Belarus, Baseball and Berlin

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A confession: I've never had much sympathy for people who don't vote, if your name is on the rolls and it's just a matter of showing up or getting that ballot in the mail. But a few weeks ago I went to Belarus to observe the parliamentary elections. Belarus is Europe's last dictatorship, with the same president, Alexander Lukashenka, since 1994. The parliament has had no opposition members since 2000. It's been more than 20 years since an election was judged free and fair by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

There, if you said "my vote won't make a difference," that means something different. In fact, the fall elections required 50 percent turnout to be valid. So not voting could be way to throw a wrench in the system.

On election day in Minsk, I was visiting one precinct when a woman on the electoral commission resigned in protest. She accused the commission head of inflating the number of people who had voted during early voting. Widespread incidents of ballot box stuffing were reported by the OSCE; and the counting process was often more ritual than rigor. Official results put turnout at 75 percent. Independent observers put the numbers far lower. Some put turnout closer to 25 percent. Even so, when votes were counted, out of 110 members of parliament, two members of the opposition were selected.

A week later, Russia held parliamentary elections. Closed circuit cameras caught election commissioners stuffing ballot boxes -- those videos popped up on YouTube pretty quickly. As for me, I was at the Giants game that day, enjoying the sunshine on the bay and watching our boys in black and orange sleepwalk through a loss to the Cardinals.

At the seventh-inning stretch, before "Take Me Out to the Ballgame," we sang "God Bless America." That tune was composed by Irving Berlin, born in the city of Mogilev, then part of the Russian empire, now in Belarus. Berlin revised the lyrics for a radio broadcast by Kate Smith in November 1938, when fascism was ascendant in Europe.


But as we know, democracy can be frightfully messy and inefficient. It doesn't just happen on its own. On that note, the OSCE is sending its largest mission ever of election observers to the United States this November, with particular concerns over voter registration and electronic voting.

As for the Giants, they recovered, and playing for a spot in another World Series.

With a Perspective, I'm Steven Saum.

Steven Saum is editor of Santa Clara Magazine.