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David Carroll: Director Finds Satisfaction in Helping Struggling Democracies

When Liberia's first female president won in 2005, her opponent charged that the election results were tainted. But Carter Center Democracy Program Director David Carroll knew otherwise.

"It was a model of a free and fair election," said Carroll, who has observed some 25 elections around the world during his 16 years at The Carter Center. "Now, for the first time in 25 years, Liberia is poised to change the course of its history because it has a new president elected fairly and within the framework of a broadly accepted peace accord. But it's also a country with many needs, and the road ahead will be hard."

Because Carroll and others from The Carter Center witnessed the election of President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Liberia received a much-needed boost at the beginning of that road. "Our presence helped give legitimacy to the new government and the democratic process in Liberia," said Carroll, noting that this is one of the many benefits young democracies receive by inviting The Carter Center to observe their elections.

The benefits flow both ways. For Carroll, his role as an election observer and director of the Democracy Program fulfills a lifelong dream "to be involved in making the world a better place. That may sound hokey," said Carroll, "but I found an unparalleled opportunity to do that here."

Carroll arrived at The Carter Center in 1991 as the assistant director of the Americas Program just two years after the Center began its pioneering work in monitoring elections. He'd recently completed his doctorate in international relations and Latin American studies and soon found himself on a small plane bound for the interior of Guyana. Carroll was to witness the country's first democratic election as it unfolded in a mining village.

"The Carter Center was just developing its reputation as a leader in this field," he said. "In some of our early missions-as in my first election experience in Guyana-we were still refining our approach. But we knew enough to spot potential fraud." When problems with the Guyana voters list surfaced, The Carter Center team gave the authorities a choice: Fix the list or we leave. The list was corrected, and the election went ahead- without any fraud.

"Our main jobs are reassuring voters that they can safely cast their ballots and detecting electoral fraud," said Carroll, who moved to the newly created Democracy Program in 1997, when The Carter Center created a program specifically dedicated to supporting fledgling democracies. "We've become better at it, but so have those who try to rig elections. We have to constantly improve our observation techniques."

And that has meant expanding the amount of work election observers do both before and after elections. Months beforehand, Carroll and his staff visit the country to learn in depth about everything from its election laws to voter registration methods and media outlets. Afterward, they watch the tabulation and reporting of results and formal resolution of disputes about the vote.

"True democracy involves more than holding one free election," said Carroll. "But watching a country successfully start down the road to true participatory democracy is an inspirational experience-and my biggest reward."

Learn more about the Carter Center's Democracy Program >>

"Watching a country successfully start down the road to democracy is an inspirational experience."

– David Carroll

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