By Tammy Joyner
David Carroll has spent the better part of his career helping people in other countries ensure fair and accurate elections. As director of The Democracy Program at The Carter Center, Carroll has managed or participated in more than 75 election-related projects in Latin America, Africa, Asia and the Middle East. He joined the Carter Center in July 1991.
Carroll’s recent focus, however, has been on U.S. elections —most notably the 2020 Presidential election. Last November, Carter Center colleagues served as nonpartisan observers when Georgia conducted its historic post-election audit of the 2020 presidential ballots. Fresh from that election and this year’s senate runoff races, Carroll spoke this week at The Atlanta Press Club’s “Future of Democracy Now.” Some of his comments are excerpted here.
Title: Director of The Democracy Program
Organization: The Carter Center in Atlanta
Q. What was the most valuable lesson learned from participating recently in monitoring various elections in the United States?
A. It drove home how fundamentally similar the United States is with struggling countries around the world. Democracy is a constant challenge and requires constant work. We’re not special in terms of what it takes to have elections that have confidence and integrity. It underscored a lesson that we’ve learned a long time ago in our international work and that is the fundamental importance of there being public trust. The key factor involved in building that public trust is transparency and accurate information so that people understand what’s happening, that they know there are trusted sources of information and there’s maximum transparency around that process and they can see it and understand it. That’s probably the overarching lesson.
Q . Did you find it disturbing to monitor the U.S. elections?
A. It was not at all disturbing. It was actually quite refreshing for me and for many of the colleagues at the Carter Center who were involved because in our work internationally we see the value of the important role that citizen observation can make. It’s a form of civic engagement, but there’s also an element of transparency. It’s a way for citizens to get engaged and to try to generate that data and information. We know election processes can always be improved and you need good information. So systematic observation by observers who are nonpartisan and trained to do that kind of work can really play a great role in helping improve the processes going forward. So we were quite pleased to have this opportunity. Not that the Carter Center should do this around the country, but there should be efforts like this all around the country. It helps build confidence.
Q. Given our recent rocky elections in the United States, what is the message we should be communicating to other countries that may be heading into their own contentious elections?
A. One of the things we’ve heard for many years when we work around the world is sometimes people will ask us ‘Well, it’s great that you’re coming here but is the United States such the perfect model? Why don’t you do more in your own backyard and at home?’ We’ve always fully embraced and agreed with those comments.
We should also be thinking about how to work on democracy at home. We’ve never held up the United States as a model. While there’s many great things about elections and democracy in the U.S., it’s been clear to us for a long, long time that we have some fundamental long-term problems in our campaign finance system and also in our election administration which in most states is partisan and not fully independent. Our decentralized system makes elections overly-complicated and most fundamentally, there are way too many obstacles and barriers for there to be broad participation. That’s one of the fundamental standards and obligations – the obligation to ensure universal suffrage.
The fact that in our country there are too many obstacles that make it hard for every citizen to vote easily is a serious problem. It’s been there for a long time and we need to address it. Improving democracy at home will help us in our international work to be honest that we have issues here that we’re trying to address.
Q. How might the outcome of the U.S. Senate’s impeachment trial affect future elections?
A. There needs to be an understanding and reckoning and acknowledgment of what we have just gone through. In order to go forward, we need to understand what happened and to do that honestly and accurately. I’m concerned that that might not be the outcome of what happens [after the impeachment trial]. Therefore, we’ll have a long-term challenge facing us as we go forward.
Q. Is there a country you’ve been to that is a good example of how Democracy should be practiced?
A. I don’t know if there are good examples. The world is in a tough spot right now.
Listen to Democracy Director David Carroll explain why the Carter Center decided to get involved with the U.S. elections here. More information about the Carter Center’s work can be found here, and you can contact them here.