Blog | Expert Q&A: Considering U.S. Elections in the Context of International Election Standards

A Q&A with Dr. David Carroll, interim director of the Democracy Program, and Dr. Jennifer McCoy, director of the Americas Program.

Dr. Carroll and Dr. McCoy direct the Carter Center’s efforts to advance democracy worldwide through international election observation, strengthening the role of civil society in government policy-making, promoting rule of law, and fostering transparency and government accountability. They have managed and conducted dozens of election observations in the past 15 years. The Democracy Program is currently taking the lead with the U.N. Electoral Assistance Division and the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, to draft principles and a code of conduct for election observation worldwide, with input from all major election observation organizations.

The Carter Center has observed more than 50 elections around the world, yet does not observe U.S. elections. Why not?

Dr. Carroll: The Carter Center’s mission is focused abroad. We organize formal election observation missions outside the United States when welcomed by all the major parties in an election. Although the Center is a nonpartisan organization, President Carter’s affiliation with the Democratic Party could be perceived as detracting from our ability to be impartial in the United States.

Our only direct involvement in the 2004 U.S. elections will be to host a group of Chinese election officials (Chinese Officials Observe U.S. Campaigns, Elections) to observe voting in Georgia and Tennessee on Nov. 2. Similar exchanges also took place in 1998, 2000, and 2002, as part of our China Village Elections Project, which assists the Chinese Ministry of Civil Affairs in standardizing elections in villages, counties, and townships throughout China. In addition, the Center hosted a Mexican delegation to observe the 1992 elections.

Are any organizations observing the U.S. elections?

Dr. Carroll: Yes, there are numerous organizations working on election-related issues in the United States and several groups that plan to monitor them. One domestic group is Vote Watch, a citizen’s organization in California. International observers will come through the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which is sending observers to states that are expected to be closely contested, and Global Exchange, a nongovernmental organization based in California, which is organizing an international team of civil society leaders and democracy activists.

The United States is the pre-eminent democracy in the world, yet people are criticizing our system. Do you think these criticisms are justified?

Dr. McCoy: We have worked hard over the past decade to help develop international standards for free and fair elections. We’re not saying, ‘Do everything as we do in the United States.’ There are shortcomings in our own system, including our campaign finance structure and the prevalence of expensive media advertising. In other countries, the problem may be government control of the media that limits access to television or radio by opposition candidates. We are saying, ‘Let’s all do our best to live up to international standards and learn from all of our experiences.’ The 2000 presidential election demonstrated every democracy can be improved and that we need to look closely at electoral technology, and at rules and institutions in the United States, just as we do in other countries.

Would you discuss U.S. voting procedures in light of emerging international standards?

Dr. Carroll: According to international standards, the management and administration of elections should be impartial and transparent. Most countries with strong democratic institutions have an independent national election authority that administers elections nationwide with uniform processes and standards. In the United States, elections are administered at the state and local level, often under the direction of partisan officials, and with varying practices, procedures, and machinery.

The United States should adopt uniform voting procedures within states and perhaps nationwide, and antiquated voting machinery should be replaced with more reliable technology in all communities, rich or poor. In addition, simulations of voting systems would test reliability and accuracy before elections and build confidence in new technology.

There also needs to be a way to let voters know whether they have followed proper procedure and a way that they can immediately correct mistakes. Having a paper record of the vote or a paper receipt for the voter is a way to build confidence in the system. There is also a clear need to create an information-sharing system among counties and among states to cross-check voter registration to eliminate duplications, deceased registrants, and other errors.

What about voting dispute resolution in the United States?

Dr. Carroll: State laws and regulations should be in place before an election to dictate the conditions under which recounts and revotes would occur and how to conduct them, setting specific standards for valid votes. The need for bi-partisan commissions in each state for adjudicating disputes is also very clear. Partisan campaign activities by public officials with possible election supervisory responsibilities should be barred.

Beyond the process of voting and counting the votes, what steps could we take to improve our electoral system in the United States?

Dr. McCoy: Campaign finance is a big issue. In March 2003, in collaboration with the OAS, The Carter Center hosted the conference Financing Democracy in the Americas: Political Parties, Campaigns, and Elections, which concluded that better access to media advertising and public financing, increased disclosure of contributions, and caps on expenditures are needed to provide more equitable and transparent electoral politics.

In the United States, there is a disproportionate influence of money in determining who can afford the cost of running for public office. In 2002, Congress made an effort to reduce this influence.  The McCain-Feingold bill prohibited national parties from using “soft money,” (unlimited and mostly unregulated funds) while doubling the cap for individual “hard-money” contributions to candidates. But the law still allows state parties to raise funds from individuals otherwise prohibited from donating to federal election campaigns and in amounts exceeding federal limits.  The law also allows other organizations (tax-exempt 527 organizations) to sponsor “issue ads” — political advertising by groups other than political parties.

The irony of these attempts to regulate campaign finance has been that in the 2004 race, candidates have raised more money than ever, the spending by all candidates combined has broken records, and the presidential candidates decided to go outside the public finance program in order to avoid limits on their spending.

Dr. Carroll: There also could be federal matching funds for Congressional candidates’ campaigns, as currently exist only for presidential campaigns. And, access to media, which is a big issue around the world, is also a key issue here. Reasonable amounts of free media airtime could be available to candidates, matched by limits on political advertising. We could finance this with reimbursement from public funds or tax deductions for donated time.

Have we made any progress in addressing questions about the U.S. electoral process raised by the 2000 election?

Dr. Carroll: Former U.S. Presidents Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford led the National Commission on Federal Election Reform, organized by the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia and The Century Foundation. That commission carefully studied the electoral process and made extensive recommendations for reform, which were instrumental in the development and passage of the Help America Vote Act in 2002. Unfortunately, many of the act’s key provisions have not been implemented because of inadequate funding or political disputes

Does the Electoral College make the U.S. less democratic?

Dr. McCoy: The Electoral College technically makes the U.S. presidential election an indirect election, in which voters actually elect “electors” who then choose the president. This was an historical compromise to give small states more equitable participation in the choosing of the president and to accommodate the fact that communications in the 18th century did not allow voters around the country to easily learn about candidates from other regions. Now, of course, mass media makes that concern moot.

In 2000, the total popular vote favored a candidate different than the electoral college vote, leading many to conclude that the electoral college should be reformed. There are two options to provide for a more direct citizen vote for president: a) abolish the Electoral College and move to a direct, popular vote, or b) within the Electoral College system, individual states could change from “winner-take-all” rules to a proportional representation system to allow their electors to represent the proportion of votes won by each candidate.

The Carter Center has observed more than 62 elections in 25 countries on four continents.

Click here to access list of elections monitored by the Center.

Read President Carter’s Sept. 27, 2004, Washington Post Op-Ed: Still Seeking a Fair Florida Vote

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