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Seth Heald is not an opposition candidate in Belarus, but his recent experience as a candidate in the Rappahannock Electric Cooperative (REC) board election could be a case study in Alexander Lukashenko’s playbook. In that eastern European country’s most recent election, the dictator “won” with supposedly 80 percent of the vote, despite all objective evidence to the contrary. Likewise, the REC board incumbent won with 70 percent of the votes cast.
To corrupt supposedly fair and free elections, there are many tricks available to those already in power. Cutting back on the number of polling places, for example, can deter a substantial number of would-be voters, especially those who can’t afford to take time away from work. But suppressing the vote is not the only trick.
In the case of the REC’s self-perpetuating board of directors, they cleverly did the opposite and turned the election into a lottery, funded with the co-op’s money. To reward co-op members for voting, each person who returned the ballot form would have a chance to win one of 58 prizes worth a combined total of $9,600 in cash! The results were predictable:
Thousands of people who typically never voted now did. More than 20,000 REC members voted, roughly three times the number of co-op members who had voted in each of the last ten years. Many of these new voters had not voted in the past — no doubt because they were unmotivated, uninformed or simply didn’t care.
Now they cared! Not necessarily about the election per se, but about the prospect of cashing in their free lottery ticket. And they didn’t have to care, or inform themselves, about the candidates — REC told them that filling out the part of the ballot where they could select one of the two board candidates was “optional."
Also predictably, more than 6,000 of these new “voters” didn’t actually vote, leaving their choice blank as REC told them they could — to be filled in later by the incumbent board members. And of course, also predictably, REC’s incumbent board cast every one of those 6,000-plus blank votes for their incumbent colleague.
Had REC's election been held as in past years, Heald, who campaigned vigorously and raised important issues, might have had a chance of winning, and he would have been a new, energetic, independent voice on the REC board, which is now more than happy to continue business as usual.
There’s a lesson here for the upcoming Presidential elections in November. Voter beware! Stay informed. Exercise your rights. Don’t be intimidated by overly aggressive poll watchers or bombastic rhetoric about a “rigged” election to trick Americans into second-guessing the results. No matter what, vote!
Nicklin, former publisher of this newspaper, can reached on Twitter @RoadTripRedux
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