer to evaluate a water project he worked on in 1988, 1990 and 1994, said, “Yes, politicians are politicians and some of them take advantage of their position, but they are very popular (in Nicaragua), because they actually do things for their population.”
President Daniel Ortega, re-elected in 2011, has been criticized for manipulating the election process by asking the country’s Supreme Court to eliminate term limits for presidents. But the court ruled against Ortega after the 2001 election when he alleged irregularities occurred when the polls stayed open so everyone in line could vote. Nonetheless, in 2011 Ortega won with 62 percent of the vote, double that of the next closest candidate at 31 percent (The Inter-Parliamentary Union).
“A separate branch of the government runs Nicaraguan elections, not like the party affiliated secretaries of states in the U.S.,” Fisk said. “They have a more direct democracy, because there is no electoral college, less room for error, and one simple and standard system with much more integrity.”