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Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2004 07:37 am

Democracy decorated or plain

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Mila Dvoretskaya-Lemme went to the polls on Election Day and came away underwhelmed by the choices. Never mind the candidates; there were no crullers, no crumpets, no soda pop, and no lemonade.

Mila comes from Kazakhstan, where democracy is wrapped in a colorful ritual that includes flowers, music, kids, and bake sales. The festivities lure people to the polls. "It's one of the reasons to go vote," she says.

In her home city, Karaganda, schools serve as polling places. Music is broadcast from loud speakers to welcome people to the polls, and inside, everything is scrubbed clean and decorated with flowers. Cafeteria workers sell cookies baked especially for the occasion.

"It is a chance for the school to make money," Mila says.

Students work as greeters, carrying on a custom begun by the Pioneers -- an organization for Soviet youth modeled on Boy Scouts of America. Pioneers wore red ties, "like the Soviet flag," Mila says. "Now, they don't have this organization, but people like the tradition, so the kids just dress very nicely and greet everyone who comes into the school."

Of course, kids are kids, even in Kazakhstan. "They don't really care for greeting people," Mila says. "But some of them like to do it because it's a gorgeous atmosphere in the school, everything clean and nice, lots of flowers."

She was surprised to find so many polling places in Springfield -- about 150, as opposed to fewer than 20 to serve Karaganda's population of 800,000 -- and stunned to discover that most are in churches.

"For 70 years of Soviet Union, churches were separate from the state," she says. "If you go to church, you would never get a good career. So to have an election place in a church seems really incredible to me."

Mila wasn't eligible to vote last week. She has been in America only since the Fourth of July, when she arrived as the new bride of a Springfield man she first met via the Internet. She accompanied him to the polls to gather information for an article she was writing for the Karaganda weekly, Our Fair.

"I write about all the differences which I see. These articles are very much appreciated," she says.

Some of the differences are huge. For example, the notion that anyone could co-opt the cookies or the kids or the music blaring at the polling places to do some subtle last-minute campaigning is unfathomable in Kazakhstan, where all campaign items disappear days before the election. "People responsible for propaganda have to go any place where posters were and remove the posters," Mila says.

Pre-recorded phone messages aren't yet used in Kazakhstan campaigns, and Mila found herself frustrated by the constant calls. "There were many such calls. Maybe too many. It was an interruption. I had to get out from the basement and stop what I was doing," she says.

The one benefit was a temporary bump in Our Fair's circulation. "They increased the number of newspapers they printed, because they had a commercial that said, 'Our special reporter in America gets a call from Laura Bush!' " Mila laughs.

Voting takes place in little "cabins," or booths, just like here, only they still have curtained doors in Kazakhstan. Instead of punch cards or machines, the voter takes a pen and simply "lines out" the names of candidates he or she does not want elected.

But perhaps the most profound difference is in the way these ballots are counted. In America, the process is documented by news crews. In Kazakhstan, it's such a deep, dark secret that Mila found the television coverage showing American election judges examining ballots to be utterly fascinating.

"I was impressed to see all over the country there were cameras in the rooms! In Kazakhstan, there is still a lot of cheating," she says. "Many organizations offer to buy cameras" to monitor vote tabulation, "but nobody allowed it yet."

The votes are tallied over a period of a few days by a commission of a half-dozen people sitting in a closed room. "We had many situations where it was proven incorrect. Not only a belief; it was proven," Mila says. "So it is a big dream to have cameras."

Maybe that's the real American dream.

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