- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 28, 2000

Americans who specialize in promoting democracy and election observation abroad said yesterday that Florida's recount fiasco has not undermined U.S. credibility or their ability to do work overseas.

"Just the opposite; in fact, there is a kind of envy," said Patrick Merloe, director of the international elections program at the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI).

Ken Wollack, president of NDI, has just returned from Serbia where a lawyer involved in elections work told him that she sat "glued to the television set" during the arcane legal arguments Democratic and Republican lawyers put before Florida's Supreme Court.

" 'That is what we aspire to,' " Mr. Wollack quoted her as saying. " 'When we have a problem, we don't call out the tanks, we call out the lawyers.' "

Republican election observers agreed.

"The thing that impresses them most is that there is a system to deal with this. There are no tanks in the streets, no National Guard on the street corners and no ring of security around the White House. There is no panic in the street," said Lorne Craner, president of the International Republican Institute.

IRI has sent observers to more than 100 foreign elections in the past 15 years, including in Mexico, Mongolia and Croatia this year. Mr. Craner has observed elections in more than a dozen nations.

He said that some authoritarian governments are using the Florida confusion to discredit democracy at large, arguing that totalitarian stability is more desirable than democratic chaos. But political leaders in emerging democracies have been heartened by the Florida process.

"We've gotten calls from Americans saying we ought to be observing in Miami, but no [foreign election administrators] are telling us we are no longer qualified to work with them because our country is such a mess," Mr. Craner said.

He said emerging democracies generally look to other newly democratic nations, not the United States, for election models. Careful scrutiny is given to nations that have cleaned up their processes after a history of stolen elections, he said.

"Mexico now has an excellent election system. Nicaragua has a good election system. Mongolia, which recently came out of a dictatorship, has a good system," he said. "Mexico and Venezuela had a history of dirty elections, so they bent over backwards to fix the problem."

As an experienced observer of foreign elections, he said, he was struck by the fact that many U.S. states still use primitive polling machines while some other countries are using modern machinery developed in the United States.

He said Mexico and Venezuela both have more sophisticated election machinery and balloting procedures than the ones used in Florida, adding that those nations have a centralized system, vs. the local control in the United States.

"In Venezuela, you mark a paper ballot with a pencil, it feeds into a machine which scans the ballot, and at the end of the day, you flick a switch and the results are sent to Caracas wirelessly," he said. "There are no hanging chads."

Charles Costello, director of the democracy program at the Carter Center in Atlanta, said the Florida contest has proved useful for its work overseas.

"It brings home the point that technical preparation is a critical part of the electoral process," Mr. Costello said. "When elections aren't close, people don't tend to worry, but when they are close, everything goes under a microscope."

The Carter Center sent observers to six foreign elections in the last year.

Alexander Knapp, of the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), said his organization has been asked about the Electoral College and partisan U.S. election administrators, but that the Florida hiccup has not undermined its credibility.

"Nothing has changed in how we do business. Florida is not hurting our work. We are hearing from our international partners that it reaffirms our mandate," he said.

Mr. Knapp said his organization has 25 permanent offices around the world. IFES helps with the electoral processes prior to the elections by training poll watchers, helping to clarify the ballot and educating voters.

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