Britain's other islanders petition the White House

The Chagossians’ campaign for justice gathers pace as a petition passes the 25,000 threshold.

This morning, the We the People petition to the White House asking for justice for the exiled Chagos Islanders has achieved more than the 25,000 signatures required to trigger a response from the Obama Administration.

The petition, launched on 5 March by SPEAK, a Port Louis-based human rights group, started slowly with about 100 people a day signing up. But a week ago, Le Mauricien, one of the main daily newspapers in Mauritius, decided to back the campaign by running a two-page spread featuring contributions from bestselling author and Patron of the UK Chagos Support Association, Philippa Gregory, former British High Commissioner to Mauritius, David Snoxell, and Oslo University’s  Thomas Hylland Eriksen among others.

Eriksen, one of the world’s leading social anthropologists, who has conducted extensive fieldwork in Mauritius over the last two decades, was characteristically forthright about the fate of the 1800 or so people, the descendants of African slaves and Indian indentured labourers, who were forcibly removed from their homeland by the British authorities between 1968 and 1973 to make way for the US base on Diego Garcia. He said:

The displaced Chagossians or Ilois have suffered enough. Economically and socially deprived in Mauritius since the day of their arrival - many were even deported against their knowledge, believing that they were only going on a visit - Chagossians have tirelessly, but so far unsuccessfully, campaigned for a return. Successive governments of Mauritius have also firmly demanded the return of the archipelago to Mauritius, which would enable repatriation.  It is time to act, and nobody who looks at the issue from a neutral perspective can be in doubt as to where justice lies.

Le Mauricien’s endorsement, together with an appeal made by Olivier Bancoult, the leader of the Chagos Group, and Mauritian foreign minister Dr Arvin Boolell, had an immediate effect. The number of signatories, mainly young people in Mauritius, took off. Unfortunately, even though the Indian Ocean island, renowned as a luxury holiday destination, is one of the most prosperous countries in sub-Saharan Africa, Internet penetration is still relatively low at around 25 per cent of the 1.3 million population. This means that only a fraction of poorer households, including the 600 or so surviving native-born Chagossians and their descendants, know how to or have been able to sign up.

Last Thursday, TV adventurer Ben Fogle, another patron of the UK Chagos Support Association, who secretly visited some of the outer islands in the Chagos Archipelago, while researching his book The Teatime Islands, penned an additional piece for Le Mauricien appealing for people to add their names to the petition providing an additional boost to the numbers. He wrote:

The story of the Chagossians at the hands of the UK government is one for which I am ashamed to be British. It is a story of deceit and tragedy that has been described by some as the darkest day in British overseas policy. It has transfixed me for over a decade and shaken my very principles on conservation and democracy. It is a story of deceit that has left thousands of ‘British refugees’ living in misery for the last 40 years, exiled from their island home by a conniving and unrepentant government.

On the same day, John Price, former US ambassador to Mauritius (2002 – 2005), appointed by President George W Bush, revealed on his blog that he had asked Washington on several occasions for financial and other help in order to enable the Chagos Islanders to integrate more fully into Mauritian society. His appeals were unsuccessful. The Berlin-born multi-millionaire businessman, whose Jewish family had fled Nazi Germany in 1933, also wanted his government to explore the feasibility of a return by the Chagossians to the Archipelago’s outer islands like Peros Banhos and Salomon, which lie more than 100 miles north of Diego Garcia. He said:

I understood the Chagossians’ plight, and the desire to go back to their ancestral home. They had never been fully integrated into the Mauritian culture; they had no roots there, and even after thirty years, most still lived in abject poverty. On several occasions on my way to or from the US Embassy in Port Louis, Mauritius, I had taken a circuitous route through the Cassis district at the foot of Signal Mountain, about a mile from the embassy where a Chagossian community was located. They live in crowded shacks made of rusted corrugated metal, with skinny chickens picking through the garbage. With high unemployment, poor health conditions, and limited education opportunities, little will change in the lives of these Chagossians. I could see why many believe their only option was to ultimately return to the Chagos Archipelago. At least it would feel like home, and eking out a living there would be better than struggling to exist in the rat-infested environment of Cassis.

It's not clear whether the former US ambassador has signed the We the People petition, but with some experience of the slum conditions in which the vast majority of the Chagos Islanders in Mauritius are obliged to make their lives as a direct consequence of US and UK foreign policy, he was certainly making a good case for others to do so. He and the Chagossians are now looking forward to the White House’s response.

Dr Sean Carey is Research Fellow in the School of Social Sciences, University of Roehampton

Chagos Islanders leave London's Houses of Parliament. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Clinton vs Trump: How does the electoral college work?

A brief history.

If you have even the vaguest awareness of US politics, you'll no doubt recall the role Florida played in the 2000 presidential election. The result in the state was so close that arguments about recounts and hanging chads went on for weeks, before the result was finally settled – and the next president decided – by the US Supreme Court.

The odd thing about Bush v Gore, though, is that nobody questioned which of the two had more votes: it was Al Gore, by more than half a million. (The number of contested votes in Florida was something like a tenth of that.) To put it another way, it was always clear that more Americans wanted Gore as president than Bush.

And yet, the outcome of the election ignored that entirely. It turned instead on who had won Florida. That, the Supreme Court decided, had been Gore's opponent: George W. Bush became the 43rd president of the United States, and the rest is history.

So why did a man who everybody agreed had come second become president? Why did the whole thing end up turning on the number of votes in a few counties of former swamp?

History and geography

The answer comes down to that weirdly undemocratic American invention, the electoral college. The founding fathers, you see, did not actually intend for the president to be chosen by the people.

Much of the constitution was the work of the over-achieving Virginian delegation to the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Their plan, written by James Madison, suggested that the president should be chosen by Congress.

That idea was rejected on the grounds that it would undermine the president's independence. Some delegates feared that allowing a bunch of men who spent all their time locked in a room together arguing pick the head of state would lead to “intrigue” (yes), and suggested the president should be chosen by popular vote instead.

So they settled on a compromise. Each state would pick “electors” – how they did so was their own business – and these would in turn pick the president. Senators and congressmen were specifically barred from becoming members of this electoral college; but an aspect of the original plan that survived was that the number of electors in each state would be equal to the number of representatives it had it Congress.

Some of the oddities in this system have been ironed out over time. By the mid 19th century most states were choosing electors by popular vote: the presidential election may be indirect, but it's an election nonetheless. After the 23rd Amendment passed in 1961, those who lived in Washington DC, previously disenfranchised because it isn't a state, were given the vote too (it gets three votes in the electoral college).

But others anomalies remain. Here are three:

1) A lack of proportion

One of the big issues in 1787 was persuading the original 13 states to agree to the new constitution at all. Many of the smaller ones (Delaware, New Hampshire) were nervous that, by joining the union, they would instantly be dominated by their much bigger neighbours (Virginia, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts).

To keep them on board, the Constitutional Convention agreed the “Great Compromise”. The size of the delegations each state sent to the House of Representatives would be roughly proportional to the size of its population; in the Senate, though, every state would get two senators, whether it had several million people, or three old blokes and a dog. In other words, the US constitution had to deliberately over-represent smaller states in Congress, just to persuade them to sign up to the thing in the first place.

All this still applies today – and because size of a state’s delegation to Congress determines the number of votes its gets in the electoral college, smaller states are over-represented in presidential elections, too. The result is that a vote in California is worth less than a third of a vote in Wyoming:

Image: Fzxboy/Wikimedia Commons.

2) A lack of faith

The people don't choose the president: the electoral college does, with electors generally voting based on the votes of the people in their state.

But the operative word there is “generally”: while most states have laws requiring electors to vote with the popular will, or rendering their vote void if they don't, some 21 states do not. So, occasionally, there are “faithless electors”, who don't vote the way their state wants them to. In the 57 presidential elections between 1788 and 2012, there have been 157 incidents of such faithlessness (although, to be fair, in 71 cases this was because the electorate's preferred candidate was dead).

This has never affected the outcome of an election: the closest was in 1836 when the Virginia delegation refused to vote for vice presidential candidate Richard Mentor Johnson on the grounds that he was having an affair with a slave. (Being massive racists, they were fine with the slavery and the abuse of power; it was the interracial sex they had a problem with.) But Martin Van Buren's election as president was never in doubt, and even Johnson was confirmed after a vote in the Senate.

Even in those states which don't have laws to punish faithless electors, becoming one is still often a bloody stupid thing to do, since it generally means betraying the party that made you an elector in the first place, an act which will almost certainly wreck your career. Nonetheless, it is constitutionally possible that, when the electoral college meets after November's election, some of its members will ignore the result entirely and propose, say, Kevin Spacey as the next president. And those are the votes that count.

3) A lack of interest

The biggest oddity of the system though is the fact of the electoral college at all. The voters don't pick the president: the electoral college does. The result is that presidential campaigns need to focus not on individual voters, but on states.

Most states allocate their electoral votes on a winner takes all basis. There are two exceptions to this: Nebraska and Maine both hand out one electoral vote to the winner in each congressional district, and two to the state-wide victor. This rarely makes any difference, since both states are small, and any candidate who carries the Maine 2nd is likely also to have carried the whole of Maine. Just occasionally, though, it does: in 2008 Obama narrowly carried the Nebraska 2nd (Omaha, basically), prompting grumpy local Republicans to redraw the boundaries to dilute the local Democratic vote and so ensure this wouldn't happen again.

In the vast majority of states, however, winning 50.1 per cent of the vote will be enough to get you 100 per cent of the electoral votes. In an election with more than two candidates, indeed, you don't even need to do that: a simple plurality will get you 100 per cent of the vote, too.

This, combined, with demographics, mean we already know how something like 363 of the 538 electoral votes on offer will go. Only around 13 states are considered competitive this year. In the other 37, plus the District of Columbia, we might as well already know the result.

The result is that, for the next few weeks, there will be endless reports about Florida, Virginia and Ohio. But you're not going to hear so much about how voters are feeling in California or Delaware or Arkansas or Texas. The first two will go for Clinton; the last two will go for Trump. The campaigns will ignore them; the voters may as well not show up. State-wide demographics mean the result is already clear.

In a true popular election, every vote would count equally. In the electoral college, they do not. The result, 16 years ago, was four weeks of legal wrangling over a few hundred votes in Florida. The result, this year, is that it’s entirely possible that Donald Trump will become president – even if Hillary Clinton gets more votes.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.