*Everyone to the Polls!
The parliamentary and presidential elections in Lithuania are far less colorful affairs then they are in the United States. There are no primaries, presidential debates, national conventions, or celebrity endorsements. In the weeks up to the parliamentary election this year, posters appeared on empty walls, and occasionally an interview would be given by one of the candidates on Lithuanian National Television (LRT). I didn’t even realize it was an election year until the magazine I work for did a parody of some of the popular parties and their posters.
While voter turnout in the United States since 1994 has been close to 70%, in Lithuania less than 50% of the population cast their ballot in the last two parliamentary elections. Since the U.S. is so determined to spread democracy throughout the world, I felt it was my duty to set a good example by taking the time to vote. After discussing the various parties with several well-informed friends over the weekend, I got up on the appointed dark and dreary Sunday and headed to my local polling place.
In 2004, having just arrived in Lithuania, I was excited about the prospect of voting and asked a friend of mine to go with me and help me register and complete my ballot. Unfortunately, in the last four years, I moved and did not register my new address, a mistake that led to a wild goose chase around the city in search of my ballot.
The precincts had evidently been redrawn ahead of this election, so my first task was to find the correct polling place, which I managed to do on my second try. For whatever reason, though, I was not “on the list” under my old address. The pirmininkas (precinct captain) for my precinct was very helpful and directed me to the apygarda (election district office) where they would make a decision if I could vote or not.
Several minutes later, and already an hour after I had left my apartment, I arrived at the apygarda where I handed over my passport and several more calls were made. It was determined that I would be able to vote as an addition to the savivaldybė (city administration) list. I was very pleased to receive my voter’s registration number; that is until they informed me that I would have to go to yet another voting place, some distance from the Old Town.
Tired, hungry, and a little bit frustrated, I left the office ready to give up on voting and go out for lunch. But I reasoned that I had already come that far, and enough people had gone out of their way to help me that I had to press on. At this point, voting had become more of a Mission Impossible than an act of democratic participation. Refueled after a quick stop for a bandelė (sweet roll) and coffee, I got on a bus and headed across the river.
Eventually, I found the Polish high school where I was to cast my vote. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one not “on the list” because the line just to pick up a ballot was out the door, and moving slowly. To pass the time, I studied the pictures of the various candidates that lined the wall. Near the entrance, voters were offered a thin newspaper describing the programs of each party. I felt daunted by the sheer number of parties available, many of which had noble and patriotic sounding names.
There was the Tevynės Sąjunga (Homeland Union), Lietuvos valstiečių liaudininkų sąjunga (Union of Lithuanian Peasants and Peoples), Tvarka ir teisingumas (Order and Justice), Tautos prisikėlimo partija (Rising Nation Party), and of course, Lietuvos lenkų rinkimų akcija (Lithuanian-Polish Electoral Action). There was also an independent candidate on the last page who, with a shaved head, big nose, and dark t-shirt, looked suspiciously out of place among the others. I didn’t find his name in the election results.
Forty-five minutes later, I received my ballot and got in line for one of the three voting boxes. I had three documents to fill out. The first listed one candidate from each party, those who were running for office in my district. The second document listed all the parties, and at the bottom, there were five empty boxes. We had to first choose a party, then choose from the list of candidates of that party the names we wanted to nominate as parliament members and write in the boxes their corresponding numbers from the list. Sound confusing? It is.
The third document was a referendum on the Ignalina power plant. We weren’t actually voting for anything; it was simply a survey of national opinion about whether we should keep it open beyond the 2009 decommissioning deadline, assuming it was in safe working condition. The entire voting process, once finally I got my turn in the voting box, took about 30 seconds.
Though I had spent most of my afternoon for this precious 30 seconds of the democratic process, I walked home feeling satisfied and proud; my sense of citizenship alive and well. My party didn’t win, but at least I had cast my vote.