When former president Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, launched the Carter Center in 1986, one objective was promoting peace and democracy around the globe.
As part of that mission, the Carter Center became a leading election monitoring organization, observing more than 110 contests in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.
“We’ve always worked for peace around the world, but we’ve always ignored the United States,” Carter told Voice of America in an exclusive 2019 interview.
That same year, during a “Conversations at the Carter Center” event, he told an Atlanta audience one country that wouldn’t qualify for his center’s election observation mission… is his own. Among the reasons: judging the fairness of elections is a monumental task in a nation like the United States, where all 50 states have differing laws and rules for voting and counting ballots.
“The Constitution basically says that each state is independent and that’s why we have such a diverse way of conducting elections,” Carter told the crowd. “We don’t have a uniform way to mark ballots, count ballots or anything else.”
But after U.S. intelligence agencies documented foreign interference in the 2016 U.S. election and predicted a repeat in 2020, the Carter Center concluded their international experience might help at home by focusing on voter education.
“The decrease in public trust in the electoral process was something that was a real concern to us,” said Avery Davis-Roberts, an associate director in the Carter Center’s Democracy Program.
“A majority of Americans don’t have trust in the election," she said. "We’re seeing real issues around political polarization. We’re seeing sort of long-standing tensions around race bubble up to the surface much more explicitly this summer and all of these issues sort of coincided for us.”
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This, Davis-Roberts added, is why her program is now engaged in an unprecedented public information campaign educating Americans about casting absentee ballots and mail-in votes, a record number of which were requested this year because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“This is an unusual election for the United States,” Davis-Roberts said during a recent Skype interview. “We haven’t in my lived experience had an election like this before. We are all kind of learning as we go.”
The Carter Center recently joined the Georgia Bipartisan Task Force on Safe, Secure, and Accessible Elections and is “offering expertise and guidance” to officials in the state, where voters are not only casting ballots for a president but also two U.S. senators.
The center is also offering training for journalists that includes information on international election standards and transparency, and is conducting a series of virtual conversations to promote better understanding about voting.
But Davis-Roberts emphasizes the Carter Center is not officially observing the 2020 U.S. election.
“We’re not going to be making an overall statement on the degree to which the entire electoral process met international standards as we might in other countries where we are able to deploy a large-scale systematic observation mission.”
Transparency and patience
She says the center’s U.S. initiative aims to promote transparency, and patience.
“No election is perfect. All elections have issues,” she explained. “When people understand how the election process works, it helps them to set their own expectations about the process and with that you can build confidence in the overall administration of the election process. We want all of the votes to be counted, we want to know that every voice is heard. We have to be patient and let that process unfold.”
The Carter Center’s U.S. initiative is also part of what former president Jimmy Carter hopes will be a greater role for his organization at home.
“We’ve also got to try to be the number one nation in the world, not only in peace but also human rights, and environmental quality, and the treatment of everybody as equals, no matter what their religion might be or what their party might be,” said the former president.