Miami Herald

Every democracy is an ongoing process

Andreas Gross, a Swiss congressman, observed the Nov. 5 Miami-Dade election as a member of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe team.

ST. URSANNE, Switzerland -- Why observations of elections in other countries are in the interest of all of us and in particularly of safe and healthy democracies is worth exploring.

First, we have to be aware that there are no perfect democracies. Every democracy is an ongoing process -- always unfinished and always able to be improved. You may reduce the imperfections, but you will never get a perfect democracy.

Second, if you know only yourself, you do not even know yourself. Who you are, how you came to be what you are and which strengths and weaknesses you share can only be discovered when you compare yourself with others. This is true not only for individuals but for whole countries and their institutions and politics, too.

With such an attitude, I have observed 21 elections in Europe over the last seven years. Excepting France, all of the elections that I observed occurred in young democracies-in-the-making that face huge difficulties in overcoming the mental and social heritages of communism, discrimination, poverty and abuses of political and economic power.

So I was happy to be member of the first international team in U.S. history to be invited by the U.S. State Department to observe an American election. Besides being aware of the debacle of America's 2000 presidential election, I also have an American grandmother, admire Thomas Jefferson and have studied the populist and the progressive movements in the American West. These movements fought for direct legislation by the people and for the people -- an idea that Swiss citizens like, as it seems most Floridians do, too.

After meeting many interesting folks in Washington, D.C., and Tallahassee who helped us to understand the specifics of Florida's recent experiences, I shared the opening and closing procedures in a polling place in downtown Miami. I observed citizens voting and spoke with many and with poll workers and the civil servants involved. What I saw on Election Day was convincing and encouraging: Miami-Dade County was able to overcome the bad experiences of the 2000 election and the September primary.

The new machines functioned, many people liked them and no vote appeared to have been lost. Florida did not collapse under the international spotlight. Local officials illustrated the best crisis-management practices and mobilized a lot of money and resources to do so.

I even recognized a similarity between the polling station in downtown Miami and the one in a lonely, rural lake area north of St. Petersburg in Russia. In both stations the voting procedures had been organized by smart, serious and committed elderly women who welcomed us in the same warm way while ignoring the differences of their historical, cultural and social backgrounds and contexts. When I mentioned this to the 88-year-old assistant clerk in Miami, a former singer from New York, she liked it.

I am sure her Russian colleague whom I remember with equal warmth will do this next year too, when she will again supervise the Russian parliamentary elections. She'll be pleased to hear that we not only assess the evolution of new, inexperienced democracies such as Russia's but also long-established ones such as America's.

What did surprise me in Florida -- and in the United States in general -- had less to do with the Election Day process and more to do with the political culture.

• First, I observed in voters a considerable amount of fear and distrust about government and politics. More than one voter insisted that, this time, he hoped that his vote would not be ignored, forgotten or misjudged.

• Second, I was very much astonished that neither the federal nor state governments feel really responsible holding for free, fair and correct elections but instead delegate this key democratic responsibility to counties. I say this although I totally support decentralization and local power. I come from a European state that cherishes these political virtues above all others. But in Switzerland, every public entity has to follow a federal law that guarantees a single standard in elections -- that the Congress in Bern is representative of all people and that every citizen's vote has been respected and counted independently of economic status, ethnic origin, gender, age or political view.

The implementation of this basic standard is up to the cantons, counties and even villages -- but the standard is set at the national level and has to be respected by all in the same way. I understand that new legislation at both the federal and state level establishes national standards for elections from now on in the United States, ending differentiations such as how each county dealt with hanging chads differently, etc.

• Third, I could not believe that the quality of U.S. democracy depends so much on money. More than one official explained to the observers that some counties prefer to spend money on new roads or buildings instead of new voting machines, voter education and poll workers' training to guarantee optimal elections.

Do those who make these choices forget that democracy is the only legitimate source of power -- and that in order to use political power legitimately you have to be sure that you got it in the best way you are objectively able to realize? Do they understand that distrust, social tensions and conflicts, often the consequence of poorly done elections, may be much more costly than that of ensuring a good election?

One more thought unrelated the voting process but to candidates and negative campaigning. Why is it more effective to spend $1 against the opponent than using it to praise one's own achievements, convictions and principles and what you want to work for in office? Isn't it a shame for a political culture in particular -- and the society in general -- if this is the case? In many Western European countries you don't have to forbid negative ads by law because they would be totally counterproductive and would backfire.

Yet it was a great opportunity to observe the elections. I thank the authorities who let us do this job. The best way to value our respect for Americans and their democracy is to present suggestions on how their democracy may be improved. I could make such suggestions in every country, but not all would appreciate them as much as some citizens here might.

© 2002 Project Syndicate

Andreas Gross


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