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Carter Center Slideshow: The Carter Center at 30: Pioneer of Election Observation


During 2012, The Carter Center celebrates three decades of waging peace, fighting disease, and building hope. This is the first in a series of anniversary features highlighting the Center's global impact since its founding.

The Carter Center has pioneered the field of election observation, monitoring 89 elections in Africa, Latin America, and Asia since 1989 to help countries in political transition fulfill democratic aspirations.

  • Since 1989, The Carter Center has observed 89 elections in 36 countries. Above, a voter casts his ballot in the 2006 Nicaragua elections. (Photo: D. Evans/The Carter Center)

  • The 1989 Panama presidential, legislative, and municipal elections—the first observation mission of The Carter Center, under the aegis of its Council of Freely Elected Heads of Government—were declared fraudulent by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter. (Photo: The Carter Center)

  • Former First Lady Rosalynn Carter greets people waiting to vote in Sidi Bou Said, Tunisia, along with her translator Nedia Haddad. The Carter Center has been a pioneer of the field of election observation, monitoring national elections to help deter fraud and reassure voters their votes would count. (Photo: D. Hakes/The Carter Center)

  • Observers begin their work long before election day, analyzing election laws, assessing voter education and registration, and evaluating fairness in campaigns. Above, Carter Center long-term observer Curtis Palmer witnesses the arrival of electoral kits to the province of Kasai Occidental for the Democratic Republic of the Congo's 2011 elections. (Photo: L. Curtis/The Carter Center)

  • Carter Center Democracy Program Director David Carroll (left) monitors voting at a polling station during the 1997 Liberia elections. On election day, observers are dispatched with systematic survey forms to urban and rural areas to witness preparations at poll openings, voting, and vote counting to try to determine whether the vote was secret and fair at the sites they visited. (Photo: The Carter Center)

  • Observation of the presidential election in Sudan in 2010 was the Center's largest monitoring effort geographically. The next year, The Carter Center observed the historic referendum leading to the creation of the independent Republic of South Sudan. (Photo: D. Hakes/The Carter Center)

  • Voters wait patiently, sometimes for hours or even overnight, to cast their ballots—many for the first time in their lives. Carter Center observers were present at this polling station in Juba, Sudan, where citizens voted in the referendum on self-determination leading to the creation of a new country: The Republic of South Sudan. (Photo: D. Hakes/The Carter Center)

  • One of the most important democratic experiments of the last 25 years has been the movement in 600,000 small villages across China toward open elections for local officials. Since 1997, at the invitation of the Chinese government, The Carter Center has helped standardize the vast array of village election procedures. (Photo: S. Maxwell/The Carter Center)

  • While the Carter Center's election mission focus is outside the United States, it observed the elections in 1999 and 2011 of the Cherokee Nation—which has its capital in Talequah, Okla. During U.S. presidential and legislative elections, the Center has hosted observers from China and Mexico. (Photo: A. Davis-Roberts/The Carter Center)

  • On election day, observers are dispatched with systematic survey forms to urban and rural areas to witness preparations at poll openings, voting, and vote counting to try to determine whether the vote was secret and fair at the sites they visited. Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, former First Lady Rosalynn Carter, and Democracy Program Associate Director David Pottie (right) prepare to observe Nepal's 2007 elections. (Photo: D. Hakes/The Carter Center)

  • In addition to talking with polling site officials and party witnesses on election day, observers talk with citizens and note any complaints. Above, a Carter Center observer meets with election officials during the 2009 Bolivia elections. (Photo: D. Hakes/The Carter Center)

  • The Carter Center was present in Indonesia in 1999 to observe the nation's first democratic elections, and the Center continued its commitment to help Indonesia grow and deepen its democratic practices by observing the first direct presidential elections—the largest single-day election in the world—in July 2004. (Photo: The Carter Center)

  • The Carter Center's Council of Freely Elected Heads of Government observed Haiti's first free and fair democratic national elections, at the invitation of then President Ertha Pascal-Trouillot and opposition leaders. Carter Center observation missions are undertaken only upon the invitation or consent of all major parties to an election. (Photo: The Carter Center)

  • The Carter Center's methodology for observing electronic voting, one of the latest challenges to election observation, was refined during three limited observation missions to the 2006 Venezuelan elections, the 2008 U.S. elections, and the 2010 Philippine elections. Above, posters in the Philippine election commission's media center provide basic information on the elections and the new technology. (Photo: The Carter Center)

  • The Carter Center has observed elections in countries undergoing difficult democratic transitions, such as in Indonesia, Guinea, Tunisia, and Egypt. On election day, credible and impartial observers can strengthen an electoral process by reassur¬ing voters they can safely and secretly cast their ballots and electoral fraud will be detected. (Photo: D. Hakes/The Carter Center)

"The growing global movement toward democracy brought with it a demand for the presence of independent election observers. Over time, the Center has received more and more invitations to assist as nations take steps toward holding genuinely democratic elections" said Democracy Program Director David Carroll. "With more than two decades of election observation missions, the Center has developed a solid record of expertise and impartiality. The assessments of Carter Center observers play an increasingly important role in shaping public perceptions about the quality of elections."

Some election missions have been integral parts of still-fragile peace accords, as in Nicaragua, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Cote d' Ivoire, Liberia, Nepal, and Sudan. Others have taken place in countries undergoing difficult democratic transitions, such as in Panama, Haiti, Indonesia, Guinea, Tunisia, and Egypt. And in East Timor and Sudan, observers even witnessed the birth of new states.

In nations where democratic institutions are generally weak, incumbent governments enjoy organizational advantages, and political space for new parties to develop may be lacking. That is why many election missions now are much longer than in the early years of observation, beginning many months before voting and counting, and often continuing after an election to monitor the resolution of election disputes. Today, The Carter Center sometimes even maintains a monitoring presence in aspiring democracies long after elections as newly elected officials draft a constitution and develop public institutions to ensure transparency and citizen participation in governance.

"Strengthening democracy and peace building do not come easily or quickly. They involve much more than what happens on election day, and the length and breadth of our election observation activity at the Center has grown to reflect that," Carroll said.

As election observation groups proliferated over the last 20 years, the Center also has been a leader in harmonizing their approaches. With the United Nations and the National Democratic Institute, The Carter Center in 2005 drafted principles to help guide the field practice of election observation, which have been endorsed by 37 major election monitoring organizations. Now, the Center is working with a number of organizations to build further consensus on the criteria and standards used by observers to assess elections.

30th anniversary election

The Carter Center must be invited by a country's election authorities and welcomed by the major political parties to ensure it can play a meaningful, nonpartisan role.

Since 1989, The Carter Center has observed 89 elections in 36 countries.

Observation missions are conducted in accordance with the Declaration of Principles for International Election Observation.

The Center, with its partners, developed a framework for observing electoral processes using e-voting technologies.

In August 2010, The Carter Center launched the Database of Obligations for Democratic Elections, the first of its kind to consolidate more than 150 sources of international law related to human rights and elections that can be used by international and domestic election observers to assess elections.

Carter Center Democracy Program

Observing Elections: Fact Sheet (PDF)

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