Photo courtesy of

During his recent African tour, President George W. Bush called for Zimbabwe’s presidential and legislative elections to be “free and fair.” A transparent and open poll “happens to be in the interest of the world,” he declared. On face value, this claim appears quite reasonable. What is just for a large number of people and is bad only for a tyrannical ruling elite is always “good for the world.” Observers and officials inside Zimbabwe and abroad agreed that the country’s 2002 election was riddled with fraud, inaccuracies, and widespread disenfranchisement. Free and fair elections would represent the first step toward a more just political system based on democratic principals.

Notably, President Bush’s statement came just days after the White House released its FY2009 International Affairs budget, which reflects a two-fold increase in democracy and governance (DG) program monies since he took office in 2000. This escalation matches his repeated rhetorical declarations on the centrality of promoting democracy abroad, an ostensible mission he has repeatedly emphasized since the events of September 11, 2001.

To some, the Bush administration’s repeated proclamations in support of “democratic values” and the increased federal budget for democracy programming are signals that the United States is committed to promoting and strengthening such processes worldwide. According to Bush, “It is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture.”

Assuming that the United States falls within “every nation and culture,” an examination of Washington’s democracy promotion rhetoric as it pertains to its own political system reveals a tendency to “do as I say, and not as I do.”

Opportunities for the Next Administration

Although democracy promotion has been a particular focus of the Bush White House, it has also been an element of U.S. foreign policy for more than 40 years, from the Kennedy administration’s establishment of the United States Agency of International Development (USAID) in the 1960s to Ronald Reagan’s founding of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) in 1983 to George H.W. Bush’s $300 million annual Support for Eastern European Democracy (SEED) fund in the 1990s. In addition to this historical trend, the candidates’ own statements and positions indicate that democracy promotion will continue to be a priority of the next president.

The next administration, as the Carnegie Endowment’s Thomas Carothers noted in a recent report, “will have a significant opportunity to put U.S. democracy promotion on a better track.” Carothers is correct to state that the next administration must “decontaminate” democracy promotion from the negativity acquired under Bush, “reposition” it away from its current affiliation with the war on terrorism, and “recalibrate” it to account for an ever-changing international context.

Indeed, democracy promotion via regime change – from covert action in Iran and Chile, to the war in Iraq – is ill-conceived and catastrophic for the people of the countries in question. Due in large part to the Bush administration’s choices, U.S. democracy promotion has become associated with such actions, and not with the targeted assistance that can, if properly implemented, be effective. When performed with buy-in from governments and carried out in a participatory manner, civic education initiatives, training for local officials and other programs funded by monies stemming from democracy promotion policies may yield sustainable results. At the same time, though, many of the programs fail to bring about the change they were intended to enact. In addition, despite claims to the contrary, democracy promotion is not American-centric. Nearly every country that gives foreign assistance includes funds for democracy aid projects. Moreover, many international organizations and multilateral institutions – such as the United Nations and European Union – support democracy aid programs.

The important issue here is not whether democracy promotion is legitimate or whether its application overseas can be improved, as Carothers argues. Despite his salient positions and articulate argument, Carothers misses one central point: unless the United States follows its own advice domestically, its myriad arguments regarding why it is important to deepen democratic practices abroad will ring hollow.

Strengthening the U.S. democratic framework is one part of what should be a multi-faceted campaign to improve the U.S. image abroad. Other key elements include signing the Kyoto Protocol, closing the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, and renouncing the CIA’s use of torture and extraordinary rendition. However, the importance of improving the U.S. democratic framework extends beyond enhancing a tainted image or reinforcing rhetoric with action. U.S. citizens deserve the same attention to democratic process as the U.S. government claims to offer the world’s dispossessed.

In order to improve U.S. standing in the world, and strengthen its democratic framework from within, the next administration should embark on a robust domestic democracy promotion campaign. While there are myriad issues that could be enhanced – from enfranchising voters to improving voter identification standards, reforming the electoral college, and other technical aspects of voting (such as reconciling touch-screens with paper ballots) – making improvements on the following components, in which it has aided other countries, would be a good start to empowering the American people and reconciling foreign policy with the domestic agenda.

Election Observation

Long-term election monitoring and observation missions are central to ensuring that an electoral process is “free and fair.” The U.S. government has for years requested access for its observers to the elections of other countries. These observation missions are often funded by procurements funneled through USAID and organized by groups such as the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs and the International Republican Institute, among others.

These missions are often staffed by experts and professionally implemented and coordinated with efforts of other international bodies, such as the Organization of American States. Though their missions are more symbolic than substantive, senior ranking U.S. government officials also travel to observe elections across the globe. Recently, foreign policy heavyweights Sen. Joseph Biden (D-DE), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. John Kerry (D-MA), and Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-NE) traveled to Pakistan as part of two U.S. congressional delegations to observe that country’s highly contested February 18 parliamentary poll. In all cases, the United States assumes that, as the standard-bearer of democratic norms and principles, sending observers is its duty and right.

Although the United States often expects unfettered admittance for its observers into the polling places of other countries, it grants foreign observers, whether from an international organization or a foreign country, only selective access to U.S. elections. In 2004 the U.S. invited the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to send a delegation to observe that year’s presidential election. Though U.S.-sponsored election observation missions often receive access to a given country’s every province, the 2004 OSCE delegation was denied access to polling stations in key states, such as Ohio and Florida, and was granted only limited access in others. Missouri, appropriately known as the “show-me” state, is the only state that allowed unrestricted access to international observers.

As international affairs specialist Robert A. Pastor eloquently indicates, these practices are not compatible with U.S. rhetoric: “Any developing country that restricted observers to a few Potemkin polling sites as the United States did [in 2004] would be roundly condemned by the State Department and the world.” This electoral exceptionalism also permeates U.S. efforts to educate its own citizens – particularly its youth – regarding voting protocols and their civic duties.

Educating Voters and Citizens Abroad

The recently released FY2009 Foreign Affairs budget ($39.5 billion) contains $1.75 billion for initiatives that promote democracy around the world, including funds to support President Bush’s “Freedom Agenda” and an expansive programmatic agenda including, among other programs, training workshops for legislators and various exercises to strengthen political parties.

A portion of the recently appropriated funds will also go to funding voter and civic education campaigns across the globe, similar to those that USAID has implemented in the past. In Kyrgyzstan, for example, USAID funded a civic education program in 669 schools to encourage students to “think critically about good governance, democracy and civic activism.” The program educated youth about the roles and responsibilities of their government institutions and representatives and helped “instill in them” the desire to actively participate in the country’s democratic process. A similar initiative, currently at work in Morocco and also funded by USAID, is equipping students with the tools to “evaluate government policies” and make demands on elected officials. Although they are not without their flaws, such programs, if co-designed and co-implemented with local stakeholders, may yield sustainable results and help empower youth to more effectively engage in their country’s political process. In the 1990s the federal government spent $232 million on voter and civic education programs abroad.

Small Supply, Big Demand

According to the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress (NEAP) for civics, young people in the United States are desperately in need of such programs as well. The NEAP Assessment indicated that an average of only 21% of students in grades four, eight, and twelve possessed “proficient” civic knowledge and intellectual skills. A mere 2% expressed “advanced” knowledge of the subject matter.

The federal government has attempted to target this problem by, in FY2007 for example, appropriating $29.1 million for civic education programming. Channeled through the U.S. Department of Education, these funds were dispersed to the Center for Civic Education (CCE). This California-based non-profit organization has conducted “We the People: The Citizen and the Constitution,” a program to improve the quality of civics and government education, and the Cooperative Education Exchange, a program to improve civic and economic education through exchange programs. A 2007 evaluation of the We the People program, which examined the knowledge of 822 participating students across 50 states against that of 735 non-participating students, demonstrated that participants on average possessed 30% greater understanding of the core values and principles of democracy as well as the rights and responsibilities of citizenship than did non-participants.

While funding for the CCE has steadily increased since the late 1990s – from $8 million in FY2000 to $17million in FY2006 – it has faced an uphill battle. In 2005, for example, amidst a flurry of spending on the war in Iraq and other programs abroad, President Bush submitted a budget proposal that requested that all funding for the CCE be cut. Unfortunately, it seems that an administration that has decried authoritarian regimes and spent millions on civic education programs abroad is hesitant to devote comparable resources to equipping its own citizens with the tools to be active caretakers of their own democracy.

Voter Turnout and Political Engagement

Inadequate civic education and insufficient voting information also have a negative impact on whether people go to the polls on election day, a basic and fundamental measure of political engagement. Mindful of the importance of broad participation in elections, the United States has supported myriad efforts across the globe aimed to “get out the vote” (GOTV), most recently in the run-up to Kosovo’s 2007 parliamentary elections. Through a coalition of 74 local organizations in Kosovo, the USAID-sponsored door-to-door canvassing campaign (a novel approach never before seen by Kosovars) combined with media outreach and other GOTV measures to help ensure that turnout was “on par” with that of previous elections – 55%. Aside from increasing voter turnout, such initiatives are designed to build the capacity, through targeted technical assistance, of local organizations to independently implement such campaigns in the future.

Statistics and percentages indicate that the United States could also benefit from such GOTV initiatives, or other measures and structural reforms aimed to increase voter participation and enhance access to elections. In 1987 the Congressional Research Service (CRS) carried out a study on voter turnout in presidential elections among citizens of voting age in 28 democratic countries from 1969 to 1986. The CRS study found that the U.S. voter turnout rate, 53.58%, was the lowest of the 28 countries, the average voter turnout rate of which was 76.96%. Nearly 20 years later, voter turnout in the United States, depending on the formula used to calculate the numbers, is roughly the same, hovering around 50-55% in presidential contests (and lower in Congressional races). In fact, the United States ranks 20 out of 21 in voter turnout among “established” democracies – of these states, only Swiss citizens go to the polls in lower numbers. Young people are among the most at risk. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, voter turnout by youth declined from the 1970s to 2000. Despite an 11% increase in turnout by youth from the 2000 to 2004 elections, a 17% gap between this demographic and the rest of the population remains.

While state and federal legislators have mostly failed to adequately address the issue of voter turnout, independently-funded and -administered voter education and GOTV campaigns, especially targeting young voters, minorities, and other traditionally underrepresented demographics, continue to expand. For example, the New Voters Project will conduct voter education and registration drives at 300 colleges in 25 states beginning in fall 2007. In addition, MTV’s “Rock-the-Vote” campaign will employ a 25-state bus tour that incorporates a voter registration drive and musical get-out-the vote events in order to educate and mobilize young people to exercise their right to vote. The federal government should increase funding for such programs.

Structural Reforms to Spur Turnout

Aside from spurring people to get out of their homes and into the polling booth, the United States could also make structural changes to render voting more convenient. Voters who choose to participate on election day must do so during the work week – on a Tuesday. Most likely, this paradigm functioned quite well in the 1700s and 1800s; the U.S. economy was based on agriculture and farmers had flexibility within their schedules. Increasingly long and arduous work weeks, coupled with daunting commutes and packed schedules, though, lead many U.S. citizens to jettison voting from their list of priorities, opting to work that extra hour instead of casting a ballot.

The United States is one of the only remaining Western democracies that does not hold elections on a “day off.” To see the potential impact such a reform (or one that would move election day to the weekend) one need only look to Puerto Rico, where election day is a holiday – voter participation reached 82% in the 2000 presidential elections.

Many other efforts, with a particular focus on making registration easier, have been enacted since the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) was passed. More mobile voter registration offices are in use now than ever before. The Department of Defense established the Integrated Voting Alternative Site (IVAS) and a new group of voting assistance officers to ensure that members of the U.S. armed forces can register and vote while serving overseas. Nonetheless, the U.S. must do more to increase access to elections for citizens and bring voter turnout up to par with other nations across the globe.

Ending Exceptionalism

The age of U.S. exceptionalism – in particular as it pertains to promoting democracy abroad while allowing it to whither within – must end. Change must begin now and continue into the next administration.

In order to repair democratic integrity and reinforce its rhetoric with action, the United States should re-invite the OSCE to observe the 2008 elections. In addition, President Bush, as he is the only individual with the authority to do so, should urgently send a request to the UN to deploy a long-term monitoring mission to observe the November elections, something he refused to do in 2004. Such an act would send a strong message to the rest of the world that the U.S. is not reluctant to take a dose of the medicine it so often prescribes.

The next president must also step away from the assumption that individuals are, by being born or stepping foot upon U.S. soil, automatically imbued with the knowledge and training necessary to be engaged and effective citizens. As a start, the next president should mandate the establishment of a federally-funded civic education program for high school seniors, one of the many salient recommendations of the Commission on Federal Election Reform co-chaired by former president Jimmy Carter and former secretary of state James Baker III and implemented by the Center for Democracy and Election Management (CDEM) at American University. The youth of America, like those in the countries in which the U.S. government funds civic education programs, need programs that inform them of their civic duties and the importance of voting. As indicated by the Carter-Baker Commission’s report, ensuring that citizens of all ages have access to information on voting procedures and campaign issues is vital to guaranteeing their informed and active participation in the electoral process. In addition, the next president should also match every dollar spent abroad on civic education with an equal amount of funding for domestic programs.

Structural changes are also necessary to increase access to voting. As a start, the next president should urge members of Congress to re-introduce and pass the Weekend Voting Act, originally put forward in 2005 by Democratic Senators Jon Corzine (NJ) and Herb Kohl (WI). This or a similar bill would move election day, for congressional and presidential races, from Tuesday to Saturday and Sunday, and in doing so eliminate one of the impediments citizens face when attempting to vote in the United States.

The strengthening of the U.S. electoral system must run deeper. The Carter-Baker Commission’s recommendations – from permitting international observers access to U.S. polling places, establishing a professional and independent electoral commission and ensuring that all electronic voting machines are equipped with the capacity to produce a verifiable paper trail – should serve as the backbone of this effort to effect sustainable progress. Without such changes the United States will continue to play the role not as the beacon of freedom but that of a well-known hypocrite.

Patrick W. Quirk is a writer and development professional. He is a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus ( and the author of the recently released book Emotions and the Struggle of Brazil's Landless Social Movement (MST) (VDM Publishing, January 2008).

Get more news like this, directly in your inbox.

Subscribe to our newsletter.