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Peru Can Give U.S. Lessons in How to Hold Elections

By Jimmy Carter

This Op-Ed appeared in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. DO NOT REPRINT WITHOUT PERMISSION. Copyright© The Carter Center.

As we in the United States consider ways to improve electoral procedures in the wake of last year's fiasco in Florida, we might do well to examine how other democracies conduct their elections in the 21st century.

We at the Carter Center have monitored nearly three dozen elections around the world, and we recently partnered with the National Democratic Institute to monitor presidential and parliamentary elections in Peru. The Peruvians, who had to overcome the embarrassment of a fraudulent electoral process in 2000, had evolved a system over the past five months that is admirable in many ways.

Peru's voter registration system, for example, is far superior to ours,which is seriously flawed and offers the opportunity for illegal voting. For historical reasons, our political leaders have resisted the concept of a national identification card or list of voters, with a uniform system of identification. Among other defects, this permits the names of dead people to remain on the rolls and in many states, any American who moves from one county to another can easily be registered and vote in both places.

In Peru, there is an official organization that maintains an accurate nationwide list of qualified voters. Those who die are automatically deleted, and registration is transferred when a person moves. A standard identification card, including a photograph and a digitized thumbprint, is issued when a person reaches voting age. Some of these requirements would not be acceptable to many Americans.

Elections are held on Sundays, and every citizen is required to vote.(There is a fine of $35 for those who fail to do so without good reason, and they cannot cash a check until the fine is paid.)

Expatriates are encouraged to register at the nearest Peruvian consulate in a foreign country, and they can vote there in person on the same day as people do back home. There are no absentee ballots, but the consuls send in the voter returns as soon as they are counted so they can be included in the announced tallies.

A civic organization called Transparencia now includes 21,000 well-trained volunteers, mostly young people, who are deployed throughout the nation to observe and monitor the election. They enjoy great confidence, and have substantial influence on the candidates. They help guarantee full compliance with rules and regulations, and their additional goals are to discourage negative campaigning and require more specific accounting for campaign contributions. In addition, they are assigned to a scientifically chosen sample of voting places to observe and report the actual results. On election night,this "quick count" is considered so accurate that it is equivalent to official returns.

In the final examination and tabulation of the ballots, there is an almost nonexistent error rate. Early reports in the April 8 election revealed that there were only two challenged or disputed ballots out of every 10,000 counted. Official returns from the individual voting places are delivered by hand to 57 counting centers, where they are entered on computers and then transmitted to central election headquarters in Lima. A small group of distinguished jurists,with constitutional authority, makes final decisions over the entire procedure and resolves any possible disputes.

As is well known, few of these constraints or guarantees exist in the United States. Our voters' lists have no guarantee of being either current or accurate. Instead of an authoritative and trusted governing body supervising a standard system, we have at least 50 separate state procedures and, it might be said, almost 4,000 independent county organizations. As we have seen in Florida and some other states, procedures and ballots vary from one precinct to another, and the expected error rate in some jurisdictions is as high as 3 percent of the total.

One other significant difference between our two countries is that almost all other democracies require that, in exchange for the use of free airwaves, television networks offer 10 free minutes a day to each politically viable presidential candidate, who can purchase additional advertising if desired. With one exception, American networks refused an appeal last year to contribute just five minutes a day for all candidates combined, and their gross overcharging for political commercials is one cause of such expensive elections.

Although America's historic commitment to democracy counteracts some of the obvious deficiencies in our electoral process, we could learn from the experiences of other countries such as Peru, Mexico and Brazil. As the greatest democracy on Earth, we must take every opportunity to ensure that our electoral process continues to keep pace with modern technology, while adhering to our historic democratic ideals.

Jimmy Carter was president of the United States from 1977-81.

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