Now I know what it feels like to live in a banana republic.
In the 20 years I spent as a foreign correspondent, I covered a lot of elections in a lot of countries. Some of them were well-established democracies. Some were newcomers to voting, freshly emerging from dictatorship. And still others were messy, in-between sorts of places, their institutions corroded by poverty or conflict or deep political divisions.
Reporting these stories invariably involved talking with international election observers, usually people from places such as France Canada, Australia or Japan. You see, those countries — and especially the United States — claimed to speak with the authority that came with long experience with democratic institutions. The observers’ job was to monitor the process and offer an objective assessment of how the election in question had gone. Ideally they would also offer a bit of helpful advice on what might be improved. Sometimes their judgments were clouded by diplomacy or political expediency, but, more often than not, the monitors had useful criticisms.
On Wednesday, I heard what observers had to say about elections in my own country. And it wasn’t pretty.
Most Americans probably don’t know that international observers routinely attend U.S. elections. Some of my compatriots seem to regard this as a brazen intrusion in our internal affairs — at least 12 states prohibit, directly or indirectly, any outside monitors from attending voting there. (One wonders what they’re so afraid of.)
These particular observers come from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, a group launched during the Cold War as a talk shop designed to reduce conflicts between East and West. Today, 57 countries are members, 33 of which contributed experts to the observation mission. One hundred and thirty-six observers deployed on Election Day. The United States, as a member of the OSCE, signed up for all the same commitments as the other countries, including standards on human rights and democracy. And why not? Who’d have ever thought that we’d fall short?
On the day after the midterms, I found myself in a conference room in a Washington hotel, listening to the verdict from the heads of the observer mission (one Italian, one Portuguese, and one from the republic of Georgia). They had a lot to say.
They started by paying their respects, calling the midterm elections “highly competitive” and citing some of the positive aspects of our democratic process. That was pretty much what I expected them to say. The OSCE that I remember from my own days in Europe was a master of delicate diplomatic niceties.
But then things got real. Without naming names, the observers cited the dire effects of gerrymandering and partisan redistricting, which tilt the playing field for the parties in power. They warned about unnamed election officials who campaigned in the same elections they were supposed to be overseeing. (Here’s looking at you, Georgia.) They criticized campaign finance rules for their lack of “full transparency” — a pretty mild way of putting it, I would say. But I think you get the point.
Tana de Zulueta, who represented the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, called on “political leaders on all sides to speak out against anti-Semitism and all forms of intolerance and discrimination.” She expressed her grief and horror over the attack on the Pittsburgh synagogue during the last days of the campaign, and criticized threats against journalists, referring to the “essential role of the media in a democratic society, which is to be able to give all voters a balanced picture of events and of the political proposals being made.” I couldn’t help wondering if I’d ever hear President Trump make a statement like that.
Isabel Santos, head of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly delegation, welcomed “progress in some states to facilitate voter registration and to reinstate voting rights to citizens. But we cannot ignore the fact that millions of Americans remain effectively disenfranchised.” She urged the United States to make efforts “to overcome these longstanding challenges and to address new ones, like effectively securing election infrastructure.”
Wow. That’s the kind of thing I might have heard at the same press conference for a former Soviet republic in the mid-1990s. But it happens to be true. Right before the midterms, the U.S. Election Assistance Commission quickly disbursed $380 million to all 50 states in a desperate effort to help them get up to speed on election security.
And as for that point about disenfranchisement? Experts estimate that 50 million Americans — one-fourth of those who are theoretically eligible to vote — remain unregistered. That’s an astonishing figure. Do we still have the right to call ourselves a democracy when so many potential voters aren’t in a position to exercise their rights?
I guess we could just blame it all on the Europeans, whom we so love to make fun of. I get it. It’s always painful when someone else points out that you’re not living up to the standards you once so proudly claimed to exemplify. We already knew that American democracy was in bad shape; now outside eyes confirm it. We’d be well advised to take the warning seriously.