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U.S.: Do Voting Scandals Taint Role As Democratic Standard-Bearer?

For the second time in four years, the U.S. presidential election was marred by allegations of dirty tricks, long lines, and a bias against black and minority voters. To be sure, the controversy of this year's vote appeared milder than the chaos of 2000, when George W. Bush was named president after an emotional 36-day legal battle leading all the way to the Supreme Court. Is the U.S. electoral system looking increasingly flawed to the rest of the world?

Prague, 5 November 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The votes were counted. Irregularities were investigated. In the end, the process was deemed free and fair.

For newly elected Afghan President Hamid Karzai, all that remained was the formal blessing of the United States -- which State Department spokesman Richard Boucher soon delivered.

"We congratulate the Afghan people on turning out in record numbers to choose their country's next head of state, and we congratulate the more than 100,000 Afghan election workers and friends of Afghanistan who helped make this election possible," Boucher said. "Everyone involved has much to be proud of. The election is the latest milestone on the Afghan people's road to democratic government and a vibrant civil society."

But even as Karzai was celebrating his victory in Kabul, voters in the United States were anxiously wondering if their own election had been free and fair.
After a few hours of uncertainty, Bush's team claimed victory in Ohio, and thus the presidency, even though Senator John Kerry had not yet conceded.

From Wisconsin to Pennsylvania to Nevada, voters complained of being turned away from polling stations after their names were removed from registration lists. Others applied for absentee ballots that never arrived or cast their votes on antiquated -- or overly futuristic -- voting machines prone to breakdown.

Debate was especially heated in Ohio, where alleged dirty tricks, uncounted ballots, and lines that stretched as long as eight hours left the outcome of the election -- and the fate of the state's crucial 20 electoral votes -- hanging in the balance.

It also earned the usually placid Midwestern state an unflattering nickname: "the Florida of 2004." Florida played a key role in helping George W. Bush gain the presidency in 2000 despite losing the popular vote.

The Florida win in 2000 came amid allegations of massive voter fraud and widespread disenfranchisement of black and other minority citizens, who traditionally vote Democrat.

Adding to the controversy was the fact that Florida's governor was Bush's brother, Jeb. The state's top electoral official, Secretary of State Katherine Harris, was a serving member of George W. Bush's reelection campaign.

The circumstances in Ohio this time were similar. The secretary of state there, J. Kenneth Blackwell, is also a Republican and the state's co-chair of the Bush-Cheney campaign.

After a few hours of uncertainty, Bush's team claimed victory in Ohio, and thus the presidency, even though Senator John Kerry had not yet conceded.

The move unleashed an outpouring of criticism from election watchers like Harvey Wasserman, the author of "History of the United States" and the senior editor of, an Ohio-based political website.

"One of the very disturbing things about this election is that the exit polls in Ohio and in Florida early in the evening of election night showed that Senator [John] Kerry was going to win those two states," Wasserman said. "And then suddenly things changed and the votes started going the other way. We think it's entirely possible that the [electronic] voting machines misrepresented who got what votes. We have no way of following that up because the secretary of state of Ohio and the governor of Florida both resisted, successfully, having voting machines installed that had paper trails."

But a delegation from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) brought in to monitor the U.S. vote said the election "mostly met" international standards for free and fair elections.

Speaking in Washington, D.C., the OSCE's Barbara Haering said yesterday the voting and processing of ballots appeared to proceed "in an orderly manner."

"The presidential campaigns were conducted in a highly competitive environment," Haering said. "The leading candidates enjoyed the full benefits of media."

OSCE missions are a more common sight in other parts of the world, where electoral procedures are routinely plagued by allegations of corruption and vote tampering. It is the first time the OSCE has sent a sizable monitoring group to cover a U.S. election -- 92 delegates from countries including Belarus, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Armenia.

Chadwick Gore is a staff adviser for the U.S. Helsinki Commission, a U.S. government agency that monitors the compliance of the OSCE's 55 member states with principles of democracy-building and global governance.

Gore said the standards used to judge elections in the United States are no different than those used elsewhere.

"We have a set of standards that we use in Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, France, United Kingdom," Gore said. "Those same standards are used when the observers come and look at the elections in the United States, and they have just done so."

But some post-Soviet countries have accused the OSCE of applying a double standard when it comes to East and West.

Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka this week claimed the U.S. elections were held according to standards unacceptable in Belarus. Russian members of the OSCE's U.S. delegation told ITAR-TASS they were surprised to discover "numerous" flaws that could result in "violation of voters' rights and distortion of the voting results."

Does such criticism undermine America's traditional role as a democratic standard-bearer?

Gore of the U.S. Helsinki Commission said no -- not only because of the OSCE's positive assessment of the vote, but because of what he said is the U.S. ability to accept criticism and learn from it.

"What will be interesting will be to see what kind of changes take place in the United States following the findings of the observer mission, as opposed to the recalcitrance we see in countries east of Vienna to follow up on the recommendations made by the observer missions in their countries," Gore said.

Indeed, steps are already being taken in Ohio to ensure that future elections will not suffer the same fate. Voting machines might have paper trails in time for state elections in 2006.