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Democracy Program

  • Baby in tow, a man in Tunisia's capital Tunis casts his ballot for parliamentary elections on Oct. 6, 2019. (Photo: The Carter Center/ K. Nasraoui)

Our Goal

The Democracy Program works globally to support democratic elections and strengthen participatory democracy, consistent with human rights. The overarching objective is to enhance democratic governance and increase effective political participation for all, especially groups that have been historically disadvantaged or that face political, cultural, or socioeconomic barriers. This includes women, racial and ethnic minorities, indigenous persons, persons with disabilities, youth, elderly people, and other marginalized groups.

Observing Elections

Impartial, credible election observers play a key role in shaping perceptions about the quality and legitimacy of electoral processes. The Carter Center has been a pioneer of election observation, monitoring more than 110 elections in Africa, Latin America, and Asia since 1989 and forging many of the techniques now common to the field. To ensure a meaningful, nonpartisan role for its election observation activities, The Carter Center must be invited by a country's election authorities and welcomed by the major political parties.

Election observation missions start long before election day, with experts and long-term observers analyzing election laws, assessing voter education and registration, evaluating fairness in campaigns, and monitoring the impact of social media. On election day, observers assess the casting and counting of ballots. In the days and weeks after the election, observers monitor the tabulation process, electoral dispute resolution, and the publication of final results. Before, during, and after an election, the Center's findings are reported through public statements.

Read more about our recent observation of elections in Tunisia, GuyanaCheyenne and Arapaho TribesNepalLiberiaKenya, and the Philippines.

  • In Georgetown, the capital of Guyana, a woman checks in at her polling station for the March 2, 2020, elections. (Photo: The Carter Center/ R. Borden)

Developing Guidelines for Election Observation

To support impartial, credible election observation, The Carter Center, in cooperation with the U.N. Electoral Assistance Division and the National Democratic Institute, played a major role in drafting the Declaration of Principles for International Observation, which established professional guidelines for election observation. The declaration has been endorsed by more than 50 organizations, which now meet annually to discuss key challenges.

Digital Threats

While elections around the world continue to be susceptible to physical manipulation, the widespread use of smart phones and social media present new kinds of threats to democracy. In response to these new challenges, The Carter Center launched the Digital Threats to Democracy Project, which provides new tools and methodologies to help identify and document misinformation and disinformation, hate speech, and political advertising. The project also seeks to foster constructive dialogue on the human rights considerations of efforts to address these challenges.

The project consists of country-specific initiatives that include local partners as well as a social media lab that develops tools in partnership with the Georgia Institute of Technology. These activities give The Carter Center the unique ability to meld data-driven analysis and field-based applied research while also building the capacity of civil society to conduct this work. To date, the project has conducted social media observation missions in South Africa in May of 2019 and in Tunisia in 2019.

Building Consensus on Standards for Democratic Elections

The Carter Center has played a leading role in building consensus on standards for democratic elections. In 2010, the Center launched the Election Obligations and Standards Database, which consolidates more than 150 sources of international law related to human rights and elections. It is used by The Carter Center and other election observers to assess elections against international and regional laws and standards.

As a companion to the database, The Carter Center also produced the Elections Obligations and Standards (EOS) Manual, which provides narrative descriptions and background, including an overview of the links between international obligations referenced in the database sources and specific issues that arise during various parts of the electoral process, as well as key assessment criteria. The EOS Manual aids election observers, citizens, and researchers in understanding how important obligations such as the right to vote, freedom from discrimination, and freedom of assembly apply to each phase of the process.

The Center is also one of nine organizations that together manage the ACE Electoral Knowledge Network. ACE is an online community and knowledge repository that provides comprehensive information and customized advice to electoral management bodies, political parties, civil society organizations, and researchers.

Promoting Participatory Rights

Between 2015 and 2017, The Carter Center and the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) held a series of conferences and workshops with election observation and assistance practitioners and the international human rights community. Over the course of four consultations, more than 100 human rights and elections experts and representatives of states discussed the challenges facing democracy, human rights, and the rule of law in times of closing political space, and formulated clear recommendations for ways to work together to advance the common goal of genuine, democratic elections that express the will of the people.

At the final meeting, held at the Center in December 2017, the Human Rights and Election Standards Plan of Action (available in English, French, and Spanish) was prepared to synthesize all of these recommendations. The plan of action includes a series of practical suggestions on how the elections and human rights communities can work together more closely, as well as a number of longer-term recommendations.

As part of the Center’s implementation of the Plan of Action, the Democracy Program has launched the Promoting Participatory Rights project. Working at the national level in Zambia, The Carter Center seeks to engage civil society and government interlocutors to build bridges between the human rights and election communities to advance the implementation of participatory rights, with a special focus on the participation of women and youth.

  • Deb Haaland, one of the first two Native American women elected to the U.S. Congress, addresses a Carter Center conference last December on impediments to Native American voting. (Photo: The Carter Center)

Advancing Democratic Governance

One or two democratic elections cannot change a country's political culture. Recognizing that democratic transitions are long processes, the Center works in targeted countries to strengthen the foundations of democratic governance through a range of programs: deploying international observers to monitor political transitions, constitutional drafting, and peace implementation processes; and advocating for key democratic and electoral reforms. To support these initiatives, the Center has developed a series of best-practice tools and training resources for international and domestic observers, civil society groups, and other key stakeholders.

Strengthening Civil Society

Effective democratic government that serves its citizens is bolstered by strong nonpartisan civil society observation organizations that can strengthen the credibility of governments, promote equal political participation, expose corruption, and foster confidence in democratic processes and institutions. Because of this, the Center works in many countries, sometimes in coordination with international election observation efforts and sometimes as standalone initiatives, to provide a range of training and support to local civil society organizations that engage in these efforts.

Learn more about such work in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Liberia, Myanmar, and Tunisia.

Results and Impact

  • Monitored 111 elections in 39 countries since 1989, impartially assessing electoral integrity and providing practical recommendations to assist partner countries in improving electoral processes to help bring them in line with international standards for democratic elections.
  • Played a leading role in establishing guiding principles for election observation.
  • Created a comprehensive online database of international laws that can be used by observers to assess elections and that provides a foundation for consensus on election standards
  • Created a manual on election obligations and standards.
  • Developed the innovative open-source software ELMO, which enables faster collection, review, and analysis of data gathered by election observers. ELMO has been adapted into a companion software called NEMO, used by Carter Center health programs and others for field data collection.
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Election Reports

Election Reports

The Carter Center provides an impartial assessment of electoral processes and, where relevant, recommends improvements. Read the reports.

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