The Ukrainian Evolution

Posted by Richard Stengel, Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. Follow @Stengel 
May 21, 2014
Ukrainian Polling Station
Ukrainian Polling Station

On Sunday, Ukrainians will go to the polls to vote for a new president. But that simple statement does not reckon with the significance of this election. The May 25 vote is not just a validator of their struggle for change and a harbinger of Ukraine’s future – plenty important enough — it is also a demarcation point between the global struggle for freedom and the forces of repression, of nations being able to choose their own future rather than have it imposed upon them.

So this is not just any election. It comes at a perilous moment in Ukraine’s long history. It follows the purported annexation of Crimea and Russia’s own efforts to destabilize the country and undermine the voting. For weeks now the Russian media machine has broadcast fictional stories of a “Neo-Nazi rampage” and a country on the verge of civil war, while the Kremlin has encouraged separatists in the east to seize power at the barrel of a gun.

Last week I traveled to Ukraine to see for myself. I found Kyiv to be calm but nervous; people were going about their business, having coffee at sidewalk cafes, taking their children to school. But they were a little anxious about the election. And why wouldn’t they be? There’s a lot riding on it.

While in Kyiv, I walked through the Maidan and paid my respects at monuments to the Heavenly Hundred, the protesters who gave their lives fighting for a truly representative government. I met young Ukrainians who protested in the Maidan and lost friends in the struggle. I spoke with one university student who told me she had always passed out at the sight of blood, yet during the protests, she volunteered to care for the wounded in one of the Maidan’s makeshift hospitals and never fainted or faltered. She said she has seen enough bloodshed for a lifetime, and now she is focused on finding a democratic future for her country. Everywhere I found a quiet patriotism, a faith that if only the people can exercise their will, Ukraine will prosper.

Graffiti on the side of a building near the Maidan in Kyiv symbolizes Ukrainians' desire to turn their struggle for change into the evolution of their country, May 2014.
Graffiti on the side of a building near the Maidan in Kyiv symbolizes Ukrainians’ desire to turn their struggle for change into the evolution of their country, May 2014.

Sunday’s elections are the best route to political healing in Ukraine. Polls show that more than 70 percent of Ukrainians want to stay intact as a nation. The elections should be an antidote to the mayhem created by Russia and the separatists who seem more intent on tearing the country down than raising it up. Everyone I spoke to in Kyiv wants a nation that includes minority voices, a nation that looks both westward and eastward. They reject the notion that they must choose one or the other.

Elections are never perfect — and this one will not be either. There will be disruptions, and some people will stay home in the east, where election officials have been intimidated and in some cases even kidnapped. Russia has also ensured that no voting will take place in Crimea. But instead of preventing people from voting, the separatists should register their dissent in the voting booth. The story of the 21st century shows that in the end, the ballot box is more powerful than the bullet. Around 400 million people in Europe are eligible to vote this weekend in European Parliamentary elections — Ukrainians deserve the same right to express their will.

More than 200 years ago, Thomas Paine wrote that “the right of voting…is the primary right by which other rights are protected.” Let this election be the beginning and not the end of the Ukrainian people being able to choose and construct their future. It should not only reflect the will of the Ukrainian people but be an engine for protecting the rights of minorities as well. That is the future of Ukraine.

U.S. Increases Support for Media, Press Freedom in Ukraine

May 5, 2014

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A masked pro-Russian man blindfolds Ukrainian journalist Irma Krat after she was shown to journalists in Slovyansk, eastern Ukraine, April 21. USAID says more than 500 journalists have been harassed, beaten or abducted since November 2013.
A masked pro-Russian man blindfolds Ukrainian journalist Irma Krat after she was shown to journalists in Slovyansk, eastern Ukraine, April 21. USAID says more than 500 journalists have been harassed, beaten or abducted since November 2013.

Washington — The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) is providing an additional $1.25 million to the U-MEDIA program in Ukraine, a project of Internews and its Ukrainian partner organizations aimed at supporting Ukrainian media outlets as they prepare for the Ukrainian presidential election on May 25.

Members of the media in Ukraine have faced serious challenges and dangers over the past several months, USAID said in announcing the grant on its website May 2. More than 500 journalists have been harassed, beaten or abducted since November 2013, and one journalist was killed. Media outlets have been attacked and news-gathering equipment has been seized or destroyed, USAID said.

“USAID supports a strong and independent media in Ukraine,” said Paige Alexander, USAID assistant administrator for the Bureau for Europe and Eurasia. “This additional funding will help to protect vulnerable journalists while also advancing press freedoms and democratic governance in Ukraine.”

USAID supports respect for universal values around the world as central to its mission to end extreme poverty and promote resilient, democratic societies. The agency’s work is committed to increasing awareness, creating strong legal foundations for independent media and civil society, improving government responsiveness to constituents and supporting platforms for free and open communications.

USAID said these new funds will support a number of activities:

• Webinars on media rights and responsibilities will be conducted in preparation for the presidential and local election campaigns, and regional training seminars will be conducted on journalistic legal and professional standards during an election. Voter education public service announcements will be produced and distributed to media outlets across Ukraine.

• Joint public forums and town hall discussions will cover constitutional reform in the context of the presidential election, political processes between the expected rounds one and two of the election, analysis of candidate platforms, local election procedures, Ukrainian unity and implications of European Union integration.

• Assistance will be provided to 1st Ukrainian Channel and a local foundation to produce and broadcast debates between the presidential candidates, as well as post-debate webcasts.

• Cross-regional exchanges will link 45 journalists, editors and bloggers to increase information available to citizens about political reforms, economic and social issues, and the May 25 presidential elections. Small grants for content production will be provided to cover news events, and the creation of regional news and information Web portals and live webcasts.

• Physical and digital security training will be provided for journalists, including best practices for safe Internet and mobile communications use, as well as how to avoid or disengage from dangerous situations when covering civil unrest.

USAID said it is supporting the government of Ukraine as it implements constitutional and electoral reforms that fulfill its stated goal of becoming a fully inclusive and economically stable democracy. The U.S. government has invested $11.4 million to support a transparent and democratic election process in Ukraine. Programs support improvements to the electoral framework; voter education and civic participation; transparent and effective election administration; open and responsive political competition; effective oversight of election processes; election security and redress of infractions; and a diverse, balanced and policy-focused media environment.


Get Out the Vote!

Posted by: Janine Balekdjian, Consular Intern

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This Tuesday, voters all across the United States will go to the polls to vote in this year’s elections.  The Presidential election, between incumbent Democrat Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney (and a handful of “third party” candidates unlikely to get more than 1% of the vote), gets the most attention in the news, but voters also vote for Senators, members of the House of Representatives, and state and local officials.  Americans have been following the news, watching debates, and discussing the issues with each other for well over a year to figure out who they are going to vote for.  But not everyone has made up their mind yet or decided for certain that they are even going to get to the polls on Election Day, and that’s where Get Out the Vote comes in.

Get Out the Vote, or GOTV, is a canvassing operation starting the weekend before Election Day and continuing to Election Day itself, in which volunteers go door to door and remind people how important it is to vote and persuade them to vote for their candidate if the voter is still undecided (there are about 5% undecided according to recent polls).  Every candidate running has a campaign staff, and while some staffers participate in GOTV, most GOTV workers are volunteers who are passionate about a candidate and want to make sure he or she wins.  Students are some of the most enthusiastic GOTV volunteers.

Members of the Columbia University College Democrats getting ready to do GOTV for Congressman Patrick Murphy in 2010
Members of the Columbia University College Democrats getting ready to do GOTV for Congressman Patrick Murphy in 2010

Each campaign uses software and databases to make up lists of important doors to knock on which are within walking distance of each other.  Campaigns try to target people who they think will vote for their candidate but might not vote at all unless they are reminded.  For example, the Obama campaign might make sure to knock on the doors of registered Democrats who voted in 2008 but not in 2010 (while all Americans’ votes are secret, whether they voted and their party affiliation are not).  A volunteer for the Obama campaign would remind the voters they talk to how important each vote is to the President’s chances of victory, ask them if they need a ride to the polls, and if they are undecided, give them some reasons to vote for President Obama rather than his opponent.  Governor Romney’s volunteers will be doing the same, taking to each door his argument as to why he would do a better job if elected as the next President of the United States.

Volunteers for Republican Sharron Angle talk to voters at a festival in 2010
Volunteers for Republican Sharron Angle talk to voters at a festival in 2010

The most important thing during GOTV is to knock on as many doors as possible, so volunteers often canvass for 12 hours a day, although they can sign up for as much or as little time canvassing as they want to.  Many student political groups take trips to key districts to campaign for the whole weekend.  Whether they’re on the knocking or the opening end of the door, everybody in the United States is engaged in the political process this weekend.

Winning the Election: Swing States

Posted by: Janine Balekdjian, Consular Intern

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No, swing states have nothing to do with dance; they have everything to do with the presidential election.  In the election for president, unlike elections for any other government position, votes are not allocated by popular vote, but rather by the Electoral College.  In the Electoral College, every state has a certain number of electoral votes based on population, and those votes are given to the presidential candidate who wins the popular vote in that state (see last week’s blog post).

Because of the Electoral College, certain states in the presidential election take on larger significance than others.  States which have a large population have more electoral votes, so they are more important for candidates to win.  Many states have predictable voting patterns – for example, New York almost always votes for the Democratic candidate, and Texas almost always votes for the Republican candidate.  States that don’t have predictable voting patterns – that may vote either way – are called “swing states,” and those are the states that candidates focus most of their attention and resources on.

Popular opinion changes all the time, so swing states are never exactly the same from election to election.  Over time, even more dramatic shifts can occur.  For example, in the 1888 election, New York was a swing state!  If the overall national mood, as measured by opinion polls, significantly favors one candidate or party over another, there will be fewer swing states.  There is no definitive list of swing states, but Colorado, Nevada, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia, Florida, and New Hampshire are all considered swing states by most political analysts in the current election.  (Nate Silver is one such analyst who does statistical modeling on state voting patterns in his blog.)

Because swing states can provide the deciding electoral votes in a close election, candidates make more campaign stops and spend much more on advertising in them than they do in states they are sure of winning or sure of losing.  Candidates visit states which they know they will win as well, in order to energize the “base” by getting their supporters excited.  They might also do so to help candidates form their party in other races, such as senators or governors. It’s not just candidates who pay attention to swing states – voters who feel strongly about a party and want to volunteer do as well.  In New York, both conservatives and liberals volunteer to canvass door-to-door or make phone calls to voters in the neighboring swing state of Pennsylvania, since they know that whatever campaigning they can do in New York is unlikely to influence how their home state will vote.

Volunteers who don’t want to travel across state lines need not worry, however; although states like New York are predictable in the presidential election, congressional, senatorial, state, and local races can be very different.  In a 2010 special election, Massachusetts, one of the most liberal states in the union, elected Republican Scott Brown to the Senate (a few years earlier, they made Mitt Romney their governor).  So no matter where in America one lives, a competitive race may be just around the corner.

Understanding the U.S. Elections: Five Things You Didn’t Know About Polling

Posted by: Janine Balekdjian, Consular Intern

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In theory, public opinion polls are so simple.  Ask a question, record a response, and keep doing this enough times until you have a large enough sample to draw conclusions from it.  In reality, though, polling can be extremely complicated and influenced by seemingly inconsequential factors, which explains why different polls on the same issue can end up with some wildly different results.

5. Polls have political affiliations.

They might not have an R or D (for Republican and Democrat) next to their name like elected officials, but often, polling firms have a trend of leaning particularly to the left or to the right.  For example, Rasmussen Reports, which is often used by Fox News, favors Republicans relative to other polls, and Public Policy Polling sometimes leans liberal.  This isn’t to say that the pollsters are intentionally biased – although that can be the case, such as in the Research 2000 poll scandal.  Even when polls do systematically favor one party over the other, the difference from the average is typically small.  Usually, different polling methodologies can explain overall partisan leanings, which brings us to…

4. People respond differently to robots and real people.

A frequent strategy of polling firms which want to get as large a sample size as possible is to use what are called “robopolls” – polling phone calls in which an automated recording asks questions and records responses based on what buttons the person on the other end of the phone pushes.  As counterintuitive as this may seen, robopolls tend to lean Republican when compared with a poll conducted by a real person, even though it seems like the caller shouldn’t make a difference to one’s opinion.  No one knows exactly why this is, or whether robopolls or human pollsters are more accurate.  Some of the effect could be caused by other methodological practices which are correlated with robopolls, such as only calling landlines and excluding cell phones.  A hypothesis which explains conservative leanings in robopolls on issues is that people being polled may be more likely to express a view they think can be perceived as biased (such as opposing gay marriage) to an automated recording than to a real person.  However, this theory doesn’t explain why robopolls would favor Republican candidates over Democrats.

3. It’s harder to get a random sample than you think.

Political polling is usually conducted over the phone.  The only reason that polls are informative is the assumption that their data are generalizable to the country as a whole.  When Gallup reports that President Obama leads Mitt Romney by 6%, we assume that their data applies to the whole country, not just to the people who responded to their poll.  Pollsters have developed a number of strategies to make sure that they collect random samples, such as random digit dialing.  Pollsters also go through their data afterwards and “weight” it so it reflects the American public better.  However, as technology changes, random sampling methods are starting to become obsolete.  Traditionally, polls only call conventional landlines, but now 25% of American adults do not own a landline, and this demographic is only increasing.  Consequently, polls which do not call cell phones display a significant Republican bias.  People who own cell phones but not landlines are much more likely to be young, urban, and members of minority groups, all of which correlate with being liberal.  Thus, polls which exclude the cell phone-only population are going to show a stronger conservative leaning than the population at large.  Recently, some pollsters have made forays into online polling, where random sampling is still in the experimental stage.

2. Question order influences people’s opinions. 

Since it can be difficult to get people on the phone willing to answer questions, many pollsters take the opportunity to ask not just one but several questions: on the economy, on social issues, on major legislative developments, and on their candidate preference, for example.  However, people’s opinions on all these issues aren’t as fixed as you might think – studies have proven that the order of questions influences people’s answers.  When “primed” with a question about the economy, voters will give different responses to presidential approval than if asked about the President first – approval increases if the economy is good, and decreases if the economy is bad.  This principle applies to issues as well – when asked a question that includes a viewpoint significantly to the right or left of the mainstream, the rest of the respondent’s answers become more extreme as well, possibly to avoid coming off as inconsistent.  Good pollsters try to minimize this effect either by randomizing the order of questions for each respondent or making sure that general questions are asked before specific ones.

1. People will be for and against the same thing, depending on how you ask it.

Want a different result?  Ask the same question, but change the wording.  Certain buzzwords evoke strong emotional reactions, and pollsters can either use or avoid those words depending on what kind of result they’re looking for.  For example, Americans will have unfavorable reactions to a poll using the word “welfare,” but they support government aid to the poor, which is logically equivalent.  This just confirms what political operatives have known for decades: messaging matters.

The world of polling can be confusing, so some of the best places to look are aggregate polling agencies.  These take into account all recent credible polls on a candidate or an issue and present an average.  Real Clear Politics is one such site, and FiveThirtyEight both averages poll data and blogs about polling and statistics in politics for those curious about the field.

Funding a Campaign

Posted by: Janine Balekdjian, Consular Intern

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To win an election, candidates need to convince the voting public to agree with their policy proposals, and to do that, they need to spread their message as widely as possible.  One way they do this is through televised debates and speeches and other media coverage, but they also use their own resources to craft their message to voters through advertising and field work.  Campaigns take out advertisements on the internet and television, in the print press, and on billboards (and other public signs) to highlight their strengths or their opponent’s weaknesses on particular issues, and they also employ field staff to call voters and canvass door-to-door.  The bill for advertising and staff can be expensive, especially for presidential campaigns which need infrastructure in all 50 states, and that’s where fundraising and campaign finance come in.

Campaigns acquire funds by soliciting donations from supporters through email, mail, or fundraising events (“fundraisers”).  In order to avoid the appearance of corruption, federal law sets the maximum donation to a candidate per election at $2,500.  However, direct campaign donations are far from the only way that someone can give money to be spent in an election.  The Democratic and Republican Parties both have committees on the local, state, and national level that have maximum donation levels which are significantly higher than those to individual candidates.  These committees allocate the donations they get to the races they think are the greatest priority; for example, where a high-profile challenger has a good chance of taking a seat currently held by the other party, or where an important incumbent is threatened.  In addition to the campaigns themselves and party committees, there are also political action committees, or PACs, which are formed of members dedicated to a particular cause or set of causes.  Because PACs donate to individual candidates, the maximum an individual may give to a PAC is $5,000.  All these regulations are overseen by the Federal Election Commission, which is in charge of assuring that all campaigns abide by the law.

Campaign finance in the United States became even more complicated after the Supreme Court decision Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 558 U.S. 310 (2010).  In that ruling, the Supreme Court reversed several decades’ worth of campaign finance laws and declared that spending money is considered free speech under the First Amendment.  Existing laws on direct donations to campaigns and party committees stand, but because of Citizens United, any individual or corporation can donate unlimited amounts of money to “SuperPACs”.  SuperPACs are similar to regular PACs, but they are legally required not to coordinate with any campaign and instead put out their own ads for or against candidates.  However, candidates and SuperPACs can get around this limitation by discussing strategy through the media, which American comedians Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert have demonstrated to great comedic effect.  Additionally, SuperPACs can be heavily funded by one donor or company, but are not required to disclose their main funding sources in their ads.  The D.I.S.C.L.O.S.E. Act, legislation which would require such disclosure, has stalled in Congress.

In order to free candidates from the political pressures of being beholden to large donors, a few states offer public financing of campaigns.  To qualify for public financing, candidates must raise a certain number of small contributions to prove their viability, and are then given access to a fixed amount of public money to use on their campaign.  Candidates who opt in to public financing are not allowed to raise any more donations or to use their personal money on their campaigns.  Connecticut, Maine, and Arizona currently have optional public financing, although part of Arizona’s public financing law was struck down by the Supreme Court in 2011.  Public financing is also available for presidential campaigns, but President Obama and Mitt Romney have both rejected public funds in the 2012 election.


My List of the Top 4 Most Noteworthy U.S. Vice Presidents and VP Candidates

Posted by: Janine Balekdjian, Consular Intern

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Presidential nominations are a heated contest of primaries and caucuses, and once a party’s nominee is clear, the next big step for the presidential ticket is for that nominee to choose a running mate.  The nominee has total discretion over whom to pick and when to announce the decision, and most nominees announce their Vice Presidential (VP) pick towards the end of the summer to signal the beginning of a season of intense campaigning until the election.  Presidential candidates have to manage a delicate balancing act of finding a Vice President who is different enough to complement his or her strengths and weaknesses, but similar enough to avoid serious ideological disagreements.  Many Presidential nominees actually pick someone that they ran against in the primary as their VP candidate, both because the nominee is well versed in the policy platforms of his or her erstwhile rivals, and because it can heal any tensions within the party created by an acrimonious primary.  President Obama picked Joe Biden, a former primary opponent, to be his running mate in 2008, and the pair will again run on the Democratic ticket this year.  Currently, news outlets are rife with speculation over who Mitt Romney will pick to join him on the Republican ticket, a decision he is expected to announce before the Republican National Convention.

Vice Presidents have certainly made waves in the past.  Below are what I consider the four most noteworthy Vice Presidents or Vice Presidential nominees.

4. Aaron Burr

Aaron Burr served as Vice President from 1801-1805 under the United States’ third President Thomas Jefferson
Aaron Burr served as Vice President from 1801-1805 under the United States’ third President Thomas Jefferson

Aaron Burr was certainly a noteworthy Vice President – but not in a good way.  Burr served as Vice President from 1801-1805 under the United States’ third President and principal author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson.  In the early days of the United States, the Vice President was the person who received the second-most votes for president, not someone chosen by the President.  Jefferson and Burr actually tied with 73 electoral votes each, and the House of Representatives had to decide which would become president.  The House voted for Jefferson, and Burr blamed his narrow defeat on the influence of his former friend Alexander Hamilton, another of the United States’ Founding Fathers.  After Burr’s term as Vice President was over, he challenged Hamilton to a duel to the death, shooting and killing him.  Burr was charged with murder but the charges were eventually dropped.

Theodore Roosevelt served as Vice President under William McKinley
Theodore Roosevelt served as Vice President under William McKinley

3. Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt

Teddy Roosevelt’s Vice Presidency marked a major transition for U.S. politics.  Roosevelt became Vice President under William McKinley, who beat the populist Democrat William Jennings Bryan and had close ties to the corrupt business establishment and political machines.  Roosevelt’s strong anti-corruption views were diametrically opposed to McKinley’s, although the two men agreed on foreign policy.  McKinley was assassinated just 9 months into his second term (his first with Roosevelt as Vice President).  Roosevelt became president, finishing the rest of McKinley’s term by ushering in the Progressive Era, a major effort to reform the banking, business, and political establishments, requiring them to follow government regulations, and introduce transparency in both business and government.  Roosevelt won another term, serving as president until 1908, and the Progressive Era he inaugurated lasted another decade.

Geraldine Ferraro, a three-term Congresswoman, was the first woman to be nominated as Vice President of a major party
Geraldine Ferraro, a three-term Congresswoman, was the first woman to be nominated as Vice President of a major party

2. Geraldine Ferraro

Geraldine Ferraro never actually became Vice President, as her running mate Democrat Walter Mondale lost the 1984 election to the popular Republican Ronald Reagan, but her nomination was a momentous event for the United States and for American women.  Ferraro, a three-term Congresswoman, was the first woman to be nominated as Vice President of a major party (to date, Republican Sarah Palin has been the only other).  Ferraro was a feminist and openly challenged the sexism she faced in the media and from other politicians as she and Mondale campaigned.  She pointed out the implicit sexism when reporters asked her questions such as, “Are you tough enough?” and scolded the Republican Vice Presidential nominee, George H.W. Bush, when he acted patronizingly towards her in their debate.  Ferraro’s Vice Presidential run pushed news outlets to finally adopt the honorific “Ms.” for women; she was married but used her maiden name, so neither “Mrs.” nor “Miss” were appropriate.  Ferraro went on to become the United States Ambassador to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, work as a journalist, and work on the 2008 Presidential primary campaign of Hillary Clinton.

Lyndon Baines Johnson served as Vice President under  John F. Kennedy
Lyndon Baines Johnson served as Vice President under John F. Kennedy

1. Lyndon Baines Johnson

Lyndon Johnson, or LBJ, was one half of a dynamic Democratic duo, serving as Vice President under the popular John F. Kennedy.  Kennedy and Johnson actually did not get along; Kennedy had offered the Vice Presidency to LBJ, who was from Texas, as a way of winning the support of Southern Democrats.  Despite their personal disagreements, Johnson’s domineering, aggressive style helped advance Kennedy’s legislative agenda, and Johnson’s focus on domestic policy nicely complemented Kennedy, who concentrated more on foreign policy.  Johnson became President when Kennedy was assassinated in 1963.  As President, Johnson was a champion of fairness and equality, and referred to his vision of a more equal United States of America as the “Great Society”.  He responded to the Civil Rights Movement enthusiastically, signing the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act which helped combat discrimination against both African-Americans and women.  Johnson then declared a “War on Poverty,” pouring millions of federal dollars into programs like Head Start, food stamps, and Community Action Programs.  Most famously, Johnson established Medicare, federal health insurance for the elderly, and Medicaid, state health insurance for the poor.  Due to his repeated escalation of the unpopular Vietnam War, Johnson’s approval ratings fell precipitously, and he did not seek the 1968 Presidential nomination.  That election culminated in the Democratic National Convention fiasco of 1968 and the victory of Republican Richard Nixon, putting an end to four decades of nearly uninterrupted Democratic government.  Johnson’s legacy of Great Society legislation, however, remains a key part of U.S. life to this day.