Magazine article Americas (English Edition)

The Hard Drive of Democracy

Magazine article Americas (English Edition)

The Hard Drive of Democracy

Article excerpt

The 1990s stand out as the decade in which the OAS member countries made strengthening democracy one of their highest priorities. When the OAS General Assembly convened in 1990 in Asuncion, it established the Unit for the Promotion of Democracy (UPD); its unanimous approval of Resolution 1080 the following year in Santiago created a new mechanism to handle interruptions in democratic or constitutional regimes.

This special interest in promoting and strengthening democracy in the Western Hemisphere has led the OAS to undertake a number of observer missions in connection with elections, at the request of member states. Although the role of the OAS in these endeavors is well known, its assistance is not limited to these election observer missions. The OAS has been active in an equally important undertaking: advising member states on modernizing the information systems used by electoral agencies, civil registrars, and similar institutions through a technical assistance program for electoral processes, which is run by the UPD.

In a representative democracy it is essential to have an accurate, up-to-date list of all constituents who are qualified to exercise their right to vote. A reliable list of voters is the best safeguard for a transparent electoral process that will ensure the government will be chosen by the people through valid elections in which the outcome is plainly accepted by the citizenry, the political parties, and the international community.

The purpose of voter registration rolls is to list every citizen qualified to cast a vote; that is, every citizen of voting age who is allowed to vote under the laws of the country should appear on the voting rolls. In order to ensure accuracy and general reliability, the voting lists must be updated prior to each election, which means removing from the list the names of individuals who are either deceased or otherwise disqualified from voting.

In the course of its election observation missions, the OAS has found problems in some voting records. Generally, they arise from out-of-date, manually kept systems that are not up to the task of handling the cumulative data required to safeguard universal suffrage. Another problem is poor access to civil records and unwieldy communications among officials, which together constitute a roadblock in updating voter records by, for example, removing the names of deceased voters, to cite just the most frequent problem.

As the agency responsible for recording births, marriages, and deaths (along with divorces, name changes, and legal acknowledgment of offspring), the civil records office, or registrar, is the foremost source of information used to create the voter rolls or lists. The civil registrar normally issues the certification that allows the citizen to exercise his or her civil rights, including the right to vote and to receive an inheritance. There is now a trend by which more and more civil registrars have become independent agencies, in contrast to their traditional status as municipal offices answering to local government.

In many countries citizens who wish to vote must present an identity card in order to be listed on the voter rolls, but the ID card must be obtained from the civil registrar, or records office. When the registrar's operations are centralized, citizens must travel to an office situated in the capital of the country. …

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