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Former President Carter Reflects Before Milestone Mission

Published by The Associated Press.

Dozens of trips to monitor elections abroad have left former President Jimmy Carter hopeful about the future of many countries adopting democracy but concerned about the election process in the U.S.
Carter spoke with The Associated Press on Thursday in Atlanta ahead of a May trip to Guyana that will mark the Carter Center's 100th mission and his own 39th observation trip. The program is a large part of what Carter once called his "second life" since forming the human rights organization in 1982 after leaving the White House.

The milestone represents "an opportunity to contribute to democracy and freedom," he said. "I don't think there's any doubt that the work that the Carter Center has done in monitoring elections has encouraged people to have more honest elections."

Carter, who turned 90 in October, said in the U.S. varying election procedures by state and county, the booming cost of running for federal office and permitted secrecy about donors wouldn't meet the Carter Center's standards. Money plays too important a role, he said.

"One of the requirements we have is that all the candidates who are qualified to run legally have a chance to run financially ... our elections are financed so highly by rich people that no one can hope to be a Democratic or a Republican nominee without being able to raise say $200 million or more from special interests who want to be rewarded once the candidate is in office," Carter said.

When the Carter Center conducted its first mission to Panama in 1989, all election observers faced skepticism from host countries that felt their sovereignty was being compromised, said Eric Bjornlund, president of Democracy International, a Maryland-based organization that promotes democracy and human rights.

"In the early days, there would have been resistance by semi-authoritarian or developing countries to observers," Bjornlund said. "President Carter's involvement was significant, making election observation a serious, professional field."

Observers from the Carter Center have been on the ground in 38 countries since that first trip. The observers have sometimes encountered violence: in Panama, Carter and others fled to an airport while rocks were being hurled at them after they denounced the 1989 election results.
The organization also has written or contributed to minimum guidelines for election observers, a step that field experts say is essential to global progress.

Carter said he still remains hopeful about democracy's future. He recounted stories of ruling parties confident of victory peacefully handing over power when votes did not come their way; election commission members who have resisted pressure to subvert voting procedures; and counseling losing candidates that political loss does not mean the end.

Carter said U.S. foreign and domestic policy sometimes cast a shadow on the Carter Center's work - for instance, the 2000 presidential contest resolved by the Supreme Court decision weeks after Election Day.

"People who had asked us previously to monitor an election said we don't want people from America to come in and tell us how to run our election because we think we have just as good a procedure as you do," Carter said. "But that time has passed now. And I think most people look upon the Carter Center and its reputation and the number of good results we've had as an organization to be trusted even though the United States system of elections may not be admirable."


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