Merci Vielmal!

The past 2.5 years have been truly exceptional for me and my family. That is because of the people of Switzerland and Liechtenstein: the students, the police, the business leaders, the apprentices, the government leaders, the ski instructors, the waiters and waitresses, the refugees, the journalists, the farmers, the alphornists, and I could go on.

It has been truly exceptional to represent the United States to all of you and I hope that, through the work that my family and I did, you were able to see our shared values of diversity, openness, empathy, and a relentless pursuit of making a more perfect union.

We look forward to seeing you in the United States!

Merci Vielmal!

A Deeper and More Personal Look at Our US Election Process

This is the English translation of the recent OnePage.li magazine – a Liechtenstein magazine in German. It was written by me, Suzi LeVine, U.S. Ambassador to Switzerland and Liechtenstein, and my husband, Eric A. LeVine,   Entrepreneur & Work-At-Home Dad.

Introduction:

The United States Presidential election is an incredible demonstration of our democracy – upheld by free speech, diverse opinions, and public engagement. It is a blend of both pomp & circumstance and grassroots grittiness. Although Switzerland, Liechtenstein and the United States are all democracies, our processes are all different. In this issue of OnePage, my husband, Eric, and I hope to give you both a high level overview of the flow of our Presidential election – as well as a very personal account of the various phases.

Conclusion:

The United States has had 240 years of peaceful transitions of power – just like those in Switzerland and Liechtenstein. Our democracy – especially as framed by our founding fathers – has ensured that everyone has a voice and a vote. While we can’t predict who will win, I have faith in the American people and know that we will elect the President who will best represent us. That said, faith is not a strategy – voting is. So it will be critical for everyone to participate. No one can be complacent or take anything for granted in this (or any) election.

 

Section 1: Getting Involved – 2005 Meeting Barack Obama for the first time

first meeting

This picture was captured during our 2005 conversation. What you can’t see below the picture is my enormous and very pregnant belly! We haven’t aged a day ;-)

In the spring of 2005, I went to Washington, D.C. with an advocacy group to encourage Congress to support the issues about which we cared. As part of our activities, we had a reception with Illinois Senator Dick Durbin in his office. I was pregnant with our second child and the size of my belly made me very visible among the others in the group. Thus, when the other (newly sworn in) Senator from Illinois – Senator Barack Obama – came into and scanned the room, I stuck out like a sore thumb. He walked straight over to me, put his hand on my shoulder, acknowledged my belly and asked “How are you feeling?” That kicked off a conversation about family and the challenges of finding quality time for kids amidst challenging work schedules. When he addressed the group, Senator Obama shared how he approaches challenges: he listens to all sides of the situation, identifies the right solution and then keeps everyone on target with the plan. His strategic acumen, his intellect, his compassion, and the calm he radiated, made it apparent to me that he would make an excellent President. I called Eric that evening and shared that, when (it was already clear to me that it wasn’t “if”) then Senator Obama ran for President, that I would do everything within my power to get him elected.

And during his 2008 and 2012 election campaigns, our family did just that. Collectively, we generated perhaps millions of votes because of our volunteer work. We campaigned in six states, hosted dozens of house parties for volunteers, voters and potential voters, knocked on thousands of doors, made thousands of phone calls, enlisted thousands of volunteers, and impacted millions of votes.

Section 2: How an American Election Works: Elections & the millions of people who make it happen

A Presidential election is broken down into three parts – the pre-election, the primary season, and the general election. The pre-election season is when candidates start to state their cases and begin campaigning to win over key influencers and others who can have a multiplier effect to help them get elected. Many candidates use this time to test the waters – to see if they have a message that resonates with the people and is powerful enough to attract donors and supporters that will carry them through to win the nominations. That is why in the U.S., you can see so many contenders jumping into the fray at this early stage. In this cycle, for example, there were 17 candidates for the Republican nomination and five of them dropped out even before the first primary contest was ever held.

The primary process is the way political parties identify their nominee. It is not run by the federal government; it is run by the political parties (the two main ones are the Democrats and Republicans) – who determine the rules and the process. In addition to each party determining the overall nominating process, the party in each state determines the rules for their respective state primaries (for example – the Florida State Republican Party runs the Republican primary in Florida). The goal in this part of the election for each candidate is to accrue more than 50% of the delegates that the party has made available. Once a candidate gains enough delegates over the course of the primary contests, he or she becomes the presumptive nominee.

Each party then holds nominating conventions to confirm the selection and the candidates becomes the official party nominees. It is after the conventions are over – this year by the end of July –that the general election begins and continues until Election Day.

In the United States, a lot of ones’ election success relies on the candidate and party’s ability to get people to register to vote and then to mobilize them so that they actually vote. That process has evolved over time to become very labor and technology intensive – in other words, a blend of grassroots organizing and big data. For the Obama campaigns, millions of volunteers were instrumental in his election – all orchestrated with a tremendous professional staff. Another way to think about these massive campaign is to recognize that it’s like the ultimate billion dollar start-up. The strategists think about how many million people they need to vote for their candidate and then work back to how to ensure that number of people turn out in support of their campaign. For example – President Obama’s team started with the number of votes they thought they needed, then worked back to how many doors on which they needed to knock, phones numbers to call, people to rally, etc. This effort generated 69 million votes for President Obama in 2008 and 66 million in 2012.

Section 3: What is Grassroots Campaigning?

What is Grassroots Campaigning? And how, exactly does grassroots work – especially as it blends with big data? These examples best demonstrate this combination:

Grassroots Campaigning, Eric’s story on voter registration:

As has already been explained, before people can actually vote in an election, they need to register with a specific address in their state. Voter registration is a non-partisan activity, and it is against the law to interfere or refuse registration based on how you suspect or know someone might vote. That said, through the use of data, campaigns and volunteers can target grassroots registration activities to locations where they are much more likely to encounter unregistered citizens that are more likely to vote favorably for their causes and candidates. For example, in the 2008 cycle, Suzi and our kids visited the Hempfest Festival in Seattle with the hope of finding younger voters who would be favorable to President Obama but who might be too lazy to remember to register and vote. To put this in perspective, “hemp” is the Cannabis plant that is used for fiber to make clothing and other organic products. The “bud” is the part that some people dry and smoke. It seemed like the perfect place to find young, potential voters who might not be focused on registering.

In 2012, when visiting the Democratic convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, we engaged in an even more targeted voter registration drive. The Obama campaign at the time knew several key facts. First, they expected that about 75% of Hispanic voters nationwide would vote for President Obama. Second, they knew that approximately 3% of the voting eligible population in North Carolina was Hispanic. However, they also knew that only about 55% of those eligible voters were actually registered. Their grassroots solution was simple and effective. Over the summer of 2012, they took as many volunteers as they could find and sent them to Hispanic supermarkets (markets that sold specific products and had a very high percentage of Hispanic customers). All we had to do was stand in front of the market and, as each person came and went, in as friendly a way as possible, ask if they were a U.S. citizen and if they were registered to vote. We did not ask them how they would vote. We just offered to help them fill out the registration form and promised, by law, to promptly return the form to the proper authorities.

In a few hours, with three or four volunteers, we were able to register dozens of new voters, most of whom would be very likely to vote for President Obama. To show how meaningful this kind of effort can be,, in 2008 then Senator Obama won North Carolina by a razor-thin margin of 14,177 votes, in a state where 4.25 million total votes were cast. By systematically registering voters, a campaign is able to alter the electorate in ways that are favorable for their candidate. While this may sound cynical, keep in mind that in this case some of the targeted populations were dramatically underrepresented, so it also felt like an extremely democratic (with a lower case “d”) way to right this wrong.

Grassroots Campaigning, Eric’s Story on mobilization:

This is one of the temporary Obama field offices from 2008 - it's a converted (and well-painted) gas station!

This is one of the temporary Obama field offices from 2008 – it’s a converted (and well-painted) gas station!

In October of 2012, just two weeks before the election, our family traveled to Palm Beach Gardens, Florida to volunteer for the Obama campaign over the course of a week. We got in touch with the local campaign field office and, along with other volunteers, we met with a volunteer team leader. After a brief training session, they supplied us with a thick sheaf of paper full of names and addresses that they called a “walk list” as well as a script to use for each conversation. Rather than informing people of when and where they were supposed to vote, we were instructed to ask potential voters about what their plan was for when they would vote (e.g. before work, at lunch break, after work etc.) and also to confirm if they knew the physical location of their polling place. The Obama campaign had brilliant research showing that people were as much as 25% more likely to actually vote if you asked them in a way that let them visualize the plan for themselves rather than simply telling them where to go.

Suzi and I set out for the nearby neighborhood, divided the list between us and each started knocking on doors. As we arrived at each address on our list, we only had the name and age of an intended voter and a brief record of the elections in which they had previously voted. Campaigns have access to publicly recorded lists of registered voters and when (but not for whom) they have voted.

Here our daughter is putting signs on folks' doors to remind them of when, where, and whether to vote.

Here, our daughter is putting signs on folks’ doors to remind them of when and where to vote.

Very early on I came to a house with an Obama sign in the yard and asked for a 22-year old woman named Mary. However, instead of Mary, a roughly 50-year old man answered the door. I explained that I was a volunteer for the Obama campaign and that I wanted to get in touch with Mary to ensure that she had a plan for when and where she would be voting. The man introduced himself as her father “John” and explained that Mary was away at college. John also confirmed what my records showed, that Mary had voted for the first time in 2008 but had not voted in the 2010 mid-term elections. He also confirmed something I did not previously know, that she had voted for Obama in 2008. As indicated by the yard sign, John himself was planning to vote for Obama, and he assured me that he would make sure that Mary did not forget to vote this time.

My job was done at that door, but before I could leave John was somewhat indignant and wanted to know why his name wasn’t on my list. I had a theory starting to form, so I asked John what his own voting record was. He proudly explained that he had never missed a vote in 30 years, and that clinched my theory. Our mission was to find voters who were likely favorable to President Obama but who were not necessarily likely to vote. By turning out these less likely voters, we could quite literally alter the electorate in ways that were favorable for the President’s re-election.

This became even more obvious over the rest of the week. We often encountered volunteers from the opposing Romney campaign, and we noticed that they were consistently knocking on every single door, even those with Obama campaign signs in the yard. In contrast, our walk list appeared at first glance to be random, skipping over many doors with only about one quarter on our target list. However, out of nearly 1,000 doors we knocked on that week, a considerable majority were favorably disposed to President Obama. Very few of the voters we targeted for the Obama campaign expressed an intention to vote for Mitt Romney. In a state where the ultimate outcome was an almost 50/50 split, it was clear that our list of was not random but rather was exceptionally well targeted to potential Obama supporters.

Section 4: A Few Keys to Understanding the State of Play (including state by state voting, the Electoral College, and separating the media from the math)

During the general election – which we’re in right now – one of the most challenging things can be parsing the news – especially given how many different ways to receive the news there are now. Who’s up? Who’s down? What do the polls mean? Is this news source truly unbiased or not? Especially given the significance of the United States Presidential election to the world, I believe that it’s important to keep a couple of things in mind during the election season:

First, it’s a state-by-state, not a national, election — Battleground States:

Most states consistently vote for one party over the years. For example, just focusing on the recent past, New York has gone to the Democratic candidates in every presidential election since 1988 and Texas has voted for the Republican candidate in every race in the same period.  Other states – called battleground or swing states — are less predictable, and those are where the campaigns tend to focus their efforts and resources.  Since 2000, there are only 10 states that have switched between the two main parties. Those are the ones to watch carefully during the course of the campaign and on election night when the results start coming in.

Second, The Electoral College :

In the end who wins the presidential election is determined by the number of votes the candidate gets in the Electoral College, a system designed by our founding fathers to ensure that everyone – those from large urban areas and those from less populated rural areas — is represented in the election. Codified in the United States Constitution, this representative form of democracy distributes electors to each state according to the formula — the number of electors per state = the number of elected officials representing the state in Congress, that is, the number of Representatives plus the number of Senators. So, for example, New York has 27 members of the House of Representatives and 2 Senators, so has a total of 29 Electors, and Wyoming has one member of the House of Representatives and 2 Senators, making a total of 3 Electors.  All electors in a state must vote for the candidate who wins the popular vote. Thus,each state is, in many ways, its own contest – especially since how people are registered to vote, the designs of the ballot, and the tallying are all done on a state-by-state basis. More populous states will have more electors, but even states with a small number of electors can have an impact – especially in a nation as evenly divided as the United States.

Third, separating the media from the math:

In 2008 and 2012, much of the election was happening at a grassroots level – and was quite different from what the media was covering. While we don’t know how this general election will turn out, it’s useful to keep this in mind and recognize that, what may be coming through the media, may only be tiny fraction of all that’s happening in the election battle:

It’s important to remember that polls don’t vote, people do.  As much as they can provide some directional insight, polls do not determine the election – and different pollsters have different methodologies – some of which have a better track record than others. Historically, the polls will go up during and after each candidate’s nominating convention. They will fluctuate throughout the general election. In order to demonstrate momentum, you will also sometimes see the respective campaigns highlight the specific polls that show them ahead. In 2008 and 2012, the Obama Campaign had its own internal pollsters who were able to more accurately gauge the electorate than public pollsters because they did more accurate sampling – including new technologies such as conducting opinion surveys with users of mobile phones instead of just calling landlines. This allowed them to be able to more effectively identify where additional resources needed to be deployed – especially within the battleground states.

If you just can’t stay away from the poll results, I recommend only looking at state-by-state polling – because we really have a state-by-state election – and looking at several different kinds of polls, including “polls of polls,” where they look across a wide array of polls with different methodologies and track trends.

Section 5: Voting: Who, What, When, How

In Switzerland and Liechtenstein, if you are a citizen and 18 years or older, you can vote. Also – the process of voting in federal elections is pretty consistent across the Cantons and/or regions. (And remember – if you don’t vote, you can’t complain!).

In the United States, however, each voter needs to register to vote before he or she is able to actually vote (and if you move, you need to re-register) and, because of our Federalist system,  the registration and voting processes differ from state to state. That means that how ballots are made available, when voting booths are open, how accessible voting booths are, whether mail-in voting is possible, what kind of ID you need to show to vote and many other aspects of casting a vote all are determined at the state level. For example, some states make it very easy to register.  In California when you get a driver’s license you also have the option to register to vote, and 11 states allow voters to register and vote on the same day.  Some, on the other hand, make it much more difficult, even requiring potential voters to show proof of citizenship before being allowed to cast a ballot (although recent court decisions have challenged those laws as unconstitutional)

While the official Election Day in the United States is November 8th, the reality is that “Election Day” starts September 23rd when Minnesota will be the first state to distribute its ballots. It is after that point that the various states – depending on what their administrations have decided – will have early voting where they make the voting booths open so as to avoid long lines on November 8th.  Some states want to make it very easy to vote – Washington State and Oregon have 100% mail-in ballots and typically get higher than 80% voting response – but 13 states do not allow early voting in any form.

Section 6: Election Night 2008 – Our story

Election night 2008 will be forever etched in our minds – yes, because of the results. But also because it was a great moment of parenting. My daughter three years old at the time, and I had been campaigning in Florida the day before and flew up to Chicago on election day to meet up with Eric and our then six-year-old son, who had flown in from Seattle.

Talia and I before the speech-smallWe had brought our kids with us for the evening results-viewing event in Grant Park. We were standing in the enormous crowd and were about ten meters from the stage where the Obama family would come out to greet the crowd. As the results from the states came in, we knew that it was going to be a great night, but were anxiously anticipating when the California polls would close so that the official final result could be called. A few minutes prior to that time, our daughter, who was on my back in a baby carrier said “I need to go potty – bad.” Parent or patriot – that was the question. Obviously – parent first, but let’s just say I’ve never navigated a crowd more quickly in order to get her relief.

Sidney and Daddy getting ready-smallWhen we finally returned, at the moment of the announcement – we realized what had been keeping our son so occupied down below our knee level. He had been busy on the grass, gathering it all up into a football-sized wad of grass clippings that he threw up into the air like confetti when the celebration started – covering everyone around us (many in very nice suits) with bits of dirt and grass.  It was a magical, memorable, and hilarious moment that we will always cherish.

Kids entirely wiped out

Kids entirely wiped out

As the Obama victory sunk in and the excitement continued through speeches, singing, crying, dancing and a lot of hugging, it was clear that the kids’ batteries had run out. One of the best images of the evening is each of us with a kid sound asleep on our shoulders with Obama temporary tattoos on their cheeks.

Section 7: Milestones in U.S. Election History

  • 1789 — George Washington is unanimously elected president of the United States in a vote by state electors.
  • 1870 — Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution is ratified, giving African-Americans the right to vote (Feb. 3).
  • 1919 — Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution is ratified, granting women the right to vote (Aug. 18).
  • 1951 — Twenty-Second Amendment to the Constitution is ratified, limiting an elected president to two terms in office, a total of eight years.
  • 1965 — Lyndon B. Johnson, 36th President of the U.S., signs the Voting Rights Act, which prohibits discriminatory voting practices (Aug. 6).
  • 1974 – Richard Nixon, 37th President of the U.S., resigns; he is succeeded in office by his vice president, Gerald Ford (Aug. 9).
  • 2000 — No clear winner is declared in the close presidential election contest between Vice President Al Gore and Texas Governor George W. Bush (Nov. 7). Bush formally accepts the presidency, having won a slim majority in the Electoral College but not a majority of the popular vote (Dec. 13).
  • 2008 – Barack Obama becomes the first African-American elected President of the United States.
  • 2016 – Hillary Rodham Clinton becomes the first woman nominated for President by a major party.

This Year’s Ballot…

POTUS vote-smallEric and I just filled out our ballots and celebrated our right to a voice and a vote!

This year was especially exciting because I’ve been talking about it in such depth for the past months with so many people in both Switzerland and Liechtenstein. It’s one thing to talk. It’s another to DO!

As I filled out my ballot, especially given the many votations that have happened here since we came in June of 2014 and the many conversations I’ve had on direct democracy, I was really struck by the array of initiatives on our WA state ballot and how those demonstrate our own expression of direct democracy in the United States. Specifically – Washington State (not to be confused w/Washington DC) is one among the 27 states with direct democracy. This year, my ballot features 6 initiatives including ones about:

  • Increasing minimum wage and ensuring paid sick leave
  • Reforming campaign finance practices
  • Restricting access to guns by those who could pose a danger to others
  • Increasing penalties to those perpetrating identity theft against more vulnerable people like seniors and the mentally-ill
  • Rolling out a carbon-tax
  • Requiring the Federal legislative delegation from Washington to advocate for a Constitutional Amendment regarding not defining corporations as people and excluding donating money from being a part of protected free speech.

As I read through the explanations and the arguments for/against of each of these, I was really struck with the role of language. Each of these, within just a single line, sounds very clear. But then when you dig further into the language of most of them, there are questions about unintended consequences, resources to enable the initiatives, and who the actual beneficiaries will be. Below are the 1 paragraph descriptions of each initiative. This will give you a slight taste of the people’s vote this year.

The Power to the People is strong in Washington State!

Initiatives to the People

  • Initiative Measure No. 1433 concerns labor standards. This measure would increase the state minimum wage to $11.00 in 2017, $11.50 in 2018, $12.00 in 2019, and $13.50 in 2020, require employers to provide paid sick leave, and adopt related laws. Should this measure be enacted into law?
  • Initiative Measure No. 1464 concerns campaign finance laws and lobbyists. This measure would create a campaign-finance system; allow residents to direct state funds to candidates; repeal the non-resident sales-tax exemption; restrict lobbying employment by certain former public employees; and add enforcement requirements. Should this measure be enacted into law?
  • Initiative Measure No. 1491 concerns court-issued extreme risk protection orders temporarily preventing access to firearms. This measure would allow police, family, or household members to obtain court orders temporarily preventing firearms access by persons exhibiting mental illness, violent or other behavior indicating they may harm themselves or others. Should this measure be enacted into law?
  • Initiative Measure No. 1501 concerns seniors and vulnerable individuals. This measure would increase the penalties for criminal identity theft and civil consumer fraud targeted at seniors or vulnerable individuals; and exempt certain information of vulnerable individuals and in-home caregivers from public disclosure. Should this measure be enacted into law?

 Initiatives to the Legislature

  • Initiative Measure No. 732 concerns taxes. This measure would impose a carbon emission tax on certain fossil fuels and fossil-fuel-generated electricity, reduce the sales tax by one percentage point and increase a low-income exemption, and reduce certain manufacturing taxes. Should this measure be enacted into law?
  • Initiative Measure No. 735 concerns a proposed amendment to the federal constitution. This measure would urge the Washington state congressional delegation to propose a federal constitutional amendment that constitutional rights belong only to individuals, not corporations, and constitutionally-protected free speech excludes the spending of money. Should this measure be enacted into law?