October 19, 2004 | Commentary on National Security and Defense

A Tale of Two Elections

Americans like to think of their democracy as a model of inspiration, a shining City on a Hill, a beacon of hope for the disenfranchised of the world. But the shining model has become a bit beat-up around the edges. There were those of us who foolishly hoped that the 2004 presidential election would restore the shine that was lost in the 2000 election, but the signs right now are not promising. The legal and political posturing is in full swing throughout the land.

"The 2000 recount was more than a national embarrassment; it left a lasting scar on the American psyche," writes Wall Street Journal columnist John Fund in his new book, "Stealing elections: How Voter Fraud ThreatensOur Democracy." Many Americans are convinced that politicians can't be trusted to play by the rules and will either commit fraud or intimidate the voter. Some 38 percent of American voters still think that the Florida outcome in the 2000 election is in question, and 44 percent believe the mess could be repeated. Our voting morale is low. The United States ranks number 139 out of 163 nations in the world in terms of voter participation.

Does this have an effect on elections in other countries? What difference does it make to the world if we have to have court rulings on our elections, and if hordes of lawyers wait in the wings to pounce at any real or imagined problem, or if the final result is made suspect and belittled in the aftermath? Isn't this between Americans?

The fact is that what happens in an American election has a huge worldwide impact, even beyond the question of who wins. The United States sets an example for the world that can be both good and bad, and no other election is watched with such profound international interest and curiosity or covered as widely as the American presidential election. People listen, and they learn. What are they to make of an American foreign policy that exports democracy, if we do not have trust in our own? On Oct. 9, for instance, the people of Afghanistan went to the polls to elect their leader in the first real election the country has ever held. It is always profoundly moving to watch a people, thirsting for peace and hope, endure major hardships with patience and determination to cast their vote for a better future. After the Soviet occupation of the 1980s, the civil war of the 1990s and the tyranny of the Taliban, millions of Afghans deserve that chance.

With terrorists and the Taliban alike hoping to derail the election, it is a major accomplishment of the provisional Afghan government of President Hamid Karzai and the Bush administration that the vote even took place. Without American security and investment in the political process, it simply could not have happened.

What followed the day of polling, unfortunately, could also be seen as bearing an American imprint, at least in spirit. Before so much as one ballot could be counted in Afghanistan, four opponents of the Afghan president had pre-emptively filed no less than 43 complaints.

Their contentions ranged from problems with the indelible ink that was used to mark those who had voted, which allegedly wasn't indelible at all, to shortened opening hours and missing equipment at some polling stations. The complainants backed down when an investigative body was formed, the U.N.-Afghan Joint Electoral Management Body. Only then could the counting proceed. As was expected, Mr. Karzai is leading in the count at this stage of the counting, which will probably take two weeks.

How long will our own vote count take this time? Hours, days, weeks? According to Mr. Fund, many of the problems we face today arise from the reforms made after the 2000 election to improve the electoral system. Lawsuits are currently being filed throughout the states to clarify and challenge the legislation. Democrats are charging that requirements for voters to show IDs at the polls amounts to "voter intimidation and suppression," in the words of a spokeswoman for the Democratic National Committee.

One of the greatest innovations of the Help America Vote Act, the provisional ballot, which would allow you to vote even where your name is not on the district voting roll, also promises to be one of the election's biggest headaches and potential sources of fraud if not tightly controlled. We are in for a bumpy ride, to be sure, with the rest of the world watching.

Helle Dale is director of Foreign Policy and Defense Studies at the Heritage Foundation. E-mail: helle.dale@heritage.org.

About the Author

Helle C. Dale Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

First appeared in The Washington Times