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Monitoring the U.S. Election for Democracy in the Americas

Perhaps no element of democracy is as quintessential as that of elections. This is why many governments with illiberal or undemocratic tendencies still go through the charade of holding elections even when they have fixed the results. A recent example of this occurred in Bolivia, where, according to many, Evo Morales sought to steal the vote. Organization of American States (OAS) election monitors caught Morales in the act by, leading to protests and his eventual resignation. The Bolivia case highlights the important role that electoral observers can play in ensuring that the democratic rules of the game are followed. If the United States is serious about defending democracy in the Americas, politicians on both sides of the aisle should extend an invitation to the OAS to monitor the 2020 U.S. presidential election.

Election monitor Blake Butler, U.S. Embassy Haiti consular officer, speaks with a monitor from the Organization of American States in Carrefour on March 20, 2011, in the second round of the presidential elections.
Image courtesy of Kendra Helmer/USAID © 2011

Electoral observers have a unique problem; the host government must invite them. This creates what political scientist Susan D. Hyde refers to as the “pseudo-democrats dilemma,” a situation in which pseudo-democratic leaders seek to gain prestige and legitimacy by holding internationally-monitored elections while working to manipulate these elections without getting caught. Within the Americas, leaders with less than democratic ambitions have taken a number of steps to ensure that election monitors do not undermine their ability to win national elections. One step has been to simply not invite election monitors, a move that can put pressure on leaders as their opponents can point to the unfairness of these elections. To mitigate these critiques, pseudo-democrats in the Americas have started to invite missions from the South American Union (UNASUR) to “accompany” their elections. Unlike OAS election monitors, UNASUR election accompaniment missions are not allowed to critique the electoral process that they observe. Thus, some leaders in Latin America have invited UNASUR missions to accompany their elections in an effort to provide cover for any electoral irregularities that may occur.

If, as U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo argued in front of the OAS, the United States is serious about promoting democracy in the Americas, it should seek to encourage all countries in the Americas to invite OAS election monitors to observe all national elections in the Americas. This is not a new policy nor is it a partisan issue. In 2005, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called on the OAS to play a greater role in bolstering faltering democracies in the Americas. One of the ways that the Bush administration sought to defend democracies in the Americas was by pushing for more election monitoring. However, the United States cannot simply demand that other countries have their elections monitored, particularly when the United States has not historically allowed election monitors. During the 2016 election, President Barack Obama invited the OAS to observe a U.S. presidential election for the first time. This highlighted that his administration was not seeking to impose election monitoring solely on other countries, but was open to having electoral observers treat all countries equally,

Both the Trump administration and the Democratic presidential contenders for the 2020 election should invite the OAS to send an Electoral Observation Mission to the U.S. presidential election. While OAS election monitors may highlight a number of challenges with the U.S. electoral system, inviting electoral monitors would also emphasize the strengths and openness of the U.S. electoral system. Electoral missions can play an important role in limiting the ability of undemocratic forces to steal elections. However, when the United States refuses to allow the OAS to monitor its own elections, other countries can feel emboldened to also refuse electoral observation. Having OAS monitors observe all elections in the Americas would strengthen rule of law and satisfaction with democracy in the Americas, but so long as the United States refuses to play by the same rules as the rest of the Americas, countries will be able to avoid monitors as well. If the United States wants to promote democracy in the Americas, it needs to lead by example.

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Adam Ratzlaff

Adam Ratzlaff is a PhD student in International Relations at Florida International University. His research interests include U.S.-Latin American foreign policy, Sino-Latin American foreign policy, Pan-American cooperation, the defense of democracy in the Americas, and economic and social development in Latin America. Ratzlaff has previously conducted political and economic analysis for several groups including the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank. He holds a MA in International Studies from the Josef Korbel School of International Studies (University of Denver), as well as a BA from Tulane University where he triple majored in International Relations, Economics, and Latin American Studies. Feel free to connect with Adam either via LinkedIn or on Twitter @adam_ratzlaff.
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