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An U.S. Election Assistance Commission blog written by EAC Commissioner Thomas Hicks


Traveling to Cuba

Dec 20, 2016

On October 13, I traveled to Cuba on the type of trip that I had only read about in history books. I was a part of a State Department mission to facilitate dialogues on human rights. After decades of diplomatic tension, my fellow travelers and I were to help normalize relations between America and Cuba by continuing the State Department’s dialogues on human rights. I had a personal goal of listening to our Cuban counterparts with an open mind and to participating in our conversations without preconceived notions. I wanted to understand their country and help them understand ours. I knew this would be an incredible experience, but nothing could have truly prepared me for this trip.

The trip from Miami to Havana is a short, less than an hour, flight, but even this flight was marked with unique experiences. Apparently Havana does not have the facilities necessary to protect the plane from the elements should this need arise. So, the State department would not allow the plane to stay in Havana overnight. The plane was chartered, but it did not stop there. State ensured that it was chartered from an American carrier, and we brought our own mechanics. Apparently, to ensure that the plane could leave when necessary, the carrier would not rely on local mechanics but instead use its own. 

Once we landed, we traveled directly to the United States Embassy where we were briefed.  Then we were off to the American Ambassador’s residence where we spoke with the first set of Cuban Government Officials. They described their government, its processes, and its functions. The Cuban officials asked me about the American Election process, and I answered their questions thoroughly. Thinking back to my personal goal, I knew this was a rare opportunity to speak directly to foreign officials and potentially shape the way they ran their own country. The Cuban Officials, however, seemed to share my perspective because they responded to my answers with unabashed and pre-prepared proposals that, in their eyes, would improve our electoral system. 

They suggested that America switch to an automatic voter registration system. They told me that Cuban citizens are registered to vote from birth. It was a passive registration system. I told them that Americans, for the most part, must actively register in order to participate in the voting process. The Cubans obviously felt that their system was better, and I clearly think that the American system is better. This was exactly the type of exchange that I had read about in history books. 

Day one’s talks were intense, but the intensity gave me hope.  It represented real and genuine interest.  Our two counties had not had formal relations in over fifty years, but here we were openly discussing our different perspectives. The Cuban Officials were interested in everything from our two-party system, to my own predictions on the final outcome of the November Elections. I informed them that I had no way of knowing who would win the election, but I was excited to see who the American people would select. I emphasized to my counterparts that no one can truly predict the outcome of a democratic election until the people have spoken through their ballots. I found the conversation to be invigorating and the opportunity to be just as rare as I originally imagined.            

Day two started with a State Department Assistant Secretary welcoming us to Cuba. He told us of his hopes and desires for the dialogues. He was obviously motivated to ensure that these talks and the larger dialogue were productive, and his motivation impacted me. The gravity and opportunity was salient in everything that happened. Next, it was my turn. He asked that I speak about American Elections. I was to speak about ballot access, campaign and election administration finance, and the role of the American citizen in the process. This was no small task, and remembering my counterparts from day one’s immediate and prepared proposals, I knew there was no guarantee that the audience would be receptive to my message. Motivated by our mission and the Assistant Secretary’s own dedication I took the microphone spoke. Summarized, I said:

American elections are decentralized, and states run the American Elections. This provides security and opportunity for innovation. States typically fund election administration, but the federal government provided critical financial support to the states through the Help America Vote Act of 2002. Both individuals running for office and government entities finance campaigns for public office. States administer the elections, and the constitution provides that the federal government may set rules on time, place, and manner of elections. Election officials must swear to uphold the constitution, and a critical piece of this duty is protecting American Elections. The EAC is a federal agency that provides states and citizens with guidance regarding election administration, voter registration, voting machine quality and standards, and other aspects of the voting process.

I made sure to include that in the 240 years of our republic, our American Electoral system has worked well. Then, I opened the floor to questions. The Cuban ambassador was first.

He questioned, "If the United States was such a great democracy, why would her citizens historically participate in presidential elections at levels of only about 50-60 percent?" I told him that voting is not compulsory in the United States, and every citizen has a First Amendment right to participate in elections. I went on to explain that even non-voting can be participation. For under the first amendment, silence can be speech that passively vocalizes non-support of a candidate or idea. I then added that I, of course, always encourage everyone to vote.

This question, and the way that he crafted it, is representative of the differences between American and Cuban elections. What is often an opportunity in American elections is compulsory in Cuban elections. For example while Americans may freely decide whether or not they want to be registered to vote, Cuba registers its citizens for state services at birth. One of these state services is voting after a Cuban citizen is a certain age. Cubans will tell you that this allows for a more efficient administration of elections, but the EAC’s chartering legislation, HAVA, guarantee the same for Americans. HAVA provides that every state must have a state-wide voter registration database, and it does so to encourage clear and accurate poll books.

You can see why this trip was so impactful. Not only was I selected to be a representative of American democracy to a country where diplomatic tensions had sculpted an at-times adverse relationship between our counties, but it also reaffirmed my perspective of how well American elections are designed and administered. We, here in America, rely on our local election administrators to craft the best possible election administration systems, and we do not force our elections to be run in a certain manner. Instead of compelling conformity, we empower our system to innovate. We do not have one uniform election system, but we have more than fifty. Because of this, we are able to continually innovate and implement new and improved best practices.

I only had a limited amount of time to ask my own questions of the Cubans and to answer their questions, but I hope that the Cubans will continue to see our electoral process as an example and understand that although it is not perfect, it is excellent. There are many reasons that our elections are the base on which countless other countries have built their own election systems.

We spent the remainder of the trip discussing various other aspects of our countries and listening and speaking with the other American representatives. It was, at all times, an excellent experience. I truly believe that the delegation to Cuba was beneficial for both countries, and I think that it helped the process of normalizing diplomatic relations by continuing our dialogues. I thank our Cuban counterparts for hosting us and welcoming us to their country.

To me, this trip serves as great emphases of how important it is to participate in elections. As we look back on the 2016 election cycle, I applaud all those who voted, and I hope that all those who did not vote will in the future. American elections are some of the best elections in the world. It is an honor to serve as an Official of these elections, and it is an honor to participate in them as a voter. Remember, check your voter registration status before every election and serve as a poll worker. Exercising our right to vote is a fundamental privilege in this great democracy.

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