Blog | Observing U.S. Elections: Q&A with Democracy Program Experts David Carroll & Avery Davis-Roberts


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.

Avery Davis-Roberts is an associate director in the Democracy Program and the head of the Center’s U.S. elections project.

 In advance of the U.S. presidential election of 2016, which will take place on Nov. 8, Davis-Roberts and Carroll answered questions on election observation in the United States.

Q: The Carter Center has conducted more than 100 international observation missions. Why doesn’t it observe U.S. elections?

The Carter Center’s mission is primarily international in focus. We work mostly in countries undergoing democratic transitions, and only where we’ve been invited by the government and welcomed by key political parties.

It is important, too, that election observers be seen as not favoring any party. We are a nonpartisan organization, recognized for our unbiased international observation missions. But our founder, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, is still personally active in the Democratic Party. As such, some people within the United States would find it difficult to view the Center as nonpartisan.

David Carrol, director of Carter Center Democracy Program, in Myanmar with election observers.

David Carrol (center), director of the Carter Center Democracy Program, meets with election observers during the November 2015 general elections in Myanmar. On election day, more than 60 Carter Center observers visited 245 polling stations across the country.

Q: So then what is your U.S. elections project about?

There are many other organizations that are already actively working on U.S. elections. But observers here face a logistical challenge because of the country’s decentralized election administration system. Rules vary widely across states. And elections actually are administered at the county level — making for more than 10,000 separate jurisdictions — so understanding the various regulations is quite complicated.

The Center decided that we should use our knowledge and experience to fill in key information gaps related to observing U.S. elections. That’s why we partnered with the National Conference of State Legislatures to research regulations for election observers in every state.

The research is now available here, where it can help other observers plan missions and where legislators and voters can see what rules govern their state and think about whether they need amending.

Q: What did your research find?

Some states provide access to just about anyone; others allow access for certain types of observers but not others; some states prohibit observation entirely; several states do not specify any rules for observers.

In general, state laws are friendlier to partisan poll watchers, who observe with the goal of protecting the interests of their party, candidate, or ballot issue. Almost every state has laws that permit partisan observation, while only nine have laws that explicitly permit nonpartisan observation. That doesn’t mean other states don’t allow it— many do. It just makes getting access more complicated.

Q: How does nonpartisan election observation strengthen U.S. democracy?

Elections are just one small part of a country’s democratic processes, and the presence of election observers does not guarantee a good election.

But nonpartisan election observation can provide the American people with objective, fact-based information about their electoral processes. Election authorities and the public can use reports from credible observer groups to help them understand just how efficient, inclusive, transparent, and democratic elections were. And they can use recommendations from those reports to improve the integrity of future elections.

Q: Do partisan poll watchers have value?

Yes. The presence of both partisan and nonpartisan citizen observers can help build confidence in elections. However, there is a risk that some extreme partisan observers, especially if not well-trained to follow appropriate conduct in the polling place, could illegally interfere or intimidate voters.

Q: Are any nonpartisan organizations observing November’s election?

Yes. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), an international nonpartisan organization, has observed six U.S. elections and will do so again in November. In addition, the Organization of American States (OAS) plans to observe U.S. elections for the first time this year.

Many citizen groups also will observe. Nonpartisan citizen organizations usually conduct election observation in the states where they are based, although some observe in multiple states. For example, there’s the Center for the Study of Voting, Elections, and Democracy at the University of New Mexico (C-SVED); Citizens for Election Integrity Minnesota (CEIMN); Nebraskans for Civic Reform; and Connecticut Citizen Election Audit, Election Protection, and Verified Voting. The League of Women Voters also deploys observers through its various chapters around the country.

Q: Who sets international standards for elections, and how does the U.S. do in terms of meeting these standards?

International election standards are based on public international law – that is international treaties, political commitments, and legal decisions of international courts and judicial bodies.

The U.S. is one of only a few countries not to have ratified several important treaties, but it has ratified others. In addition, as a member of the international community and a member state of the United Nations, the OAS, and the OSCE, our nation is obligated to abide by certain recognized principles and standards. These include the right to vote, respect for human rights, freedom from discrimination, and so on.

As in all countries, elections in the U.S. have both strengths and weaknesses. International observer missions and other analysts have identified some key shortfalls, including:

  • Voter registration: Voter registration in the U.S. is relatively low. States should maintain more inclusive voter registration lists that ensure participation by the broadest pool of eligible persons.
  • Voter identification: Some states have voter identification laws that make it difficult for certain segments of the population to obtain IDs, particularly the poor, minority populations, and marginalized groups.
  • Partisan election administration: Most election boards are run by partisan officials. International standards say election officials should be both independent and impartial.
  • Campaign finance: There is a very little regulation of campaign finance, including of so-called super-PACs that sponsor “issue ads.” This gives the wealthy tremendous influence over campaign spending, media and advertising.
  • Voting rights: While most states have laws that allow ex-felons to reclaim their voting rights, there are barriers that make it difficult or even impossible. This runs contrary to international standards.
  • Election districts: The creation of districts is done by state legislatures, often dominated by one political party, rather than by an independent and impartial committee or board. This often produces gerrymandered districts and electoral maps that maximize the prospects of the majority party.
  • Voting technology: Many states have antiquated voting machinery that needs to be replaced with more reliable technology. New voting systems should include reliability and accuracy testing before elections to build confidence in new technology.

Q: Can elections in the U.S. be “rigged” or stolen?

It’s not likely. Most experts working on U.S. elections agree that while there have been isolated instances of voter fraud, it is extremely rare, especially at the polls. When it does occur, researchers say, it is usually through absentee ballots.

Though we have seen some instances of election-related hacking this year, our decentralized system of election administration makes it very hard for hackers to manipulate elections. Voting and tabulation machines themselves operate offline in localities, and so can’t be accessed by hackers. There are also multiple checks on election integrity and election results, including paper receipts, post-election audits, and exit polls conducted by media and others.

Experts say the most likely threat from hackers would be to tamper with state voter lists or cause a temporary disruption of some processes that could introduce chaos on Election Day. Given that possibility, electoral authorities in the U.S. should make greater efforts to guard against hacking threats.

The Carter Center has observed 103 elections in 39 countries and has no plans to observe U.S. elections.

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