Blog | Election Observation Then and Now: Q&A with Carter Center Expert David Carroll


David Carroll, director of the Carter Center’s Democracy Program, has been in the field for about 40 of the Center’s election observation missions and helped manage another 30 or so from headquarters in Atlanta.

On the eve of the Center’s 100th election mission, which will take place in Guyana on May 11, Carroll sat down to explain how election observation works and how the field has changed since 1989, when the Center began its election work.

Q: This is the Center’s 100th election mission. Was the Center the first to monitor elections?

No. After World War II, the United Nations observed a number of elections in newly independent colonies, and the Organization of American States conducted small missions starting in the 1960s. Nongovernmental organizations began monitoring elections in the mid-1980s, and the Center was one of the pioneers.

Q: Since then, has the world become more or less democratic?

There have been clear advances in democratization since the ’70s, with the number of strongly democratic countries — or countries transitioning toward democracy — consistently increasing until the last five or 10 years. There are many reasons for the recent slowdown: economic downturns, societal and environment changes, and the political success — at least for now — of authoritarian political models in countries such as Russia and China.


Fifty-seven Carter Center observers witnessed Ghana’s December 2008 presidential and parliamentary elections. Election observers recognized as impartial and credible play a key role in shaping perceptions about the quality and legitimacy of electoral processes. (Photo: The Carter Center/ D. Hakes)

Q: Did election observation play a role in the increasing democratization in those years?

Election observation plays a role, but it is just one part of a very big, complicated picture. Professional and thorough election observation provides an impartial snapshot of the quality of democratic processes and institutions at a critical moment in time. That can help spur action or bring attention to democratic shortfalls.

Q: What’s involved in the process of observing an election?

In many people’s minds, election observation is about sending a group of observers to polling stations on Election Day. That’s part of it, but only a small part. Months before that, the Center sends a core team of experts and long-term observers to analyze the electoral laws and the constitution, to observe voter registration and education, campaign rules and behavior. Very late in this long process we get to Election Day. Carter Center observers also stay on after the elections to report on the final tabulation and publication of results, and any electoral disputes and their resolution.

Q: How does the Center decide which elections to monitor?

We focus on countries that are going through critical transitions, with elections that are likely to be especially challenging, or that occur after a conflict or the end of a non-democratic regime. In those cases, the presence of a trusted international observer can help inspire confidence in the election outcome. Before launching a mission, we must be invited by election authorities and welcomed by the major political parties.

Q: Can you give an example of when the Carter Center’s presence at an election clearly made a difference?

In Palestine in 2005, President Carter and the Center played a pivotal role in facilitating an agreement that allowed Palestinians living in East Jerusalem, which is controlled by Israel, to vote in the city’s post offices. President Carter personally spoke with Israeli leaders to facilitate the arrangement, which helped to defuse tensions in East Jerusalem.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2011, the Center’s observers witnessed flawed and chaotic elections, and reported publicly that the election lacked credibility. This public report, coupled with the strong statements of citizen observer groups in the Congo, shaped perceptions about the quality of the elections and drew international attention to the situation.


Marie Danielle Luyoyo Pwenika, a Congolese woman from Kinshasa and international observer for The Carter Center, records her observations during the November 2014 presidential elections in Tunisia on a tablet using ELMO, software that enables faster collection, review, and analysis of election observation data. (Photo: The Carter Center/ G. Dubourthoumieu)

Q: What has The Carter Center contributed to the field of election observation?

The Center was a leader in developing the use of long-term observers, deploying teams many months before the election. In the early days, election observation focused mostly on Election Day, but we realized that wasn’t enough.

In addition, we worked for two years with the U.N. Election Assistance Division and the National Democratic Institute to draft and build consensus on the Declaration of Principles for International Election Observation, with an accompanying code of conduct. It places observation in the larger context of human rights and democracy and provides guidelines for professional election observation. It commits international observers to collaborating with other observers and citizen observer groups, and to respecting the authority of host governments. More than 40 organizations have now endorsed it.

The Center also developed innovative data-gathering software we call ELMO that makes it possible to gather information from polling sites in real time via electronic tablets. It saves a tremendous amount of time and effort and alerts us to potential problems more quickly. We’ve developed ELMO as an open-source tool and make it available to anyone who wants it.

Finally, as the field has developed, it became clear that we needed to build consensus on common standards for assessing elections. Although there is no single document that delineates international election standards, the Center has collected and catalogued nearly 200 sources documents in international human rights law in a database available to the public. We recently published a companion handbook (PDF) that goes along with the database.

Q: You’ve been at The Carter Center nearly 24 years. What was your first observation mission?

Coincidentally, my first mission was in Guyana in 1992. The ruling party had been in power for more than 20 years and was hoping to gain greater legitimacy by inviting international observers. The Carter Center’s mission played a major role in ensuring that the electoral process was open and transparent, and that despite deep tensions, the results were accepted by everyone, including the defeated incumbents.

Q: What have been some other memorable moments?

The 2005 elections in Liberia were especially memorable because they were critical to helping the country move beyond its troubled past of conflict and civil war. For the first time in 20 years, the Liberian people participated in a genuine and peaceful election process and could look forward to peace and development. In that election, and in many others I have witnessed, I was impressed by the conviction and hope of ordinary citizens, who, when given the chance, seize the opportunity to express their will.

Related Resources

Carter Center Celebrates 100 Elections »

Learn more about the Carter Center’s Democracy Program »

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