Practicing the Democracy We Preach

By Ottaway, Marina | The Christian Science Monitor, November 29, 2000 | Go to article overview
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Practicing the Democracy We Preach

Ottaway, Marina, The Christian Science Monitor

The problems and uncertainties surrounding the outcome of the United States presidential election provide a reminder that the US would benefit from reviewing the lessons on democracy it has been teaching to other countries: Good techniques are very important, but democracy also depends on the political will to make it work.

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the US has been engaged in a determined effort to promote democracy worldwide. It now spends more than $600 million a year on democracy assistance.

One of the most successful aspects of democracy promotion has been electoral assistance. With US government funds, organizations such as the International Foundation for Electoral Systems have perfected techniques to help democratizing countries improve the fairness and credibility of their election processes. As a result, voter registration, the management of polling stations, and the securing and counting of ballots have improved dramatically in many countries.

Technical solutions do not eliminate all problems. Governments and political parties determined to manipulate election outcomes will always find a way. But, while there is no easy technical fix for deep-seated political problems, good technical processes help convince voters that fairness is not impossible and that cheating will be detected.

Unfortunately, the US does not always practice at home what it preaches overseas. American voters have discovered in the past three weeks that American elections can be rather sloppy.

Many of the technical and political problems common in the US would be denounced if they took place elsewhere.

American citizens often cast their ballots without showing voter- registration cards or other identification papers, but the US government spends millions of dollars to help other countries issue photo voter-registration cards.

After the vote, US election officials handle ballots so casually that two days after the elections, an absent-minded clerk can discover a forgotten bag of ballots in the clutter of his car trunk.

Most surprising of all, not all election officials have mastered the art of producing ballots that are understandable to voters. Yet, these are all simple tasks, part of the ABCs of elections we teach to other countries.

We should not be so complacent. These elections have shown that even a well-established democratic system needs good technical safeguards.

With such safeguards, American voters would still be split down the middle in terms of their preferences, but they could at least feel confident that the vote has been counted correctly.

They can't feel confident now, and not only about Florida. Submitted to the same close scrutiny, other states would probably also be found wanting.

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