As Carter Center turns 40, a growing focus on U.S. elections

Other changes afoot at Atlanta nonprofit as Jimmy celebrates 98th birthday

In some ways, the Carter Center has the feel of a museum.

Images of former President Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn. Statues and busts. Trophies and commendations from around the world. Andy Warhol prints.

But as the nonprofit turns 40 this week, change is underway.

A younger generation is calling the shots and expanding in new directions.

The pandemic, and a quiet retirement in Plains, have kept Jimmy and Rosalynn away. Both are in their 90s — Jimmy turns 98 on Saturday — and no longer involved in decision-making.

“Not because they don’t care. But part of their legacy is leaving an organization that can run without them,” said Jason Carter, one of their grandchildren, and the chairman of the board of trustees.

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The center, located next to the Jimmy Carter Library and Museum on 35 forested acres in the heart of Atlanta, is still rooted in its original mission of promoting human rights, advancing democracy and eradicating diseases around the planet.

Increasingly, though, as the world continues to shift, it is taking aim at other global issues such as water shortages and climate change.

And after monitoring voting in 40 foreign countries over decades, it is turning more of its attention to U.S. elections.

It has money to grow. The Carter Center’s budget for the next fiscal year is $167.4 million, up 8.8% from this year.

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

When it comes to the Carter family, the torch has been passed to Jason, who helped cut the ribbon to open the center in 1982 as a seven-year-old. He joined the board in 2009 and became chairman in 2015.

Two years ago, Atlanta native Paige Alexander was brought on as CEO. She joined the center after working overseas for nongovernmental organizations, including as executive director of the European Cooperative for Rural Development, and spent a lot of time in Africa.

Alexander arrived days after downtown Atlanta was sacked by rioters following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

On just her second day on the job, she issued a stinging statement from the Carter Center calling for an end to excessive police force against African Americans.

It was a clear signal that the center, with its long international shadow, would be wading more deeply into domestic matters.

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Of the center’s more than 3,000 employees, only about 200 are in Georgia. Most are in African countries like Ethiopia, Chad and Mali.

In 1986, when the center started working on eliminating Guinea worm disease, caused by drinking contaminated water, there were 3.5 million cases annually, most of them in Africa. Last year, there were just 15 cases.

“Pulling the thread on these issues is something we are going to continue to do because we have had great success,” Alexander said. “But at the same time, we have to look at the way the world has changed.”

That includes elections closer to home.

“What we realized is that the indicators of a healthy democracy were turning in the wrong direction in the United States,” said Jason Carter. “The distrust in the system on both sides of the aisle, direct attacks on the system in a variety of contexts, that all made us realize, that if we were gonna have credibility internationally, we needed to be doing that here.”

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Although Jimmy Carter is no longer actively involved in the center, he hasn’t been quiet about his own concerns. On the one-year anniversary of the Jan. 6, 2021 Capitol riot, he warned in a sharply worded New York Times op-ed that the U.S. was “at genuine risk of civil conflict and losing our precious democracy.”

In 2020, the center worked on an election security task force for Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger’s office. When former President Donald Trump lost Georgia and demanded a recount, the center was the only nonpartisan observer for Georgia’s Risk Limiting Audit.

About 50 Carter Center monitors went into 25 counties to observe the process alongside Democrats and Republicans in the heat of the election challenge and sent back recommendations for future elections, including more training for partisan observers.

There has been pushback, amid concerns of political bias. Jimmy Carter, a Democrat, publicly criticized Trump ahead of the 2020 presidential vote, saying Trump’s re-election would be a “disaster.” Jason Carter ran for governor as a Democrat in 2014.

“That makes it a much more difficult nut to crack in the United States,” acknowledged Jason Carter in an interview, seated at the Carter Center’s Presidential conference room, steps from his grandfather’s vacant office.

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Nonetheless, for the 2022 midterms, the center is expanding its U.S. election work. It will have teams in Georgia, North Carolina, Florida, Arizona and Michigan working with bipartisan and non-partisan groups, said David Carroll, director of the Carter Center’s Democracy Program.

Earlier this month, the center launched the Candidate Principles for Trusted Elections initiative, a bipartisan effort to encourage candidates, political parties, and voters to uphold five core doctrines of democratic elections: integrity, nonviolence, security, oversight, and the peaceful transfer of power.

The project is backed by more than 50 organizations and institutions across the political spectrum, including the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Foundation, named after the former Republican president Carter defeated in 1976.

Among those who have signed the pledge are Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams and the three candidates for Georgia Secretary of State: current office holder Raffensperger, a Republican, and his two opponents, Democratic State Rep. Bee Nguyen, and Ted Metz, a Libertarian.

From his home in Plains, alongside his wife, Jimmy Carter is watching — and pleased.

“While there will always be more to do, we are confident that the Center will continue to evolve to meet the world’s changing needs and contribute to creating a society in which everyone can enjoy basic freedoms and have the chance to lead productive lives,” he said in a statement.