OPINION: Can the Carter Center save American elections?

Political signs outside Forsyth County Elections Office on Monday, May 16, 2022. (Natrice Miller / natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

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Political signs outside Forsyth County Elections Office on Monday, May 16, 2022. (Natrice Miller / natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

When the Carter Center’s Democracy Program goes into a country to monitor elections, the places they’re traveling to are typically coming out of — or are still experiencing — some sort of distress. Whether it’s a civil war, a famine, a military junta, or some other sort of crisis, the Carter Center team’s goal is to strengthen the democratic system on the ground and improve the future of the country.

But after working in more than 100 elections in 39 countries, including Myanmar, Nepal, and Nigeria, their newest effort may also be the most difficult — in the United States.

David Carroll is the director of the Carter Center’s Democracy Program. I met him earlier this year when we were both speaking to European dignitaries about American elections.

After I spoke about Georgia politics, I was amazed to hear him tell the group that, after decades of working to strengthen democracies overseas, the Carter Center had come to the conclusion in 2020 that the work that most needed doing was right in its own backyard.

I followed up with Carroll this week after writing for the last several months about the incredible stresses we’re still seeing on American democracy, from the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol to the investigations into former President Donald Trump for election interference, to the latest development in Georgia of citizens challenging their own neighbors’ voter registrations — enabled by a law passed by the state Legislature.

My basic question for him is one I’ve been asking myself — can this democracy be saved?

We began by talking about his own realization that, after decades of work watching for warning signs of democracies in peril, the brightest red flags were waving at home.

“On all of the indicators of a country facing serious threats to its democracy, we’re right up there,” Carroll said. Among the things that caused him concern were the increasing level of polarization in American politics, a growing lack of public confidence in elections, clashes over race and racial justice, and, especially, disinformation around elections.

“If we saw this constellation of issues and concerns, resulting in such a high level of distrust or lack of confidence in elections, (the U.S.) would be on our shortlist for the kind of place that we would normally want to engage,” he said.

Also on the shortlist this year: Kenya, Brazil, Zimbabwe, and Nigeria, where the Carter Center is also planning engagements in the near future.

The goal in all of those countries, including America, is to increase trust in elections, and, in turn, strengthen democracies. International best practices, many of which they developed themselves, include building local coalitions, improving voter education, and acting as nonpartisan, outside observers to assure accuracy and transparency.

A snapshot of the kind of work they have done in the U.S. came in 2020 in Georgia, when the Carter Center worked on an election security task for Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger’s office.

They were also the only nonpartisan observers for Georgia’s Risk Limiting Audit, which eventually became a full hand recount of the entire state, as demanded by Trump after he lost here. 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.

In 2022, they’ll expand that work to the key battleground states of Michigan and Arizona. They may return to Georgia as well.

Carroll said that tactics that have worked overseas could also work here in the future, too, like voter information campaigns to make sure that citizens understand how votes are counted, not just how they’re cast. And they could also bring candidates into the process by creating a list of principles for honest, transparent elections.

They’ve realized quickly that monitoring U.S. elections presents unique challenges that the Carter Center team hasn’t dealt with before. Since each state operates its own elections, they’ve already run into each state’s laws, schedules, processes, and even vocabulary for election workers. Monitoring two states is like monitoring two different countries’ elections on the same day. Now make that 50 states.

And getting buy-in from local leaders is made both easier and more difficult because of the Carter Center’s namesake: Former President Jimmy Carter. Although the Democracy Program’s overseas work is celebrated as the best of its kind, Jimmy Carter is still known in America as a former Democratic president.

Carroll knows he’ll need support from Democrats and Republicans in order to be effective.

As tempting as it may be for Democrats to pin the blame for American democracy’s current mess on Trump, Carroll said he began to see the earliest seeds of a problem in the U.S. shortly after the Center began its democracy work more than 30 years ago.

And the crisis of confidence is not limited to one side or the other.

“I think it bears repeating that this is not a problem of the Left or the Right. There are people on both sides of the spectrum, both sides of the aisle, that now increasingly lack confidence in our elections from different areas of concern.”

It’s hard for many people to be optimistic about the future of American democracy, but based on the Carter Center’s successes elsewhere, Carroll is hopeful about what lies ahead for the U.S.

So in a word, yes, this democracy can be saved.

“You have to recognize a problem in order to address it,” he said. “And I think the problem is pretty well recognized.”