Over the last 25 years, the Carter Center has observed nearly 100 elections in 38 countries around the world. These experiences have generated a wealth of information about electoral practices across the globe. In addition, they provide an interesting basis to compare how elections are conducted in the U.S. A quick review suggests that while elections in the U.S. are generally of high quality and enjoy broad public confidence, the U.S. compares unfavorably with other democracies in a number of areas and/or fall short of widely recognized international benchmarks.
The goal of election observation organizations like the Carter Center is to provide an independent, third-party assessment of electoral quality and integrity through systematic data-gathering and analysis. Professional and impartial observers provide well-documented reports that shape public perceptions about the overall quality and integrity of the electoral process, and where warranted, can reinforce public confidence. The Carter Center assesses elections against a set of core international obligations and standards as outlined in major international human rights treaties, most importantly the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. In short, these international standards call for: » Genuine and periodic elections that express the will of the people; » A secret ballot; » Universal and equal suffrage free from unreasonable restrictions; » Protected rights for citizens to vote, be elected and participate in public affairs; » Protected fundamental freedoms of expression, association, assembly and movement; » Security of the person; » Equality before the law; » Access to information; and » The rights to a fair and public hearing and to effective remedy.
Before launching observation missions, the Carter Center must be invited by a country’s election authorities and welcomed by the major political parties. Observation projects normally begin far in advance of elections—generally six to nine months before election day—with experts and long-term observers assessing election laws, voter education and registration, and campaign finance and political campaigning. On election day, larger teams of short-term observers assess the casting and counting of ballots. In the weeks following the election, observers monitor the tabulation process, electoral dispute resolution processes and the publication of final results. All the major organizations involved in international election observation follow a similar methodology.
Election observation has grown in scale and complexity in recent years and missions now are routinely deployed to most countries around the world. The U.S., however, has had only limited exposure to systematic observation, primarily from relatively small teams deployed by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, of which the U.S. is a member state. Compared to the world as a whole, the U.S. has relatively high levels of electoral integrity. However, there are some clear shortcomings in U.S. elections, especially compared to established Western democracies, but even in some cases compared to new or emerging democracies.
According to a recent analysis by the Electoral Integrity Project, the U.S. ranked 26th out of 73 countries assessed in 2012-13, with the U.S. having the lowest ranking among Western nations. The key areas where the U.S. lags behind are voter registration and turnout, election laws and districting, and campaign finance. Separate but related to many of these problems is the fact that the U.S. election system is extremely decentralized compared to most countries, with states and counties responsible for election administration.
According to international standards, the administration of elections should be conducted by an independent election management body that is impartial and transparent. This can take a variety of institutional forms, ranging from fully independent national election commissions to judicial bodies to units that are part of or drawn from government ministries, along with a variety of other forms. The critical assessment question is the degree to which the election authority is genuinely independent and impartial, with full control of key decisions. National election commissions make it easier to administer elections with uniform processes and standards across the whole country.
Due to its decentralized political system, election administration in the U.S. varies widely across states, with some utilizing independent election boards, with elected partisan officials—usually the secretary of state—leading most of these. Similarly, in the majority of states, redistricting is done by state legislatures—with the process often controlled by the majority party—instead of an independent board.
Probably the most important shortcoming in American elections concerns the low levels of voter registration and participation.
The U.S. ranks 22nd among 34 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, or OECD, on voter turnout. U.S. voter turnout tends to average between 50 and 65 percent of eligible voters compared to the global average of around 70 percent. Voter registration in the U.S. hovers around 70 to 75 percent, which means as much of 25 percent of eligible voters—roughly 50 million U.S. citizens—are not on voter registration rolls. Most European countries make it compulsory to be registered, while many developing countries employ “passive” voter registration exercises where registration teams go house-to-house or village-to-village to ensure most citizens are easily registered and receive identification cards.
To expand voter registration and participation, the U.S. should consider steps to greatly facilitate registration. The 2014 Presidential Commission on Election Administration report suggested both online registration and cross-checking across state registration lists to expand registration and improve accuracy. Similarly, the process of obtaining any IDs required for voting could be made simpler and more convenient, especially to people with limited access to the system, and with minimal to no cost.
The most vexing problem in the U.S and many other countries around the world is the role of money in campaigns and elections. In spite of past legislative efforts to reform campaign finance in the U.S., total spending on elections continues to increase, raising concerns about who can afford to run for public office and the degree to which campaign donors have undue influence on elected officials.
The 2012 U.S. elections were the most expensive ever, topping at least $6 billion—with some estimates between $7 billion to $8 billion. Given the Supreme Court decisions in Citizens United and McCutcheon, spending will almost certainly continue to rise. Whereas many other countries provide direct public financing to political parties to try to ensure a more level playing field, in the U.S., most candidates forgo public funding in order to avoid limits on spending.
A fundamental belief in the election observation community is that democracy and elections are best understood as works-in-process; no country has perfect elections and ALL countries should strive to improve elections. While Americans have a lot to be proud of, we owe it to ourselves to find ways to improve.
In addition to the issues discussed above, the U.S. should consider steps to:
• Upgrade voting technologies with thorough testing of the reliability of new voting systems;
• Ensure a paper record of votes cast electronically/on voting machines;
• Establish clear conditions and rules for when and how recounts and revotes should occur, with clear standards for determining valid votes and independent commissions to adjudicate any disputes; and
• Ensure adequate access and accreditation for election observers to all stages of the electoral process, both from U.S. citizens groups and organizations and also for credible international observers.