Echoes abroad of US election challenges at home

Whose Century Is It?
David Carroll, head of the Carter Center's Democracy Program

Carter Center

Host Mary Kay Magistad takes a step back from this particular election season, to ask David Carroll, head of the Carter Center's Democracy Program, about how US elections compare these days, with other democracies around the world. 

Magistad: The Carter Center has done election monitoring, more than 100 elections, more than 30 countries, for decades. How are we doing as a democracy in setting an example for places where you’ve been monitoring elections?

Former US President Jimmy Carter and Rosalynn Carter observing a village election

The Carter Center

Carroll: I think things are changing a lot. It’s really hard to know, and it will be easier afterwards, to look back on this. I think the degree to which people are unhappy in this country is the thing which makes me most concerned. And the lack of efforts to really understand different points of view are the things I find most concerning. And I guess maybe the degree to which we are unprepared, from an election administration perspective, to deal with difficult elections in this country.

Magistad: So how did we get here?

Carroll: I really don’t know. I think the difficulty of the 2000 election started to expose problems, in terms of our institutions, and our administration of elections. But I think it’s also been a shift in political parties, and that people also start to wonder, are we all in this society, and do we all have a fair share, and a fair stake in this society, and a different sense of these things, a different sense of identity, and are we able to live our lives in a way that is meaningful to us? There’s very different perspectives from different parts of the country.

Magistad: On the electoral process itself, when you’re looking at a country, a democracy in transition, are there patterns? Are there particular types of violations or shortcuts or problems that you come across on a regular basis? And are any of them showing up here?

Carroll: There are different kinds of things. There are election administration problems, and the degree to which there’s an election management body that really is capable, and has the tools and the training. But that’s more the technical side. Are there good, solid democratic institutions in place, that have experience, and that have some kind of longevity, where they really are performing as solid democratic institutions? How is the country, how is the government performing economically, in particular? Is it starting to show that when you have a democracy, it’s really starting to deliver for people? So different kinds of circumstances and problems are present in different countries.  A whole other level of issues is the degree to which there’s social cleavages, ethnic differences, identity differences. Do those overlap with geopolitical distinctions in the country, different ends of the country? How integrated is the population? So depending on which of those factors come into play, we see different kinds of problems.

Magistad: There are a lot of concerns that the world in general is moving in the wrong direction, that there’s this rise of nativism in parts of Europe and in the United States. But others make the argument that, net-net, we’re kind of doing ok in terms of the number of democracies that are emerging and then holding steady.

Carroll:  I think we’ve sort of plateaued, in terms of the number of democracies and the quality of democracy. I’m in the middle, in terms of how optimistic or concerned I am. I see things that are worrying, and it mostly comes down to the quality of governance in countries. Are democratic governments able to deliver? Are they able to deal with problems of corruption and entrenched leaders? Are they able to solve their ethnic differences, or any kinds of social cleavages? Those are worrying signs, and the nativism can be part of that. On the positive side, I don’t see anything that is going to be a better alternative than an effective democratic society, with democratic institutions, where legitimacy is seen as something that comes from a democratic process, which is a participatory process, with respect to human rights, access to information, transparency, and inclusion. I don’t really see something that’s going to make a different model that can deliver in the long run. There are these anti-democratic models that are developing, and they are showing some success in the short-term, but I don’t believe they’ll have the legitimacy with their own people over time. They will want a stake in the system. That kind of system won’t deliver.

Magistad: What kind of examples come to mind?

Chinese military parade past Beijing's Tiananmen Square

Mary Kay Magistad

Carroll: Russia and China, clearly. The literature talks about rising authoritarians in Iran, and Venezuela and Saudi Arabia, and there are a number of places in Africa where we see these tendencies – certainly in the Middle East. The number of these is growing, and that’s a concern. But I don’t think any of these show signs that they are sustainable, those models, over the long run. And if anything, I think they’re quite fragile.

Magistad: So in China, where I lived for many years, I often heard the argument, not just from government officials, but I think others absorbed the argument from government media, ‘why are you Westerners so hung up on elections? There are ways for the government to be responsive to the population without having elections. And anyway, just having an election doesn’t mean you’re a democracy. All kinds of places can have elections.’

Carroll: I agree with that. An election does not make a democracy. And if there are other ways they can prove that they are accountable to the people, that they are delivering to the people, that there is some role for citizens in holding them accountable, directly? Let’s see that model, and show it working. I don’t see it working in a long-term sustainable way.

Magistad: Is there an example that you can think of, where there’s a country that doesn’t have elections, but are responsive to the population to the extent that people feel they’re living in a relatively fair society?

Carroll: Nothing comes to mind immediately. The example that comes to mind, you often think of idealized traditional societies, where there’s stability, there’s contentment, and there are traditional mores and norms that really hold things together. But even there – I’m not an expert in those, and I don’t study those, and I can’t cite any examples. But my sense is that those are examples where there is a different kind of inclusion. There’s a different kind of accountability built into those traditional societies. But they may be, in my own mind, overly glamorized in terms of how they function. I just don’t know.

Supporters wave flags at a campaign rally of Taiwan's opposition presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen in the central Nantou county on Jan. 9, 2012.
Credit: Patrick Lin

Magistad: When you’ve been out in the field – and I know your original field of specialization was Latin America – I know especially in Asia, and I’m not sure how true this is in Latin America – there’s been this argument of ‘this is just Western hegemony. You’re just trying to foist your values on us. And democracy is just a code for American hegemony in the world. Have you had conversations like this when you’ve been out in the field? And how do you respond? How do you engage with that?

Carroll: That’s a really good question. There are several main responses to that. Usually when you hear that kind of argument, it doesn’t feel like it’s coming from a genuine place. It’s usually from someone who’s trying to put you off-balance, or make an argument that’s defending their own interests. Secondly, we don’t hold the West – certainly not the United States, in our work – as the shining example of what other countries should aspire to be like. But most importantly, I find the vast majority of people that we interact with around the world, talk about their human rights, from the sense of understanding the value of the human being, and human dignity, and of their right to be included and to be part of a system. And so, all of our interactions are with people who are expressing that, very simply and clearly. And that’s not coming from the West. That’s coming from the fact that people have, I think, slowly internalized what has come from the post-War, UN era of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the universality of rights, and that legitimacy comes from a system where there’s representation, and inclusion, and really having everyone have a stake in the system.

Magistad: So when the argument is ‘these are just Western ideas,’ you’d say, ‘no, if you’d listen to your own population, you’d find that actually there is a lot of support for these ideas.”

Carroll: And they come from a global consensus. I mean, they certainly came from the post-World War II era, and the West was dominant, but there was universal buy-in to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the UN system, and the treaties that really make up our human rights law framework. You don’t hear many governments now saying they reject international human rights law, they reject the universality of human rights. They’ll start to carve away some exceptions, cultural diversity, or some kinds of religious arguments might be made. But even then, those are not trying to challenge the centrality of this framework that really dominates, that’s accepted broadly around the world, and it really inspires the work we do on elections.

Magistad: So the old Lee Kuan Yew argument that there are Asian values, and there are Western values, and Asian values put the whole ahead of the individual, you think that even within Singapore, within Asia, people don’t really feel that?

Carroll: If anything, I think they probably coexist, and most people may say there are Asian values, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t also universal values of human rights and human dignity..

Magistad: So let’s go to the region you know best…where you started, in Latin America. How is it doing?

Carroll: I think Latin America is doing quite well, really, all in all. There are a few places where things are quite difficult, but the continent as a whole, the Caribbean, South America and Central America, it’s actually done very, very well. And as an example of that, for our work here at the Carter Center, a lot of our first missions were focused on Latin America. Very few are now, because the problems have become – they’re almost higher level, mature democracy problems, with a few exceptions. They’re the same kinds of problems we’re struggling with here. There are campaign finance problems. And that actually is something that is big all around the world, the regulation of money and politics is something we haven’t really figured out how to do. Campaign finance – regulating money and politics is a big problem, including in this country.

Magistad: So with the impeachment in Brazil, does that concern you, in terms of how people can subvert the system?

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff delivers a speech during the launching of PRONACAMPO -- a Federal Government program to improve education policies in rural areas where the illiteracy rate is high, at Planalto Palace in Brasilia, on March 20, 2012.

Carroll: It certainly concerns me, what’s happening in Brazil. And I almost think there, there might be things more gendered going on than other things, in terms of the politics, and the higher level of maturity of democratic institutions in Brazil, compared to the military dictatorship period. You’ve got to find it interesting that the number of people who had corruption charges against them in the legislature, and more serious charges than against the president, that there’s something related to gender behind what was happening there.

Magistad: Do you think that happens a lot? Because there are actually quite a few countries, now, that have had female leaders. Do you find that, disproportionately, they’re the ones who get overthrown or acted against?

Carroll: I would say in terms of heads of state, the women who have been in power, more often than not, especially in the developing world, have come from powerful families, and so they’re somebody’s daughter or wife, so in that mold, they seem less susceptible to this kind of thing. Whereas the president of Brazil is a completely different story, a leftist background, not the daughter of a former president, or a wife, or something like that. I think, though, that the gendered aspects are more pervasive at all levels, including the chances that women have to become active in the political process, from top to bottom, from the ability to just be part of a voting process, to being active in a party, to being able to find the resources to become a candidate. All across the board, those are huge problems that we haven’t started to deal with effectively. I think we’ve gotten a really good understanding of the problem over the last 10 or 20 years, as more and more organizations are focusing on that, and we’re starting to get a more systematic, and we’re starting to try to implement better systems and tracking, but we’ve got a long way to go.

Magistad:  Let me get down to the nuts and bolts of the electoral process. Do you see particular patterns in emerging democracies, in terms of how the electoral process is subverted?

Carroll: There’s a lot of different ways. In the old days, it would have been ballot box stuffing. Very obvious and direct. And now, that’s very seldom the case, because there’s a lot more attention to what happens on election day…There is sometimes changing of results at some higher levels of aggregation, and there’s lots of ways to look for that, if you’re an election observer.  I think more commonly now, the problems or the way that certain actors might try to affect the process tends to be with including or excluding voters, either on the registration list, or with voter identification documents, who’s entitled to vote, with the advantage of incumbents, using state resources, in their own campaigning, dispensing of favors, making sure that certain villages or certain parts of the country receive public works, or other things where they can recognize that this is coming from the government, making it difficult for the other side to campaign, which we often see a lot of, and other things to do with the financing of elections. Those are things that are more prevalent now, that we’re trying to assess.

Magistad: What about disinformation campaigns, like telling voters who are likely going to vote for the other side that the election is on a different day, or that people who did something can’t vote, when they can?

Carroll: Yeah. We also see misinformation. People are smarter than a lot of elites think, though. This is something that I firmly believe. I’ve seen more and more of that. I was going to say it’s not so easy to buy votes. There’s a lot more sophistication these days, even in some of the least developed countries. People will know that somebody’s giving them a favor, and might expect that a vote is being bought. But if they’re confident that they can go into the ballot box, and it’s secret, they can take the money, and vote their conscience. And people understand that…that’s part of the game.

An electoral worker marks the finger of a Nigerian woman at a polling station during the presidential elections in Daura on April 16, 2011.
Credit: Seyllou

Magistad: I’m smiling because when I lived in Thailand in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s, and would go to the slum Klong Toey in Bangkok, they would take bribes from everybody.  It was a nice bonus for the month.

Carroll: And people might think they’re buying your vote, but you’re just getting a lot of t-shirts and nice things because it’s election season, because that’s part of what happens.

Magistad: So a more positive question. When you’re looking at an emerging democracy, or a transitional political system, how do you know that it’s probably going to be ok, like it’s reached a point where it’s kind of working?  It’s not fragile anymore?

Carroll:  So a couple of things that we look for: is there a trusted, independent election authority, where there isn’t any serious dispute that these are independent people who are doing things fairly? And over time, are we seeing the opportunity for there to be alternation in power, especially if there’s dissatisfaction with a government? Typically, one of the really easy things to see is, was there a change in power from one party to another, done peacefully and through an election? At a very high level, that’s a good indicator. In many places where we work, there are underlying identity issues that are involved that are dividing politics, and that’s not going to get fixed easily by elections. Those are deeper culture problems, and elections can sometimes make them worse, or they can lead to institutions that are going to start to try to find ways to bind parts of society together. And that’s really a question of, what do people do when they’re in government?  And a more obvious case, on the other extreme, is are there governments that are trying to extend their rule, over and over again? And this is one of the biggest problems we’re seeing now, these third terms, and constitutional changes, where various leaders are finding ways to change constitutions and allows themselves to stay in power indefinitely.

Magistad: So as I’m listening to you answering that particular question, it strikes me that you guys are involved in much more than just electoral monitoring, or helping with running a good election. It’s really about the entire process of maintaining a democracy.

Carroll: Yes. Some parts of the Carter Center are doing longer-term work, with access to information, or working with the justice sector, and access to justice. In the democracy program, we look at elections, but we look at them from a very broad lens. And so, if we’re able to, we like to be working in a country for many, many months before an election, and several months afterwards, so we’re really looking at all these issues. It’s really not just about election day in most of these places. Sometimes, election day is a relatively important part, but more often, it’s really a pre-election set of issues that are important, or a post-election set. And so we’re really trying to analyze that. For us, it’s looking at elections as a snapshot of, ‘what is the quality of democracy and democratic institutions, and democratic processes in this country?’ It’s like a test. How is democracy working in this country? Elections give you time to take a test.

Magistad: And are you always invited in by the government? How do you gain access? And has anyone ever run you out?

David Carroll, head of the Carter Center's Democracy Program, monitoring Myanmar elections

Carter Center

Carroll: There were a few places where ‘run out’ might be a good example of what happened, but not many. Our standard operating procedure is, we will only work where we are confident that all of the major political forces, either deliberately and expressly want us there, or at least welcome our role or accept our role. What that means in any individual case really depends on their own laws. We have to have some kind of invitation. Really, it depends on the country, who are the appropriate authorities? Sometimes, it’s an Election Commission. Sometimes, it’s the Foreign Ministry. Sometimes it’s a government leader. But we also want to know that other political parties want observers, and accept our role as observers. So there is that general sense that we’re welcome by all political forces.

Magistad: As you look at the whole landscape, and the degree to which countries are open or not, countries where you’ve worked over time, what looks most hopeful? 

Carroll: Ghana has been a strong democracy, in West Africa, and it’s facing a very difficult election this time, so we’re trying to keep an eye on it. Liberia is hopeful. It started from a place that was so terrible, at the end of the civil war, it was a complete disaster, and it’s come quite a ways. Tunisia is the best example in the Middle East/North Africa of a place that’s gone through a difficult transition, post-Arab Spring, and has worked really hard with developing a new constitution, in an area where there are still a lot of difficulties, a lot of government performance issues. Economically, it’s difficult. And the whole radicalization and violent extremism, and Tunisia being a source of a lot of the disaffected youth. So it’s been the most successful, but it still faces a lot of problems. Myanmar and Nepal, two places where we’ve worked, I’m optimistic about prospects for each of them. Indonesia is a place that’s also done quite well. I haven’t looked at it recently, but it really feels like it’s moved to another level in terms of democratic maturity. A lot of Latin America. So there are examples all over the place. Of course, there are also a lot of counter-examples.

A Tunisian woman and her daughter attend a rally of the Islamist Ennahda party in southern Tunis on Oct. 21, 2011.
Credit: Lionel Bonaventure

Magistad: So that’s countries. What about technologies or processes, like, is online voting, or the technologies available to monitor electoral processes that make it harder to rig an election, or easier for more voters to get access? Or is that more of a First World thing?

Carroll: Unsurprisingly, it’s a multi-edged sword, in terms of how it’s cutting. Certainly, technologies are making inclusion a lot easier, if it’s being used that way. There’s certainly more ability to register voters, using biometric voter registration, it’s something a lot of countries are taking part of, perhaps beyond what they should really try to do, given the expense and the complicated technology. It’s a technology people think is going to fix all their problems, because it’s coming from a perspective of doubts about the accuracy of the voter registration list, and multiple voting. And many times, the concerns might be overblown, not always, but in some countries, it may be seen as a panacea that it really isn’t, coming at an expense that’s really hard to make work and to justify. Internet voting and electronic voting are things we’ve spent a lot of time looking into. And certainly, it’s important in that it allows more participation by disabled people in particular.  But internet voting and electronic voting are potentially problematic, in the sense that it’s really difficult to have the transparency to know that a vote has been cast by a person, with no pressure or coercion on them, and that it’s counted accurately. That cluster of problems, about a person being able to vote secretly with no coercion, and having it counted accurately, the solutions with technology are not obvious to me yet. And if anything, they can sometimes make some of these problems more difficult.

Magistad: And are there any countries, besides certain states in the United States, that don’t have a paper record of votes? And is that an issue that you’re concerned about?

Carroll: Most of the places that have electronic voting that come to mind, have a paper record. The way we understand it, if you don’t have a paper record, you’re really inviting a lot of problems before the ability to – even if there’s a perfect technology, you want to be able to show people who doubt and don’t  have confidence in the system, that there’s a way to check the actual vote on paper. I can’t think of an example where they’re not using a paper record.

Magistad: Except certain states in the United States.

Carroll: Yeah.

Magistad: So democracy has to work, but it also has to be seen to work.
Carroll: It has to be seen to work, and there has to be confidence in the process, the institutions, and transparency is going to lead to that confidence. People want to know, themselves, that there’s another check. And without some way to have an audit or a check, then you are inviting more doubts, inviting more suspicion. Even if they’re not warranted, you’re inviting them.

Magistad: We’ve talked about states that you think are on the right track. Where are you most concerned about?

Carroll: The number of countries that have these regimes that really aren’t letting go is really a big concern. And we really don’t seem to have a good way to have an impact on that. And there are a number of places, mostly in Africa, but also in other places, where they’re changing constitutions to stay in power, and in Latin America, and in several places in Asia, where democratization just hasn’t opened up. And the role of money, and the lack of standards for how to regulate money in politics is maybe one of the biggest problems. We’ve spent a lot of time at the Carter Center, trying to build consensus on, ‘what does it mean to say, ‘international standards?’ Because you hear that, and in your mind, there’s a book you can pull off the shelf that will have all these standards. And it’s more complicated than that. What we have tried to show, with those with whom we work, is that there are standards, and they really come from an acceptance that international human rights law, and UN treaties, and regional treaties, and in the jurisprudence that comes out of those treaties, themselves. Each of the main treaties also has a treaty body that can issue quasi-official interpretations and qualifications of what a short clause in the treaty means. And most of the key issues that we monitor and assess have some benchmarks attached to them. Campaign finance is one that really doesn’t have much established, that really tells you, what are the rules of campaign finance? We see a wide range of practices in countries, in the degree to which there’s legislation or regulation, and the degree to which it focuses on disclosure or spending, or both. And are there sanctions? Is there monitoring of it? Is there any control of it? It’s across the whole spectrum. Those are all country-level experiences, and learning from one another, but there’s not an international standard that we can really point to, and say, ‘this is what you should be doing.’

Magistad: How many countries has the Carter Center been working in over the past year?

Carroll: We have programs in the DR Congo, in Tunisia, some work in Myanmar and Nepal. We just observed elections in Zambia recently, and also in the Philippines, earlier in the year. A number of programs here work in Palestine, Colombia, not the Democracy Program, but there’s also a large effort in Colombia.

Magistad: So when your monitors come back, or when you visit these places, have people been asking, ‘what the heck is going on with you guys?’

Republican US presidential nominee Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton

Republican US presidential nominee Donald Trump listens as Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton answers a question from the audience during their presidential town hall debate at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, on Oct. 9, 2016.


Rick Wilking/Reuters

Carroll: Yes. People have been asking about what’s going on in the United States for a long time. Ever since the 2000 election, when we go to a country, they talk about Bush vs. Gore and problems in our own country. And we’ve never said the United States is not a good example for you to be modeling your democracy after. And one reason is, there’s not another country like the United States that I can think of, that has such an extremely decentralized system, where elections really are governed at the state level. There’s a lot of autonomy. It’s a state-level function. In some states, it’s extremely decentralized, to the county level.  Part of our political history, and the process that led to the creation of the United States, has led to this extremely decentralized system, that is not good for organizing a system that is coherent and fair across the board, and with consistent processes. It’s almost the exact opposite. There’s really a great deal of variability across states.

Magistad: But this year in particular, I think a lot of people around the world are paying attention.

Carroll: We didn’t know who are nominees were until August. So it wasn’t as clear and as stark as it is now, with two, I think it’s true to say, pretty unpopular candidates, from a system that really forces you into a two-party choice. A lot in our system forces a two-party choice, which is actually something we hardly ever see where we work. So that’s another unique thing about our system, and the way our system has led to two extremely unpopular candidates running against each other, with the polaraization in this country, and the lack of a Central Election Administration that can really ensure that there’s a consistent level of preparations for elections, integrity to elections. I think that feeds into the sense that there’s a lack of confidence.

Magistad: Do you get the sense from the people you’re talking to in these countries, that we’re setting a negative example?

Carroll: Everyone in the world watches the United States, and watches the US elections. I’m sure you’ve experienced this. In far-flung villages, people know about what happened in the United States. I think this campaign is, unfortunately, setting a lot of bad examples. And I think people are going to see this, and it’s not an example to emulate.

Magistad: So is there an example to emulate? If our system isn’t one to necessarily copy, is there one you could look at and say, ‘yes! This is a good example of a democracy for developing countries.’?

Carroll: There is no perfect example. There are a lot of best practices in different places. And it’s not all bad in the United States. There are a number of things we point to in the United States that, until recently, we could point to and say, the United States is a good example in the sense that people have trusted our institutions here. And the fact that in the 2000 election, there was a Supreme Court decision, and it was accepted? In a lot of places, that wouldn’t have happened, that there was a very close election that came down to a couple hundred votes, two parties, a really tight competition, a good case to be made on both sides of this election dispute, and there’s a Supreme Court decision, and it’s accepted? In a lot of countries, that would never happen.

Magistad: So the podcast is called “Whose Century Is It?” You said earlier that the number of democracies has plateaued. Do you think this will be a century in which the number of democracies advances or recedes?

Carroll: Hmm. I don’t know. I’d like to think it will increase. I think, I’m mostly optimistic, because when we see young people around the world, they’re aware of their rights, and they’re more and more engaged, and they want to use technology in a way that helps them be part of the system, and you have to be hopeful about that.

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