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Q&A: Stanford scholar on challenges to clean and fair elections

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Pedestrians walk by signs outside the Licking County Board of Elections on Oct. 2, 2012, the first day of early voting in Newark, Ohio.
Photo credit: 
Reuters

With political upheaval sweeping the Arab world and the presidential campaign entering the home stretch in the United States, democracy and elections are hot topics. But a bigger story about those bedrocks of fair and open governments has unfolded all over the world in the past two decades, as more than 50 authoritarian regimes have converted to democratic societies.

The change hasn’t always been ideal. Corruption and violence continue to mar some budding democracies, while restrictive voter ID laws and big money have tainted the political process in the world’s most established democratic systems.

Stanford political scientist Stephen J. Stedman just wrapped up his work as director of the Global Commission on Elections, Democracy and Security – a group that spent almost two years reviewing the integrity of elections worldwide. The panel was convened by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance and the Kofi Annan Foundation, an organization founded by the former U.N. secretary general.

The panel’s report lists 13 steps that individual countries, civil society leaders and the international community can take to make sure elections and democracies are fair, open and honest.

“The first is the most basic,” said Stedman, a Freeman Spogli Senior Fellow at the Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law. “You have to have a society where citizens feel everyone is equal under the law.”

Stedman discusses the panel’s work in the following Q&A.

What was the need and motivation to analyze how free elections are faring around the world?

Each of the commissioners came to this with different concerns. Kofi Annan, who chaired the commission, was very much driven by his experience of having to deal with several elections in Africa that had become violent and had gone off the rails. And there’s a frustration he feels about how little attention had been paid to those places before they blew up.

Ernesto Zedillo, (a former Mexican president and vice chair of the panel), was motivated to join the commission by a real alarm at the nefarious influence of huge sums of money in political finance – not just in America, but in parts of the world where transnational organized crime is getting involved in the political process. We’re finding that political finance and campaign finance might be ways for those groups to buy legitimacy or protection through democratic political systems.

Others were concerned that despite the incredible growth of democracy during the last 20 years, there isn’t a guarantee that you’re getting good government out of it – especially in poorer, developing countries.

Has the global economic slump stressed democracies?

A fundamental pillar of democracy is political equality; that every citizen has an equal opportunity to influence politics.. But in a world where the gap between the rich and poor is growing, its more challenging to make sure everyone has that opportunity.

For developing countries, there’s a real challenge in building democracy under scarcity. The biggest danger for poor countries is that all the resources tend to be centered in the state, and elections are about getting those resources. So if you lose, you have nowhere to go. In wealthy democracies, that’s not the case. Whoever loses the U.S. election this year will still have a comfortable life. That’s not true in many parts of the world. If you lose in Asia or Africa, for instance, you’re just out of the game. But that winner-takes-all system has to change in order to have a strong democracy.

The report concludes that the “rise of uncontrolled political finance threatens to hollow out democracy everywhere in the world.” How is that playing out?

Political finance is absolutely necessary for democracy. It’s good that citizens feel so strongly that they’re willing to make donations and express their preferences by contributing to campaigns and candidates. And candidates and parties need money to get their messages out. But you just have to look around the world over the last 15 years and see all the countries that have had political finance scandals. It’s a long list, and it includes some of the best-known democracies in the world. Even in the best conditions, it’s a problem that can corrupt your democracy.

And the problem is becoming more urgent. With growing economic disparity, it’s become easier for certain groups to buy and influence elections and governments.

The commission specifically criticizes the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which says the government cannot restrict independent political spending by a corporation or union. Does the ruling delegitimize America’s efforts to push for solid democracies and fair elections in developing countries?

Citizens United has essentially created a system of “anything goes.” In the eyes of many Americans, political finance is corrupting our democracy. And America’s reputation has taken a large hit internationally. In doing this report and talking to democratic activists around the world, so many of the conversations immediately go to the decision and the amount of money allowed to influence the system. It has diminished our reputation.

Both Western Europe and the United States are often better at professing the best practices of elections and democracy than following them. It definitely hurts when people overseas say: “Wait. You’re telling us to do this. But what do you do, exactly?”

Other than money, what are some of the barriers to political participation that hurt the growth of democracy?

It varies around the world. But across the board, women are still vastly underrepresented in voting and in political office in most democracies. That speaks to a slew of cultural, social and economic barriers.

In the United States, the problems tend to manifest themselves as barriers to the participation of minorities – especially African-Americans and Hispanics. It goes to the heart of many debates over the use of legal restrictions to register voters. And the restrictions are usually couched in language about protecting the integrity of elections. But the policies have the net effect of restricting participation by minority poor voters. And that’s what actually hurts the integrity of elections. The amount of out-and-out electoral fraud in the U.S. is miniscule. The amount of voters who are marginalized and dispossessed because of these voter ID laws is much greater.