The concept of ‘free and fair elections’ still matters

in Contributors/Scott Graber/Voices by


It is Friday, June 12, and I’m in my law library looking through today’s mail. These days I don’t immediately open the mail as I did in the past, but I wait until I’m not distracted by early morning drama enhanced by early morning caffeine.

As I ponder these unopened envelopes, my uneven memory takes me back to a long gone afternoon when I was sitting at this same cherrywood table.

“I would answer this one first,” my paralegal said tossing yet another envelope onto its battered, coffee-stained surface.

This envelope came with a colorful seal featuring a woman — seated and holding a tablet that said, “Unite, Travail, Progres” — circled by the words, “Republique Du Congo”. The letter inside this impressive envelope was from Pascal Lissouba, President of Congo-Brazzaville, then living in exile.

“Would you contact (former) President Jimmy Carter and ask him to broker a peace conference between myself and Sassou N’Quesso?” it began.

Although I can be glib, sometimes persuasive, I was not then known for setting-up peace talks. At that point my law practice dealt with resolving heirs property, real estate transfers, and a little bit of litigation. I had absolutely no experience in civil war peace negotiations — or mediation of any kind.

But when I called Dr. Joyce Neu at the Carter Center, I discovered that Jimmy Carter was interested in Congo’s civil war and he would, in fact, be willing to act as a mediator. For a brief, golden moment I did contemplate adding “West African Conflict Resolution” to my unimpressive letterhead.

Shortly thereafter I discovered Denis Sassou N’Quesso — a former soldier who had recently deposed Pascal Lissouba in a short, bloody civil war — was willing to talk but wanted his friend Omar Bongo (then President of Gabon) at the negotiating table. President Carter, after thinking about this for a few days, agreed that Bongo could sit in on the talks.

But when Carter tried to reach Bongo, there was no reply.

This seemed strange to us because Omar Bongo and Pascal Lissouba were from the same tribe (Bakongo) and we believed this connection might help Lissouba. We also knew that Bongo was married to Sassou N’Quesso’s daughter and we thought that Sassou would like the fact his son-in-law was also in the room. But, in the end, Bongo did not agree and the peace talks foundered.

Later we would learn that Jimmy Carter had previously monitored an election in Gabon and had refused to issue his opinion that it was “free, open and fundamentally fair.” His refusal was, in those days, proof-positive that the process was defective, the election bogus. Apparently Omar Bongo would not forgive and forget.

In West Africa it is assumed that almost every election is fraudulent. There is a presumption of fraud that must be overcome. Carter, after his Presidency, got in the business of certifying elections throughout the world. His certification became, and remains, the gold standard.

In the United States, there is a presumption that the process and the counting of votes is fair. We believe that campaign itself is often unprincipled, unfair and ruthless, but we still believe the vote counting is accurate.

To say that this belief (in the legitimacy of the process) is essential, foundational, fundamental is to say the obvious. But lately we have seen events — in neighboring North Carolina — that have weakened this notion of fairness.

I’m not talking about gerrymandering where congressional districts have been carefully carved-out to “crack and pack.” I’m not talking about Cambridge Analytica’s effort to bombard “persuadables” with unceasing, subtle campaign messages.

No, I’m talking about absentee ballots being “harvested” (in Bladen County, N.C.) from shut-ins, then filled-in, then bundled-up and delivered to the polling place. This practice is crossing a line and it threatens the presumption of legitimacy throughout the United States.

We may have passionate views on abortion, immigration and globalization of commerce; and we may think the other side is wrong, misguided and devious. But most of the people in the United States still believe that ballot box stuffing is a mortal sin.

The fact that some are willing to harvest and fill-in an absentee ballot signals a sea change.

The presumption of legitimacy is not robust, rather it is a fragile belief that hangs on because we still have a core, a passionate core, who believe that free and fair elections matter.

We should not take this belief, this presumption, for granted.

Scott Graber is a lawyer, novelist, veteran columnist and longtime resident of Port Royal. Email Scott at