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
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
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
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. …