International elections expert 'amazed' by tight U.S election
Charles Costello is the director of the Carter Center's Democracy Program, which has played a pivotal role in monitoring 29 elections overseas in the last decade. A veteran of elections monitoring, Costello spoke with CNN.com and said even he is "amazed" by the closeness of the U.S. presidential election. The Carter Center has not acted as an election monitor in the U.S. election.
Q: How does this U.S. election compare to what you've seen in your years of monitoring elections overseas?
COSTELLO: It's quite unbelievable. I'm amazed as everyone else is that the election could be so close and come down to some issues of what we typically think of being within the realm of technical election standards -- things like design of a ballot or the criteria used in determining whether or not a ballot has been spoiled.
It's just quite amazing that some of these issues -- which we are used to dealing with overseas and often occur on a large scale overseas bringing into question whether an overall election meets standards -- could (happen) here. Amazingly, you drill down from the national level to a state level to a county level, and we're talking about something that could decide who is going to be the next president of the United States.
Q: Are you worried at all that this election could affect the Carter Center's credibility overseas in monitoring elections?
COSTELLO: I don't think we're concerned about it affecting our credibility, because what we and other groups like us have done is we've worked hard over the last 10 years to help develop what we call international standards for free and fair elections.
We don't go overseas to say, 'Here come the Americans and here's how you should do it and look at how we do it.' We, in fact, know that there are some failings in our system. One of those failings that could be cited immediately is the whole campaign finance structure here. That's an area that really needs significant reform and harms the American democratic system in our view.
More typically, in other countries, there'll be government control of the media, so that what gets on TV or in the newspapers is slanted. And we can certainly point here in the United States to a very open and active press.
But the technical standards for elections and the conduct of elections in the United States that we are all seeing graphically and clearly for the first time are that it's extremely decentralized. It operates at the state level, rather than the federal level. In fact, most of the job of the elections in putting everything in place, even to the point of designing and printing the ballots, is done at the level of county and local jurisdictions.
There's a beauty to that, in that it's a safeguard against any attempt to take over or manipulate the election system in national elections. On the other hand, what we are seeing is that it also leads to some uneven quality standards and not a following across the board of best practices or of use of best available technology.
So, when you get into an extremely tight race like we have, the importance of some of these technical problems becomes hugely magnified.
Q: Have you heard from election officials in other countries, wondering what's going on in the United States?
COSTELLO: No, we've been so engrossed ourselves with what's going on as both citizens and elections specialists. We've been looking at computers and news reports as much as everybody else. ... We do have a Chinese delegation in the country that has had a chance to see with their own eyes the balloting procedures in Georgia.
Q: Could the Carter Center ever be called in to monitor this election and would you be willing to do so?
COSTELLO: Some other people have now raised that question about Carter Center involvement somehow. As I say, the Carter Center typically monitors elections overseas. We didn't do any monitoring of this election. I suppose we would be available as election experts for technical comments on questions people might pose to us. But monitoring or mediating this election? I doubt it.
Our leader, President Carter, is of course known as an elder statesman and elections expert from his work in this field overseas. Obviously, he was a Democratic president of the United States, so people would find it hard to accept him in any role here.
He did make a statement Thursday at the National Press Club in Washington about the election. It was basically the same kind of message we give in similar circumstances overseas. And that is: Everybody should stay calm, let the people who are directly involved in it go at it in a thorough and professional way, and try to keep political passions from being inflamed by the kind of public discourse that's used. Also make sure that this thing is channeled into American institutions, such as election commissions, the courts, and a free press, for a full treatment in a way that keeps this thing done according to the rule of law, according to proper procedures and in a civilized and peaceful way.
The fact that the country was so evenly split about who should control not only the presidency but also Congress is quite remarkable. In most countries that we work, that would create immediate dangers of civil unrest and a struggle over power.
I think the great good fortune of us here in the United States is that we have full confidence that this will be worked out according to election laws. Therefore, everybody should stay calm and let this get settled the proper way.
Q: When voting irregularities arise in overseas elections, similar to what we're seeing in Palm Beach County and a handful of other counties, what steps are taken to ensure fair and accurate elections?
COSTELLO: Election observation and work especially before elections is part of our overall process. We're not used to being in countries where you have 2,000 or 3,000 different people deciding what a ballot is going to look like. Typically, in countries where we work, you have a ballot format that is used for the whole country decided upon by an election commission. ... The format of that ballot is typically uniform. That's very often part of our work in the months before an election. We'll send a delegation; we'll meet with election commissions; we'll look at ballot design and critique ballot design.
The ballot design can affect the final outcome. Something like the design of the ballot in what we would otherwise think of as a free and fair election could indeed cause election outcomes that don't accurately reflect the choice of the electorate, the will of the people. People might tend to vote one way and because of a misleading ballot vote differently.
At some point, beyond some minimal level, from an elections point of view, technically there should be an examination of such circumstances, especially if they could ultimately affect the outcome of the election. ...
Q: Is casting ballots a second time in disputed counties a viable alternative? In some ways, that seems unhealthy and possibly dangerous giving people a second chance to vote knowing how the rest of the country has voted.
COSTELLO: An electoral system should have a strong element of finality to it. But I think if you look at case law, for example, in the courts and election experiences around the country, you do have a lot of cases you can point to where re-balloting has been done or where there is some new review of ballots as cast in which officials try to determine whether they should be counted or not.
It's just never occurred anything like the situation we have now, where everyone can see that you have the potential in one county in Florida to possibly change the outcome of the race for president of the United States. It's unprecedented.
There are arguments on both sides, and you have to way it very carefully.
... If you look at it from the point of view of the voters, the votes don't belong to George Bush and Al Gore. The votes were cast for them, but the right to vote and the right to have your vote counted properly belongs to citizens. If you have strong evidence that the vote count does not accurately reflect the vote of the electorate, then it seems to me there should be a chance to question it.