The world is watching

By Farhad Manjoo
Published October 23, 2004 5:33PM (EDT)

Pierre Schori, a former Swedish ambassador to the United Nations, writes in the U.N. publication MaximNews that after he was kicked out of Nigeria in 2002 while monitoring the elections there, he received a warm note from John Negroponte, the American ambassador to the U.N.: "[On] behalf of the U.S. government, I want to extend an invitation to you to observe our elections any time you wish!" Negroponte was joking, Schori says, but it was one of those jokes that's funny only because it rings of truth -- after what happened in the United States the last time we tried to hold a presidential election (the guy with the most votes was declared the loser), international election observers are probably a pretty good idea.

This year, several international groups plan to monitor the American elections, chief among them the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (the OSCE) and Fair Election International (FEI), a project of the human rights group Global Exchange. On Nov. 2, hundreds of observers will be stationed in election hotspots around the nation -- important swing states, states with histories of troubled elections, and states where controversial new technology will be heavily relied upon at the polls. Many monitors have already paid preliminary visits to these areas, and both the OSCE and the FEI have published pre-election reports with advice for jurisdictions hoping to avoid the kind of chaos we saw last time.

Much of what you'll find in these reports isn't novel; for the most part, the international groups call for greater transparency, less partisanship, and more competence and common sense in the administration and implementation of elections in America, the same advice you'll hear from election experts and reformers right here in the U.S. So why do the international groups hope to have any more success than American reformers, especially considering the fact that we here in America aren't known for paying much heed to what the rest of the world says in most other areas of policy?

What the international groups have going for them is shame; they can embarrass us into reforming our ways. For Americans, there's clearly something humbling about being schooled in election fairness by foreigners. Here in the U.S., we like to claim to be the cradle of democracy, and we regularly counsel other countries on their elections protocols. But the international monitors say that someone needs to point out to us that many of our elections policies would never be tolerated in most advanced democracies.

For instance, C.D. Jones, a Welsh elections officer who's monitored elections in 10 countries and who plans to be in Florida this year, tells War Room that the lifetime ban on voting that Florida imposes on ex-felons would never fly in most of the rest of the world. "Here in Europe, once they've been released, they fall back in line in society," he says of ex-cons. "You can't condemn them for life. And I'm sure the U.S. would be the first to cry foul if there were other countries doing this, and here they're doing it themselves." Jones adds: "The whole electoral college -- that leaves a lot to be desired."

Indeed it does. And what about voting machines that don't produce paper trails, or state elections officers who don't play fair, or political parties that embrace voter intimidation? Now that the world is watching, here's hoping we fix what's broken.

Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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