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Thursday, Dec. 14, 2000

To judge from foreign newspaper coverage, the world has watched our agonizingly long presidential election with fascination, horror, and also, to be honest, a certain malicious glee. Typical of this tendency is a recent article in the Mexican daily paper La Jornada. Putting ironic parentheses around its description of the United States as a "model democracy," the article set forth a long list of questionable U.S. election practices. All of them, it pointed out, profoundly undermine "the supposedly sacred principle that every citizen has the right to vote, and that every vote counts."

Having recently concluded the cleanest presidential elections in their history – and perhaps the first that weren't decided in advance – the Mexicans may have earned the right to point a finger. One can hardly blame them for taking advantage of this unexpected and certainly unfamiliar opportunity to delineate the flaws in U.S. election practices, after suffering similar U.S. criticism over so many years.

At any rate, Mexico is not alone in taking the opportunity to weigh in, quite critically, on our presidential election. In recent stories, Spain's El Pais described Tallahassee election officials as facing "total confusion"; Britain's The Guardian took aim at "Florida's primitive punch-card technology" and the "indecent haste" with which Bush brother Jeb ratified the Florida results; and Colombia's El Tiempo warned of the dangers of having the election decided by "a dubious fistful of votes." All agree that America's electoral machinery needs a tune-up, at minimum, or even a complete overhaul.

Yet besides Fidel Castro's generous (though perhaps apocryphal) offer to send election monitors to Florida, what concrete, constructive suggestions does the world have to offer us? Do international electoral standards and practices hold any worthwhile lessons for Americans?

Independent Electoral Bodies, Not Political Appointees, Should Oversee Elections

The now-familiar face of Katherine Harris, the Florida Secretary of State, hints at the answer to this question. (Republicans can substitute Carol Roberts of the Palm Beach Country canvassing board, if they prefer.) One of the most basic international election rules is that electoral processes should be insulated from political processes. In other words: Impartial administrators, yes; state campaign co-chairs, no.

The U.N. Human Rights Committee, the official custodian of the principal international treaty on civil and political rights, states the rule simply and unequivocally: "An independent electoral authority should be established to supervise the electoral process and to ensure that it is conducted fairly, impartially and in accordance with established laws."

The reasons for this rule are obvious and intuitive. The individuals charged with supervising and certifying the balloting should be guided by no interest other than that of ensuring a just and honest vote. Political bias, or even the public perception of such bias, adds a dangerous taint to the potentially controversial decisions that election officials make.

Functional and Effective Voting Machinery Should be Purchased

The technical assistance teams sent around the globe by the United Nations, the Organization of American States, and other international bodies to lend their expertise to national electoral officials focus much of their efforts on the mechanics of voting. The goal is maximize the accuracy and reliability of the voting machinery, so that the voter's intent is easily translated into a readable, correct and valid ballot. Put another way, these teams try to minimize the sorts of unhappy technical errors that rob people of their vote and distort the results of the balloting.

Here, as we have all learned to our dismay, the old, rickety, and malfunctioning voting systems in use in some U.S. jurisdictions – notably, in minority neighbors – would face serious critical scrutiny should a technical assistance team visit. While poorer countries may not have the resources to invest in state-of-the-art voting methods, this country does. But it seems to be among our lowest priorities. In New York City, where I live, even the once-notorious subway system has been given a recent and successful makeover; it is rather a shock to find decades-old mechanical lever machines in the voting booth.

Moreover, international election monitoring efforts look beyond simple voting mechanics to also consider ballot design – an issue that, as Florida's butterfly ballot fiasco made clear, clearly needs attention here. Indeed, on the ballot-design issue, the OAS report on its January 2000 mission to the Guatemalan elections sounds prescient, as if it were aimed at Palm Beach rather than Guatemala City. The report urged the authorities to "improve the graphic design of the paper ballots . . . in order to avoid confusion and facilitate the vote."

Accurate Voter Rolls Should be Kept

Another area that comes under scrutiny from international experts is the accuracy of voter rolls. The Unit for Protection of Democracy, an OAS agency, has worked to "modernize" the electoral rolls in numerous Latin American and Caribbean countries in recent years. Among other things, the unit assists national officials in purging their rolls of dead voters, duplicate entries, etc., and in facilitating the processing of eligible voters.

This, too, is an area in which Florida, at least, is weak. According to a recent story in Salon, thousands of Florida voters may have been deprived of the franchise based on the state's flaw-ridden system of "cleansing" its electoral rolls. Ensuring that each of the states allows citizens to vote once they have properly registered to do so should be a high priority domestically – just as international organizations have made it a high priority internationally.

A National Embarrassment

Florida's electoral chaos revealed some ugly truths about U.S. voting procedures. If the United States is to again be viewed as a "model democracy," in anything more than an ironic way, electoral reform is needed.

Joanne Mariner, a FindLaw columnist, is deputy director of the Americas division of Human Rights Watch. She has previously written for FindLaw on subjects including the permanent disenfranchisement of ex-felons in Florida, and the elections that took place this year in Haiti, articles which may be found in FindLaw's archive of her pieces.

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