July 15, 2004
Vol. 23 No. 19

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    Mikva invited to observe Dominican Republic’s election

    By Peter Schuler
    News Office

    Abner Mikva, a Lecturer and Senior Director of the Mandel Legal Aid Clinic in the Law School, recently joined observers from all over the world to ensure that the elections in the Dominican Republic would fairly and accurately represent the voters’ decision as to who should lead the country for the next four years.

    “Election night was tumultuous,” Mikva said. “The voters were charged up and the horn blowing and music went on into the wee hours, but there was no violence.”

    Mikva, a distinguished public servant who has held leadership roles in all three branches of the federal government as a congressman, a federal judge and White House Counsel, added, “Chicago does not have a reputation as the citadel of electoral integrity, so I was flattered to receive an invitation to serve as an electoral observer to the Dominican Republic’s presidential election in May.

    “It turned out that there were over 8,000 observers,” Mikva said. “Some were appointed by the Organization of American States, others by the national election authority, and others, including several of us from Chicago, appointed by the various national political parties who had nominated presidential candidates.”

    Mikva is co-author of the political science textbook The American Congress: The First Branch, as well as law school textbooks on the legislative process. In addition to the Law School, from which he graduated in 1951, he also has taught law courses at numerous other universities.

    “Even before the election took place, I thought that the idea of international observers in large numbers was a neat idea,” Mikva said. “The Dominican Republic had a history of turbulent regime change without the benefit of an election. Indeed, the United States has sponsored at least one such regime change.”

    During the 20th century, various U.S. presidents had ordered military intervention in the Dominican Republic, and in 1965, the U.S. government invaded the country and supported the installation of Joaquin Balaguer as president.

    The Chicago election observers, including Mikva, arrived two days before the election held on Sunday, May 16, and were given briefings on the election process and their duties. “There were provisions for the observers to stay over several days after the election if any problems arose from the vote count,” Mikva explained.

    He noted that the presidential election, which is held every four years, is a national holiday. “I believe this policy spurs much greater turnout,” he said. “Seventy-two percent of eligible voters participated in this election.” There was a 51 percent turnout for the U.S. presidential election of 2000.

    “I was impressed by the enthusiasm of the voters, some standing in line from 4:30 a.m., waiting for the polls to open,” Mikva said. “My teammate, Sylvia Manning, chancellor of the University of Illinois at Chicago, and I found only minor problems in the numerous voting places that we visited, all arising from the absence of one of the election judges. By late afternoon, most of the vote had been cast, and there were none of the last-minute crowds that occur in most American precincts.”

    Mikva said the pre-election polls ended up right, with the challenger, Leonel Fernandez (of the P.L.D. party, which had coincidentally appointed the Chicago observers), winning more than 57 percent of the vote, while the incumbent president received less than 40 percent.

    “Fernandez is very charismatic and speaks excellent English,” Mikva said. “We had a lively discussion about judicial independence.”

    Mikva explained that the Dominican Republic was burdened with very serious economic problems compounded by an influx of refugees from Haiti, with which the country shares the island of Hispaniola.

    “Their infrastructure—roads, schools and much more—is in need of major repair. But they start off a new administration with great enthusiasm and high hopes. They sure know how to run a national election,” he concluded.