View from foreign observers: American voting system heavily reliant on trust

Foreign observers watching the voting process in the United States suggested it is a system that involves a lot of trust:

“It’s an incredible system,” said Nuri K. Elabbar, who traveled to the United States along with election officials from more than 60 countries to observe today’s presidential elections as part of a program run by the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES). Your humble Cable guy visited polling places with some of the international officials this morning. Most of them agreed that in their countries, such an open voting system simply would not work.

“It’s very difficult to transfer this system as it is to any other country. This system is built according to trust and this trust needs a lot of procedures and a lot of education for other countries to adopt it,” Elabbar said.

The most often noted difference between American elections among the visitors was that in most U.S. states, voters need no identification. Voters can also vote by mail, sometimes online, and there’s often no way to know if one person has voted several times under different names, unlike in some Arab countries, where voters ink their fingers when casting their ballots.

The international visitors also noted that there’s no police at U.S. polling stations. In foreign countries, police at polling places are viewed as signs of security; in the United States they are sometimes seen as intimidating.

It can be helpful to get outside perspectives on what takes place in the United States. Two thoughts based on these observations:

1. How long will this trust last? There was a lot of chatter online yesterday about voting irregularities. Do the two parties and Americans in general trust each other to handle voting? This reminds me of the oft-quoted de Toqueville who wrote in Democracy in America that Americans were more prone to join civic and political groups. The United States was born in the Enlightenment era where old ways of governing, church and tradition (meaning: monarchies), were overthrown and citizens turned to each other and a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” (Lincoln in the Gettsyburg Address). Of course, we can contrast this with Robert Putnam’s work in Bowling Alone which suggested Americans have retreated from the civic and social realm in recent decades. Plus, confidence in American institutions has declined in recent decades.

2. Trying to implement an American-style voting and government system in countries that don’t have the same history and culture is a difficult and lengthy task. In other words, this sort of system and trust doesn’t just develop overnight or in a few years. Voting systems are culturally informed. This should help shape our foreign policy.

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