Americans may bemoan the current state of elections in the United States, rife with negative ads and nasty accusations. Anyone who ponders freedom, however, should see this in a more positive light. 

The fact that candidates may freely say nasty things about each other, and even about the president, without risking imprisonment, or worse, is a remarkable sign of freedom and liberty.

That’s not to say we endorse negative campaigning. Civility in all aspects of public life is a greater evidence of a healthy, respectful democracy. 

But there are so many examples around the world where dissent is not tolerated, where corruption goes unopposed, and where strange things happen to those who dare to stand up against ruling parties. It’s worth observing, pondering, appreciating and vowing to preserve constitutional freedoms, even if they preserve things that sometimes make people uncomfortable.

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Violence and vindictiveness in Russia

In Belarus this week, Maria Kolesnikova urged her supporters not to give up their protests against the nation’s longtime leader, Alexander Lukashenko. The remarkable thing about this is that Kolesnikova had to do this from behind bars. Masked men took her off a street in Minsk earlier this month and shoved her into a van. Through her attorney, she said she had been driven to the border and told she would be expelled from the country. Reuters reported that she then tore her passport to pieces, making expulsion impossible, an act that endeared her to her followers.

In China this week, Ren Zhiqiang was sentenced to 18 years in prison. The announced charges were that he embezzled public funds and accepted bribes, but his trial was held in secret. Details of his charges and his defense may never be known. The twist that makes this noteworthy is that Zhiqiang is an outspoken critic of Chinese President Xi Jinping and the ruling Communist Party.

In Venezuela, Juan Requesens was released from prison last month after serving two years on charges he had something to do with a drone attack on President Nicolas Maduro. He had been held at the Helicoide prison in Caracas, which Reuters reports is run by the Sebin intelligence agency. Opposition leaders considered him a political prisoner.

In Russia, Alexei Navalny is still struggling to recover from being poisoned by what German doctors said was Novichok, a nerve agent developed by the Soviet Union and believed to be several times more dangerous than sarin or VX. 

Navalny has been an outspoken critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin and alleged corruption in Russia’s state-owned corporations. The BBC reports he has been banned from running against Putin because he was convicted of embezzlement, a charge he refutes.

Viewed in this light, two things may be said about elections in the United States.

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The first is that the right to vote should not be taken casually. Despite the freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution, the United States is not immune from corruption. But the people hold ultimate power with their votes. Politicians may warn about voter fraud, but studies have shown U.S. elections, conducted independently by counties and boroughs coast-to-coast, are fair.

The second is that Americans need a greater appreciation for the Bill of Rights, and particularly the First Amendment. 

The Freedom Forum Institute in Washington conducts yearly polls to see how well people understand the five freedoms guaranteed by that amendment. Many Americans can’t name these, which are the freedoms of religion, speech and press, the right to peaceably assemble and the right to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

Negative campaigning notwithstanding, these are what keeps American from becoming something much worse.

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