Why foreign election observers
would rate the United States near the bottom
by Robert A. Pastor
The American Prospect magazine,
Few notices, but in the year 2000, Mexico
and the United States traded places. After nearly two centuries
of election fraud, Mexico's presidential election was praised
universally by its political parties and international observers
as free, fair, and professional. Four months later, after two
centuries as a model democracy, the U.S. election was panned as
an embarrassing fiasco, reeking with pregnant chads, purged registration
lists, ' butterfly ballots, and a Supreme Court that preempted
Ashamed, the U.S. Congress in 2002 passed
the Help America Vote Act (HAVA), our first federal legislation
on election administration. But two years later, on November 2,
more than 200,000 voters from all 50 states phoned the advocacy
organization Common Cause with a plethora of complaints. The 2004
election was not as close as 2000, but it was no better and, in
some ways, worse. This was partly because the only two elements
of HAVA implemented for 2004 were provisional ballots and ID requirements,
and both created more problems than they solved. HAVA focused
more on eliminating punch-card machines than on the central cause
of the electoral problem, dysfunctional decentralization. Instead
of a single election for president, 13,000 counties and municipalities
conduct elections with different ballots, standards, and machines.
This accounts for most of the problems.
On the eve of November's election, only
one-third of the electorate, according to a New York Times poll,
said that they had a lot of confidence that their votes would
be counted properly, and 29 percent said they were very or somewhat
concerned that they would encounter problems at the polls. This
explains why 13 members of Congress asked the United Nations to
send election observers. The deep suspicion that each party's
operatives had of the other's motives reminded me of Nicaragua's
polarized election in 1990, and of other poor nations holding
their first free elections.
RANKING AMERICA'S ELECTIONS
The pro-democracy group Freedom House
counts 117 electoral democracies in the world as of 2004. Many
are new and fragile. The U.S. government has poured more money
into helping other countries become democracies than it has into
its own election system. At least we've gotten our money's worth.
By and large, elections are conducted better abroad than at home.
Several teams of international observers-including one that I
led-watched this U.S. election. Here is a summary of how the United
States did in 10 different categories, and what we should do to
raise our ranking.
1. Who's in Charge? Stalin is reported
to have said that the secret to a successful election is not the
voter but the vote counter. There are three models for administering
elections. Canada, Spain, Afghanistan, and most emerging democracies
have nonpartisan national election commissions. A second model
is to have the political parties "share" responsibility.
We use that model to supervise campaign finance (the Federal Election
Commission), but that tends to lead either to stalemates or to
collusions against the public's interest. The third, most primitive
model is when the incumbent government puts itself in charge.
Only 18 percent of the democracies do it this way, including the
United States, which usually grants responsibility to a highly
partisan secretary of state, like Katherine Harris (formerly)
in Florida or Kenneth Blackwell in Ohio.
2. Registration and Identification of
Voters. The United States registers about 55 percent of its eligible
voters, as compared with more than 95 percent in Canada and Mexico.
To ensure the accuracy of its list, Mexico conducted 36 audits
between 1994 and 2000. In contrast, the United States has thousands
of separate lists, many of which are wildly inaccurate. Provisional
ballots were needed only because the lists are so bad. Under HAVA,
all states by 2006 must create computer-based, interactive statewide
lists-a major step forward that will work only if everyone agrees
not to move out of state. That is why most democracies, including
most of Europe, have nationwide lists and ask voters to identify
themselves. Oddly, few U.S. states require proof of citizenship-which
is, after all, what the election is supposed to be about. If ID
cards threaten democracy, why does almost every democracy except
us require them, and why are their elections conducted better
3. Poll Workers and Sites. Dedicated people
work at our polling stations often for 14 hours on election day.
Polling sites are always overcrowded at the start of the day.
McDonald's hires more workers for its lunchtime shifts, but a
similar idea has not yet occurred to our election officials. Poll
workers are exhausted by the time they begin the delicate task
of counting the votes and making sure the total corresponds to
the number who signed in, and, as a result, there are discrepancies.
When I asked about the qualifications for selecting a poll worker,
one county official told me, "We'll take anyone with a pulse?'
Mexico views the job as a civic responsibility like jury duty,
and citizens are chosen randomly and trained. This encourages
all citizens to learn and participate in the process.
4. Voting Technologies. Like any computers,
electronic machines break down, and they lose votes. Canada does
not have this problem because it uses paper ballots, still the
most reliable technology. Brazil's electronic system has many
safeguards and has gained the trust of its voters. If we use electronic
machines, they need paper-verifiable ballots.
5. Uniform Standards for Ballots, Voting,
Disputes. The Supreme Court called for equal protection of voters'
rights, but to achieve this, standards need to be uniform. In
America, each jurisdiction does it differently. Most countries
don't have this problem because they have a single election commission
and law to decide the validity of ballots.
6. Uncompetitive Districts. In 2004, only
three incumbent members of Congress-outside of House Majority
Leader Tom DeLay's gerrymandered state of Texas-were defeated.
Even the Communist Party of China has difficulty winning as many
elections. This is because state
legislatures, using advanced computer
technologies, can now draw district boundaries in a way that virtually
guarantees safe seats. Canada has a nonpartisan system for drawing
districts. This still favors incumbents, as 83 percent won in
2004, but that compares with 99 percent in the United States.
Proportional representation systems are even more competitive.
7. Campaign Finance and Access to the
Media. The United States spent little to conduct elections last
November, but almost $4 billion to promote and defeat candidates.
More than $1.6 billion was spent on Wads in 2004. The Institute
for Democracy and Electoral Assistance in Stockholm reported that
63 percent of democracies provided free access to the media, thus
eliminating one of the major reasons for raising money. Most limit
campaign contributions, as the United States does, but one-fourth
also limit campaign expenditures, which the Supreme Court feared
would undermine our democracy. In fact, the opposite is closer
to the truth: Political equality requires building barriers between
money and the ballot box.
8. Civic Education. During the 1990s,
the federal government spent $232 million on civic education abroad
and none at home. As result, 97 percent of South Africans said
they had been affected by voter education. Only 6 percent of Americans,
according to a Gallup Poll in 2000, knew the name of the speaker
of the House, while 66 percent could identify the host
of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Almost
every country in the world does a better job educating citizens
on how to vote. 9. The Franchise. The Electoral College was a
progressive innovation in the 18th century; today, it's mainly
dictatorships like communist China that use an indirect system
to choose their highest leader. 10. International Observers. We
demand that all new democracies grant unhindered access to polling
sites for international observers, but only one of our 50 states
(Missouri) does that. The Organization for Security and Cooperation
in Europe, a 55-state organization of which the United States
is a member, was invited by Secretary of State Cohn Powell to
observe the U.S. elections, yet its representatives were permitted
to visit only a few "designated sites?' Any developing country
that restricted observers to a few Potemkin polling sites as the
United States did would be roundly condemned by the State Department
and the world.
On all 10 dimensions of election administration,
the United States scores near the bottom of electoral democracies.
There are three reasons for this. First, we have been sloppy and
have not insisted that our voting machines be as free from error
as our washing machines. We lack a simple procedure most democracies
have: a log book at each precinct to register every problem encountered
during the day and to allow observers to witness and verify complaints.
Second, we lack uniform standards, and
that is because we have devolved authority to the lowest, poorest
level of government. It's time for states to retrieve their authority
from the counties, and it's time for Congress to insist on national
Third, we have stopped asking what we
can learn from our democratic friends, and we have not accepted
the rules we impose on others. This has communicated arrogance
abroad and left our institutions weak.
The results can be seen most clearly in
our bizarre approach to Iraq's election. Washington, you may recall,
tried to export the Iowa-caucus model though it violates the first
principle of free elections, a secret ballot. An Iraqi ayatollah
rejected that and also insisted on the importance of direct elections
(meaning no Electoral College). Should we be surprised that the
Iraqi .Election Commission chose to visit Mexico instead of the
United e States to learn how to conduct elections?
Robert A. Pastor is director of the Center
for Democracy and Election Management and a professor at American
University. At the Carter Center from 1986-2000, he organized
election-observation missions to about 30 countries, including
the United States.
Reforming the Electoral Process