Contemplating Democracy After Oregon’s Primary Election Day, May 21, 2024

— By Tim Gardner

Tim Gardner at home in Eugene, Oregon, May 2024

Here in Oregon nearly everyone votes by mail. We’ve been doing so for a couple of decades. Nope, it’s never been an issue with fraudulently cast ballots. Like in any other state that is primarily driven by voting at the polls, cheating is so negligible it doesn’t even register.

Yesterday was Election Day and although I had my ballot completed a week or so back, I never got it to the drop box at the library. I was under a deadline to get it there so of course, I did. 

It’s come back to spring-like temps here. Rhododendron are still plentiful and splendiferous and the early roses are coming on to make the overlap. Bearded iris are being boisterous and the peonies are about to start popping. It’s pretty nice here right now. The day was pleasant and sunny with blue skies, at least in the morning.

Tim fulfills his civic duty and casts his ballot

I parked my car at the little neighborhood shopping center here in Sheldon, Eugene, close to the grocery for ease of departure, and I walked on down to the library at the other end of the center to drop my ballot. All libraries and many state facilities have giant ballot drop boxes, sorta like mail boxes, securely and permanently bolted into the sidewalk. As I walked on down, proudly carrying my ballot, along with my recycled grocery sacks folded under my arm, I noticed another person walking through the parking lot, also carrying her ballot. And then I spied another. And someone just left the drop box. And here is someone else driving up to put theirs into the drive-up slot. And sure enough, two or three other people appeared from cars and shops to drop their ballots.

I slipped mine into the slot and turned to smile at the woman who was coming up right behind me, her ballot in hand. And as I walked back toward the grocery something caught in my throat, I got all misty and started to tear up. A memory had suddenly come to my mind. 

Tim Gardner in Bhutan, March 2008

Sixteen years ago now, I was in Bhutan when they were holding one of their first democratic elections. The king had decided that the country should no longer be a Buddhist monarchy and that Bhutan’s future was going to be a democratic one. Their very first ‘election’, in April of 2007, was actually just a mock election consisting of four faux parties, each a different color, with high school students having been selected as mock candidates. It was all a practice for what would come over the following months and years as they established a brand-new system of federal and local governance. When I was there in late March of 2008, they held their first general election that would establish the National Assembly, the lower house of Parliament. It was an historic time!

Early morning mists as we prepare to pack up our campsite and return to civilization after several days of trekking

We were out in the countryside, having just come off a short camping trip in the lower Himalayas. It was early morning, the sky was huge, and we were being driven to our next destination when we started to notice lines of people in their traditional garb, the Gho for men and the Kira for women, walking along the road, and on the trails over the hills, and through beast-made paths in the fields.

Villagers making their way to a polling station across the fields
A family traveling by motorized wagon
Converging from far and wide to participate in democracy

There were no crowds, but as we traveled over an hour we saw hundreds of people, grouped in small lines, walking together in one direction. It finally dawned on someone in our group that it was Election Day, the first general election in Bhutan, and all these people were heading to the polls!! Crossing hill and dale, meadow and mountain, to do so.

A sign points the way to the nearest polling place

Before long we came to where a large group of Bhutanese had gathered at a small way-station and we stopped to talk. Our leader went with the guide to chat with folks while the rest of us just sat in the van, or stood back … in awe. People, climbing the hills, walking through yak pastures, sometimes both and some for many, many miles, had come to this lone building in what seemed the middle of nowhere to cast their ballot.

Dressed in their finest national attire for this important first vote in the country
The line begins to grow at the small polling station

It was without doubt one of the most wonderful moments in my life. I felt most proud and held the deepest respect for democracy. But it’s hard to explain exactly how I felt. This remarkable scene was humbling and thrilling all at the same time, to see democracy playing out, here, in the remote mountains of the Tibetan plateau (or there bouts). And the people, who loved their king, putting out so much effort to accomplish this amazing thing called democracy that had been offered to them. I got all choked up then, just like I did yesterday morning at the drop box. I have never forgotten that experience or what it meant, or how it felt.

Preparing to go through a security screening gate
History in the making
Pure joy in a land known for taking pride in Gross National Happiness

And now. Now, the day after, I find it heartbreaking to see where my own country has gone. This country that inspired so many others like Bhutan. This country where we now have fake electors, insurrectionists and strongmen. A former president on trial and indicted…. I can’t even recall the number of charges. A Supreme Court justice flying the flag that represents those who stormed the capital. What has happened here that citizens want to give up this gift of democracy that our forebears all fought so hard for? We don’t even need to climb mountains or step around yak dung. Much of the time we don’t even need to get off the sofa but to slip our ballots into our mailboxes. Bhutan’s first election had a turnout of just over 80% of eligible voters, at a time when less than 5% of the population owned a vehicle. They walked to their first opportunity to select the people that would run their newly-found government. 

November 2024 is approaching – are you ready?

Today my feelings are much closer to heartbreak than they are to pride and awe. Today I am very, very sad for my country and my fellow citizens of the United States, on the verge of losing our most precious gift. Let’s be like the Bhutanese, revel in our precious democracy, and flock to our polling places in greater numbers than ever before next November!

A side note of thanks to Dan Ware and Toto Tours for having set up for me one of the most awesome experiences of my life. And thanks to all the rest of you for taking the time to read my tale. 

–Tim Gardner, May 22, 2024

Proudly displaying the ink-marked finger as proof of having voted

Postscript from Dan Ware at Toto Tours

Thank you for bringing back such vivid memories, Tim. This was Toto’s very first tour to Bhutan, and these events left as indelible an impression on our hearts as the ink that was used to mark the index finger of each person who voted. I’m thrilled to be offering a new adventure in Bhutan this coming November (after our own national elections here in the USA). It will be exciting to see how Bhutan has progressed in the sixteen years since this first national election. With high hopes for the future of democracy everywhere… Love, Dan

How far are you willing to go to protect democracy?

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