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Op-Ed: Broader Lessons of the US Election Drama


Broader Lessons of the US Election Drama
November 2000

Mixed messages emerge from the drama surrounding the US presidential elections. One is clearly that every vote counts, which it must be hoped will encourage greater voter participation in future elections. Another is the need to clear up the prevailing confusion regarding who is in charge of what within the US electoral process.

Sustainable democracy is built on trust. Gaining and upholding trust in the electoral management process involves guaranteeing impartiality and accountability. Evidently, a broad discussion about the rules and procedures of election management and how best to guarantee these fundamental tenets must ensue, whatever the outcome. In this effort, the US may want to look at how some other countries have dealt with the issues now facing the country.

Impartiality. Setting the rules of the electoral process is a political issue to be decided by legislation. But interpreting and administering these rules is another matter that in most established democracies is undertaken by non-partisan, impartial institutions. In most countries the custom is to let a non-partisan institution count the votes, and declare an outcome without interference from the competing parties.

This can be done in many different ways. In Canada, Australia and India, impartial officials in independent bodies have overall responsibility for the management of elections. (This, too, was the model followed by South Africa in its 1996 Constitution.) In all these countries, however, local officials carry out the day to day tasks of running elections, taking into account local conditions and circumstances.

An alternative model is seen in many Western European democracies, which have small election administration units in government departments. A common feature of both models is that implementation of the legal framework is carried out by tenured civil servants specializing in electoral questions.

Accountability. In addition, there must be the possibility to challenge and question the process leading to the election result as officially declared. In this respect, clear mechanisms of accountability are essential. Without sufficient powers clearly vested in an impartial body or official, and an accessible and reputable method of dispute resolution, it is impossible for voters and candidates to be sure exactly where final authority in electoral matters rests.

There are many models of electoral dispute resolution around the world, from recourse to specially constituted or existing judicial processes or use of mediation and arbitration mechanisms. Whatever the model adopted, however, it must bring further guarantees of impartiality and clarity - as well as finality - to the electoral process.

The US tradition and culture of elected officials and partisan courts playing the role of arbiter, as has been the case in Florida, runs into conflict with the notion of separating roles and mandates, thereby undermining electoral impartiality. In many parts of the world, too, there is a lively debate on the role of political parties and other actors in different stages of the electoral process.

Whatever level of trust in political parties may have inspired such electoral practices in the past, the reality today is clearly different. The importance attached to elections has inspired a search for practices premised on a less explicitly political basis. This is why we now see a trend in many parts of the world to focus on alternative ways of achieving impartiality and, thereby, enhancing trust.

US constitutional history is marked by a constant debate concerning the role of the states as against national government. Under the US Constitution, elections are organized under varying state law. (The only role of the Federal Electoral Commission is in the area of campaign finance regulation.) These laws make varying provisions for such vital issues as voter registration, ballot design, voting technology and recounts. The laws in question are administered by local officials.

In this context, events in Florida have highlighted the problems inherent in the existence of diverse laws and their varied, devolved implementation. The more obvious of these are voter confusion, inequities and a risk-laden mix of dispute settlement procedures. In most other democracies, the procedures are designed in a uniform manner when voting for common offices such as president and national parliament.

In the electoral as in many other spheres, modernization can serve to enhance, rather than detract from, existing constitutional frameworks. In today's world many aspects of the US electoral process are unique, not least because at the time of its enactment much US electoral legislation was far in advance of other nations. But in tandem with the global trend towards democracy, electoral processes have also evolved significantly, furnishing policy makers with a wealth of new models and practices to consider.

Almost all established democracies have suffered from declining voter turnout in the past decades, not least the United States. Undoubtedly, electoral reform is one way to make voting easier and thus to stimulate citizen participation. And in an age of declining public interest in traditional political institutions, rebuilding popular trust in the electoral process will go a long way towards enhancing the public credibility of established democratic institutions.

Bengt Säve-Söderbergh is Secretary-General of International IDEA (Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance)


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International IDEA
Strömsborg
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Phone: +46-8-698 3700
Fax: +46-8-20 24 22
Monika Ericson
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m.ericson@idea.int
International IDEA
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103 34 Stockholm, Sweden
Phone: +46-8-698 3700
Fax: +46-8-20 24 22

 

 
  
 

International IDEA
Tel: +46 8 698 3700, Fax: +46 8 20 24 22
E-mail:
info@idea.int
International IDEA, Strömsborg, S-103 34 Stockholm, Sweden