When pollsters ask me how I will vote in an election, I always say that I am an Independent and do not intend to tell them. I usually do not get to tell them why. Due to my background, I feel it would be ungrateful of me to do so.
When I was 12 years old, I lived in Kinshasa, in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The country was ruled by a dictator, known commonly as Mobutu. By 1970, Mobutu had been in power for a while, but in some desire for legitimacy he called for an election. There were just a few things that made this election different from elections I knew about in the United States.
In 1967 he formed the political party, the Popular Movement of the Revolution, known by it's initials in French, MPR. This became the only legal party. Naturally, Mobutu was selected as the candidate for President. Everyone was to be given two ballots, a green ballot with the pictures of the President and other candidates for offices, and a red one. I never heard what the red ones looked like.
For weeks and weeks, we saw posters calling people to votez vert! (vote green). On the walls, on the sides of buses, on the radio, votez vert! When it came time to report the results, by some miracle, all the people voted green! Over 10,000,000 green, no red.
I heard some stories about some odd situations. There were people who reported going to a polling place, where they were given two ballots, but everyone could see which one they threw away. Of course the polling stations were guarded by soldiers with machine guns. Some places people claimed they were not even given a red ballot. We heard a rumor that 157 students at a University tried to vote red, but the government controlled press reported a unanimous victory for the MPR!
This experience made a deep impression on me. In my country, the United States of America, we have secret ballots. In most parts of the country, and everywhere I have lived, we do not need to join a party to be allowed to vote. Our votes are secret. Usually, we do not need to fear we will suffer for the choice we would like to make. We can even write in a name if we want. Ever since I came back from the Congo I have been very grateful for this privilege. I call this a privilege instead of a right because not everyone has it.
It seems odd when people try to ask me how I will vote, and will act as if is almost un-American to not tell some complete stranger on the phone how I plan to vote. I just feel that it would be ungrateful of me to do so.
December 1, 2008