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Practicing the democracy we preach

The problems and uncertainties surrounding the outcome of the United States presidential election provide a reminder that the US would benefit from reviewing the lessons on democracy it has been teaching to other countries: Good techniques are very important, but democracy also depends on the political will to make it work.

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the US has been engaged in a determined effort to promote democracy worldwide. It now spends more than $600 million a year on democracy assistance.

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One of the most successful aspects of democracy promotion has been electoral assistance. With US government funds, organizations such as the International Foundation for Electoral Systems have perfected techniques to help democratizing countries improve the fairness and credibility of their election processes. As a result, voter registration, the management of polling stations, and the securing and counting of ballots have improved dramatically in many countries.

Technical solutions do not eliminate all problems. Governments and political parties determined to manipulate election outcomes will always find a way. But, while there is no easy technical fix for deep-seated political problems, good technical processes help convince voters that fairness is not impossible and that cheating will be detected.

Unfortunately, the US does not always practice at home what it preaches overseas. American voters have discovered in the past three weeks that American elections can be rather sloppy.

Many of the technical and political problems common in the US would be denounced if they took place elsewhere.

American citizens often cast their ballots without showing voter-registration cards or other identification papers, but the US government spends millions of dollars to help other countries issue photo voter-registration cards.

After the vote, US election officials handle ballots so casually that two days after the elections, an absent-minded clerk can discover a forgotten bag of ballots in the clutter of his car trunk.

Most surprising of all, not all election officials have mastered the art of producing ballots that are understandable to voters. Yet, these are all simple tasks, part of the ABCs of elections we teach to other countries.

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We should not be so complacent. These elections have shown that even a well-established democratic system needs good technical safeguards.

With such safeguards, American voters would still be split down the middle in terms of their preferences, but they could at least feel confident that the vote has been counted correctly.

They can't feel confident now, and not only about Florida. Submitted to the same close scrutiny, other states would probably also be found wanting.

There is a simple way to start addressing this problem: Assess US election practices using the same criteria we apply to other countries.

But election standards are only one part of the story. The other is that democracy is a matter of having the political will to play by the rules even when this entails a high political price.

It is only this determination to play by the rules that can see the US through the present crisis and leave democracy stronger. How the crisis is handled will also determine the effectiveness of US efforts to promote democracy abroad for years to come.

These elections can easily increase the skepticism about democracy that still prevails in many countries. Pity the democracy expert trying to convince an audience in a country that just experienced rigged presidential elections - Azerbaijan or the Ivory Coast for example - that the problem with the Florida vote is unrelated to the fact that the governor of the state is the brother of one of the candidates.

Or that the judges deciding which of the competing vote tallies should be accepted will base their conclusions on points of law and not on political considerations. Abstract explanations will not convince anybody.

Skeptics will look for evidence that we can deal with the problem by adhering closely to existing laws, no matter the short-term political cost. Later, we can consider rewriting the law.

Unfortunately, the picture is not entirely reassuring. When the Bush campaign denounces the Florida vote recount, which is mandated by law, as a sign that Vice President Gore is a poor loser, the cause of democracy is not strengthened here or abroad. Neither is it strengthened when the Gore campaign uses the inflammatory rhetoric of disenfranchisement to refer to ballots some voters found confusing.

THE primary concern of the US is and should be to solve the crisis in a way that does not undermine the American public's confidence in the fairness of the political system. But we should not forget that what we do in this instance will have significant repercussions in other countries.

A bitter struggle to control the presidency at all costs will undermine the credibility of the US as a promoter of democracy.

A bipartisan effort to protect the integrity of the system will show the US practices what it preaches. We will teach other countries more effectively if we also put our own lessons into practice at home.

Marina Ottaway is a senior associate in the Democracy and Rule of Law Project of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society