Election 2004

An Outsider's View

An election observer in the U.S. from Mexico sees a terrific democracy – but a terrible electoral system.
When 71 years of one-party rule ended in Mexico in July 2000, after the massive electoral fraud of 1988, Mexicans responded with joy. Finally, after decades of struggle, we were on our way to joining the ranks of nations that have normal, fair, and democratic procedures to elect their governments. It was a truly historic election.

Citizens of the U.S. played an important role in that victory for democracy. Hundreds of North Americans, invited by Mexican civil society groups, came to Mexico to serve as election observers. Their presence helped give transparency to the workings of the electoral system, providing ordinary Mexicans the confidence that their votes would be fairly counted. The U.S. citizens' efforts were a powerful demonstration of solidarity with our pro-democracy movement.

It came as a shock, then, when just four months later the U.S.'s own presidential election ended in confusion, controversy, and a month-long constitutional crisis. How had this supposed paragon of democracy fallen so low?

While Mexico was going forward it seemed the U.S. was headed backward. This was, to say the least, a surprise.

It was also a surprise – this time a pleasant one – when earlier this year the U.S. organization Global Exchange invited me to the U.S. to act as an election observer for this year's contest. At last, a chance to return the goodwill shown to Mexico by U.S. observers, to realize that democratic solidarity is a two-way street.

In mid-September I joined 19 other election experts in investigating electoral systems in the U.S. I was impressed by the group that assembled in Washington, DC – parliamentarians, diplomats, electoral officials, and veteran election monitors from 15 countries. People who had dedicated their lives to the ideal of democracy and to the challenge of making their own electoral systems more responsive, more open, and more fair.

After spending several days in the nation's capital meeting with government officials and advocacy groups, we split into five teams to conduct investigations in Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Missouri, and Ohio. Through meetings with state and local election officials, town hall forums and interviews with advocacy groups across the political spectrum, we sought as complete a picture as possible of democracy in the United States.

We were impressed by the dedication and hard work of state and local electoral officials. They take their jobs very seriously, and are truly civic heroes. At the same time, we could not help but notice the many ways in which the U.S. falls short of global best practices for election management.

I believe my Argentine colleague, Horacio Boneo – a veteran United Nations elections observer – said it best when he pointed out that while the U.S. has a terrific democracy, it has a terrible electoral system.

For example, one aspect of the U.S. electoral system that our observer delegation found deeply disturbing is the partisan oversight and administration of elections. The secretaries of state are elected on a partisan platform and hold office as either Democrats or Republicans, as do most county clerks. This is a major departure from the global norm. In most other democracies, the elections are overseen by non-partisan commissions, which gives voters confidence that narrow interests won't manage the elections for their own ends. Here in the U.S., partisan electoral management has led to accusations of bias, especially in Florida and Ohio. Regardless of whether the allegations are true, their mere existence creates the perception of partisan mismanagement, eroding public faith in the system.

Several other facets of U.S. elections caught our attention. We were disappointed that touch screen voting machines – which nearly one in three voters will use this year – do not provide a paper trail. We were confused as to why the public financing of the presidential race – in which each candidate receives up to $70 million – is not duplicated for House and Senate races, a reform which would surely improve voter confidence. And we were distressed by the laws in eight states that permanently disenfranchise felons even after they have completed their sentences, laws that we felt create subcategories of citizenship.

We were also troubled to find that there are no provisions in most state laws for non-partisan poll observation. The Democrats choose a poll watcher and the Republicans choose theirs. But who represents the interests of the voting public at large, including the growing number of citizens who are registered as Independents?

The lack of mechanisms for non-partisan poll observation has been dramatically illustrated to our delegation as officials in about half the counties we plan on watching on Election Day have denied our requests to enter polling places. The denials are unfortunate, since they needlessly arouse suspicions that officials have something to hide.

The recent poll access denials notwithstanding, we have for the most part been warmly received by people across the U.S. This is encouraging, because in the end we are here – not to simply critique – but to share with the people of the U.S. the similar obstacles that all democracies face, and in the process to work toward common solutions.

Democracy, after all, is work in progress. It is practiced differently in different places, and has no single blueprint. There are lessons the U.S. can learn from innovations undertaken by other democratic nations.

That notion may offend some Americans. But the fact is that the outsider's view can reveal insights that native citizens may have missed. It is worth remembering that one of the most astute observers of U.S. democracy in the country's history was also a foreigner. His name was Alexander de Toqueville.
Oscar Gonzalez, a former Mexican ambassador and a member of the steering committee of Civic Alliance, Mexico's premier electoral watchdog group, is here in the United States observing this year's elections.