Lessons from Vietnam: Elections that can’t be bought
People vote at a polling station in Hanoi, Vietnam, Sunday, May 23, 2021. Vietnamese citizens cast their ballots to elect 500 delegates for a five-year term in the National Assembly, Vietnam's legislative body. | Hau Dinh / AP

We Americans are used to the never-ending and increasingly costly cycle of U.S. electoral campaigns. Theoretically, elections are supposed to happen once every two to six years depending on the office and, one would think, campaigns for those elections would coincide with the election schedule. The reality is quite different. The 2020 election is barely past, and already the media and political commentators are hyping 2022 and 2024.

Campaigns in the U.S. begin months or even years ahead of the election as candidates start raising money. While maintaining the name, the Republican and Democratic Parties no longer bear much resemblance to traditional political parties as most of the world understands them. Rather they’ve mutated into vast fundraising and fund-distribution machines. When combined with super-PACs, millionaire and billionaire donors, lobbyists, corporations, and a corporate media monster with an unquenching hunger for ratings and profits, the citizens of the U.S. are left with the longest and most expensive campaigns on the planet.

Of course, one might think that these billions of dollars and long campaigns were an investment in (and would lead to) an active electorate. Anyone thinking that will be very disappointed. From the late 1970s to today, most presidential elections saw a 55% voter turnout or less. In midterm elections (those elections that don’t coincide with a presidential election), turnout is even lower. In 2018, it was less than 50% and in 2014 less than 40%.

As an American living in Vietnam, I recently witnessed another electoral system. On May 23, the Vietnamese people voted for both their National Assembly and local representatives. These elections saw an estimated 95% voter turnout. While the Vietnamese system of government and the U.S. system of government are extremely different, I believe there are some lessons Americans might learn from the Vietnamese election campaigns.

Most significantly, in Vietnam, money is removed from the system. There are no super-PACs, no big doners, and no flashy ad campaigns. Second, the length of the election campaign is limited to the weeks just before the election date. After all, since there is no need to raise money, there is no need for a lengthy campaign. In Vietnam, there are ads on television or social media and no campaign rallies. Furthermore, candidates don’t meet with CEOs and billionaire donors to solicit donations or sell influence.

Without the media blitz, how do Vietnamese voters get their information? Historically, in the weeks before the election, there are signs hung up in every constituency with the names, resumés, and past accomplishments of the candidates running locally. The documents further include what that candidate would like to do for their constituency if elected. All a voter has to do is go to the sign in their neighborhood. All the relevant information is at their disposal. Thanks to modern technology, the most recent election was even easier. The government created an official website for the election where voters could look up information about the candidates in their area using only their own address. It’s important to highlight that both the community signs and website are publicly funded, and all candidates get equal treatment.

The Vietnamese system ensures that all candidates have equal contact with the voters. This also means that anyone, no matter how rich or poor, has the same opportunity to run for office, and big companies and the mega-wealthy don’t receive extra influence over candidates via donations. In Vietnam, there are no campaigns to donate to.

As previously mentioned, the U.S. and Vietnamese governmental systems are very different. Of course, a one-to-one copy of the Vietnamese arrangement can’t be used in the U.S. However, I believe that we can adapt some of the positive attributes of the Vietnamese system for use in the U.S.

The most important, but perhaps the most difficult to implement, is the removal of money from elections. This has been one of the biggest problems in American elections for decades. It has only gotten worse since the Supreme Court’s horrendous ruling in Citizens United. The wealthiest 1% have significantly more influence over elections, which is inherently undemocratic.

Another aspect is public funding for publicity costs, equally distributed among all candidates. Why should candidates from the two big parties automatically get more access to voters than candidates from other parties or independent candidates?

Easy access to information about candidates is important as well. Why should it be up to the voter to hunt down the information on every person running from office—from school board to city council to state legislature to Congress and everything in between? There should be one place where every voter can go to find out all relevant information about all candidates.

Finally, shorter election campaigns would certainly be beneficial. No candidate needs months or years to explain their past accomplishments to voters or paint their vision for the future. We don’t need months of smear and fear-mongering. A shorter election campaign would also cut down on the costs, thereby helping remove some of the financial influence on candidates. Plus, the media empires wouldn’t stand to collect billions of dollars from endless campaign ads.

The democratic process shouldn’t be unnecessarily complicated and definitely shouldn’t be for sale. The current system in the United States is broken and owned by the top 1%. American voters deserve better. Luckily, if we look around the world, there are lessons to be learned if we are willing to learn them.

Amiad Horowitz writes from Hanoi, Vietnam.

As with all op-eds published by People’s World, this article reflects the opinions of its author.


Amiad Horowitz
Amiad Horowitz

Amiad Horowitz studied at the Academy of Journalism and Communications at the Ho Chi Minh National Academy of Politics with a specific focus on Vietnam and Ho Chi Minh. He lives in Hanoi, Vietnam. His articles have appeared in National Herald India, People's World, TRANSCEND Media Service, The Hitavada (India), Northlines, and The Arabian Post.