20 March 2018 07:20 PM



The October Surprise: Imponderables in the U.S Presidential Elections

MUMBAI: Many in India believe that the US president is directly elected by the public. This wrong impression is because of the highly advertised personal campaigns by the contenders. Unlike in India, the laws and rules adopted by 51 states decide the mode of November 8 elections to choose the President, Senators and House representatives. In India, uniform country wide rules are prescribed by our Central Election Commission. That is not so in America.

As a result, election procedures vary from state to state on ballot paper, voting machines, “absentee voting”, “Provisional ballots” and even counting. In 48 states those convicted even for a single crime are disfranchised. In some states even a “misdemeanour” is enough for exclusion. In January 2016 American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) alleged that “Voters Suppression” laws were passed in 10 states on using voter ID cards, banning the “same day registration” and restricting early voting system. ACLU said this would affect polls in 129 of the 538 Electoral College seats. Minorities allege that these rules were made to prevent their voting by Conservative majority states.

What is this “Electoral College” to elect the President? During the 1787 Constitutional debates, the choice of direct popular elections for the president was ruled out as “an uninformed populace could elect an unsuitable candidate”! This might look bizarre to us who are used to universal adult franchise. They also ruled out election by the Congress since the President would be beholden to their Parliament. Hence they recommended a system of election by some “most knowledgeable and most informed” group of “Electors”. These “Electors” would form the “Electoral College”. Each state gets the number of “Electors” equal to their Senators and Representatives. As of now the total number is 538. A winning Presidential candidate needs more than half (270). Thus on November 8 the US voters would NOT be voting either for Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, but only for Democratic or Republican parties’ “Presidential Electors”. These votes are called “Popular votes”.

The successful “electors” would meet at their state capitals on December 19 to cast their “Official votes” to elect the President and Vice President. Here again there is a strange rule which is “Winner Takes All”. All US states except Maine and Nebraska have adopted this system under which the winning presidential candidate in that state is “Awarded” all the “electors”. In other words if Democrats win 20 of the 38 “Electoral seats” in Texas, all the 38 seats will go to Hillary Clinton. In 2000 Al Gore won more popular votes (48.4%) than George W.Bush (47.9%). Still Bush was narrowly elected by the Electoral College as President with 271 electoral votes against Gore (266).

Pew’s Research said on February 3, 2016 that no traditional race wise voting pattern might be valid this year. It said that the 2016 Elections would be “the most diverse in US history”. Now 31% of the eligible voters would be from Hispanic, African-American, Asian or other ethnic minority (Increase from 29% from 2012). Today there are 10.7 million more eligible voters than in 2012. Non-Hispanic White share has fallen from 71 %( 2012) to 69%.

Yet this might be offset by the polling percentage. In 2012 Hispanics-Asians’ voting was lower (47-48%) than Non-Hispanic Whites (64%). Trump has been making special efforts to increase the voting percentage of Conservative Whites and rural uneducated White voters (derisively called “Red Necks”). He wants to draw them to the polling booth by scaring them about Muslims, immigrants and loss of jobs.

Another imponderable is what is called the “October Surprise”. NBC News had already prepared the ground on July 27, 2016 by announcing that Hillary Clinton’s chances could be upset by foreign interference. It said that Russian President Putin had a personal reason to defeat Clinton as it was “his belief that Clinton, as secretary of state, tried to undermine his successful 2011 campaign to regain the Russian presidency”. The channel alleged that Russian intelligence would be unloading more mails in the public domain to embarrass her in October 2016.

However the “October Surprise” was not caused by Russians but by FBI Director James Comey who wrote to the Congress on October 28 that emails pertinent to the closed investigation into Hillary Clinton’s private email server were discovered on “a computer belonging to Anthony D. Weiner, the estranged husband of a top Clinton aide”. He was immediately criticized for flouting a Justice Department convention of not commenting about politically sensitive investigations within 60 days of an election.

On November 2 President Obama criticized Comey’s action, without mentioning his name, suggesting that “F.B.I. had violated investigative guidelines and trafficked in innuendo by alerting Congress last week”. But the damage was already done. This revelation gave an immediate boost to Trump campaign which had sagged due to allegations of his sexual deviations.

A similar “October Surprise” had disturbed the 1968 elections and overturned the verdict. The contest was between Hubert Humphrey, sitting Vice-President (Democrat) and Richard Nixon (Republican). Things were going on well for Nixon as America was losing 1,000 lives a month in the unpopular Vietnam War. But Johnson changed gears and announced bomb halts. He paved way for the Paris Peace Conference between both Vietnams from October. This was welcomed by US voters. Presidential Elections were scheduled for November 5, 1968.

But Nixon was cleverer. He persuaded South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu not to attend Paris talks by sending messages through Washington socialite Anna Chennault. He said he would offer them a better deal than Humphrey. Tim Weiner, in his popular book “Enemies-A History of the FBI” recounts how the FBI had noticed Anna Chennault ’s “Lincoln Continental” going frequently to Vietnamese embassy and 1701, Pennsylvania Avenue, which was Nixon’s campaign office. President Johnson could not do anything although he confronted Nixon on November 3 about Chennault’s activities. Nixon’s denial was “almost certainly a lie in light of later disclosures”. Finally Nixon won the elections with a narrow margin.

I am not saying that the same might happen this time but James Comey’s letter bomb has unsettled the electoral scene considerably.

[The writer is a former Special Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat and author of “National Security & Intelligence Management-A New Paradigm”]