“No election is perfect—every election has irregularities,” he continued. “What we try to look at is, are those irregularities … a determining factor in the result of the election or not? In such a huge election like this, with 120 million-plus voters probably, I would find it very difficult for one or two factors to be a determining issue.”
From morning to evening on Election Day, de Icaza explained, OAS observers will station themselves at polling places, documenting things like how trained poll workers are, how long the lines are, and whether voters lodge complaints. The OAS is sending election observers, not election monitors like those affiliated with the Justice Department or U.S. political parties. The difference is that observers don’t intervene in the political process; if a voter were to come to OAS officials with a complaint, they would report it to U.S. authorities rather than taking action themselves. The OAS will then pool its observations into a report released to all member states that details what happened during the election, what good practices were observed, and what bad practices could be improved. (As an example of a best practice he’s observed in the course of his work, de Icaza cited Jamaica’s “political ombudsman,” who acts as a non-partisan mediator and arbiter of civil discourse during political campaigns and the rough and tumble of everyday politics.)
De Icaza’s larger point seemed to be that election observation isn’t just for weak and unstable democracies—that every democracy is imperfect and can learn from its peers and from its own failings. And that may be the broader lesson of America’s 2016 election when it comes to democracy. The explosion of campaign money; the fragmentation of the country’s party duopoly; the bitter partisanship inflamed by gerrymandering and media echo chambers; the profound public distrust of politicians, political institutions, and the electoral process—all have exposed what comparative studies of the world’s democracies have been telling us for some time: The United States is not, as U.S. politicians like to proclaim, the greatest democracy on the face of this earth.
But the United States is still a great, centuries-old, exemplary democracy. As de Icaza told me, “American democracy [is] much more than one election. Your country is born out of a democratic tradition based on civil liberties that are universal values.” I asked him whether he was concerned about the United States having the credibility to promote democracy in the Americas after this year’s election. No, he said.
Speaking in London in October, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry discussed his own struggle to square the ugliness of the 2016 election with the greatness of the American democratic experiment:
I must tell you bluntly this election has been difficult for our country’s perception abroad. There are moments when it is downright embarrassing. There are times when it steps out of any norm that I’ve known, and I ran for president in 2004. I could never have imagined debates that were not focused on real issues, and so it’s been a real change.
And the way it’s made it difficult for me is that when you sit down with some foreign minister in another country or with the president or prime minister of another country and you say, “Hey, we really want you to move more authoritatively towards democracy,” they look at you—they’re polite, but you can see the question in their head, in their eyes, and in their expression. It’s hard. Or when you run in and say, “By the way, it’s really important you guys get your budget passed,” and I can see the quizzical look at us when last time we tried to pass a budget was I don’t know how many years ago. We do a continuing resolution nowadays. We don’t do the normal process.
So this is a difficult moment, but the one thing I would say to you is the great thing about the United States is that it has an amazing resiliency. It has an incredible ability to absorb something like this, and it will come out, and in my judgment it will come out stronger.
In the same New York Times article in which Nicholas Burns noted the dark side of the world watching the 2016 campaign, Amara Nwankpa, who works at a Nigerian NGO that promotes good governance, pointed out a bright side: America, he hoped, would “emerge from this experience a more empathetic partner” to less-established democracies. “There’s some ironic reassurance in the fact that even the great United States of America could struggle this much with elections,” Nwankpa explained.