Monitor This!

by on August 10th, 2004

The Europeans are coming! The Europeans are c… Wait a second here. When our democracy was in diapers, most of them were still living under monarchs, and were quickly headed in the direction of communist or fascist autocracies. We had finished our Civil War decades before most of them had come around to the mere idea of representative government. And it was America, after all, who allowed Western Europe to have a fighting chance at constitutional governance in the first place. After nearly 230 years, what does Europe have to teach us about democracy?

Having done the odd bit of election monitoring myself, it occurs to me that welcoming the OSCE with open arms is probably the best thing we can do for the cause of democracy around the world in the long run, if that’s truly what America is all about. The process of election monitoring taught me more about representative government than every civics class I ever took and every election I ever voted in, combined. Still, the observers will probably just learn what Churchill told us — “democracy is the worst form of government except for all those others that have been tried.” But that’s not why the OSCE should send as many monitors as possible.

First, a little about what election monitoring is and isn’t.

What it is: Election monitors do just that — they monitor. It’s a highly technocratic undertaking, far less about political beliefs than just process, process, process. And if there’s one group of people that are better at over-regulating and hyper-processizing than we Americans, it has to be the Europeans. Monitors watch registration activities (usually starting several weeks before the polls open), they watch people lining up in front of the precincts, they look at the ballot box seals, they watch people walking to the voting booth, they watch the ballot being dropped into the box, and they watch the counting process at the end of the day. They typically go to several precincts to get a snapshot of how the process works (or doesn’t). It’s all very grass roots, earthy, and, generally, dull. But it’s monitored. And at the end of the whole circus, they write up a giant report full of sincere and earnest conclusions about how the process (there’s that word again) could be improved.

What it isn’t: The advice election monitors get from the very beginning sounds eerily like Star Trek’s Prime Directive — don’t interfere with this alien culture. They’re not to do exit polling, they’re not supposed to point out inconsistencies, nor can they provide helpful hints. They don’t right wrongs, they don’t fix problems, they don’t put out a “feedback to the OSCE” suggestion box. They’re there to watch. Occasionally an overzealous observer tries to intervene in some particularly egregious issue, but generally the monitors pride themselves on being wrapped up in the sheer tedium of it all.

So, notwithstanding our little Florida debacle in 2000 (which, most observers agree, proved that the system, however imperfect and in need of fine-tuning, ultimately worked as intended by the framers), we’ve got this process down pat, right? What good is a 237-page postmortem of the election — written by a bunch of European technocrats who probably aren’t favorably disposed to the United States in the first place — going to do for us?

In fact, it probably won’t have any discernable effect at all. The OSCE election report will, regardless of the eventual winner of the election, probably be lost in the cacophony of the election reporting results. It will be an A19 item in the New York Times and possibly a small feature story in the Christian Science Monitor. It’ll be trotted out occasionally by members of European socialist governments to remind America that we’re not so perfect as we think. Why participate in this charade at all?

Because there’s a larger issue at stake. For a variety of reasons which began well before even the Clinton administration, America’s credibility on the world stage is in the toilette. And when truly anti-democratic regimes are asked to submit to election monitoring, it doesn’t take an career ambassdor to come up with a persuasive argument against it: just ask sweetly, “has the United States has ever had election monitors?” Because if the mighty US of A doesn’t have to open itself up to criticism from without, why should anyone else? It’s a hard question to answer, because the honest response would be, “we don’t need our elections monitored because we’ve been practicing this for a long time and know what we’re doing.” But try telling that to Kim Jong Il, Mohammed Khatami, Pervez Musharraf, Alexander Lukashenka, or any of the long list of heads of state whose elections are crying out for a little monitoring.

It’s a simple issue of double standards, and American foreign policy has never been internally consistent. If we’re not prepared to embrace a little healthy and relatively well-intentioned criticism, how will we be able to press the cause of free elections elsewhere? And, frankly, how can we expect to start to close the credibility gap if we don’t?

As another American recently said, “bring ’em on.”

Marc C. Johnson