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Foreign election officials amazed by trust-based U.S. voting system

For the head of Libya’s national election commission, the method by which Americans vote is startling in that it depends so much on trust and the good faith of election officials and voters alike. “It’s an incredible system,” said Nuri K. Elabbar, who traveled to the United States along with election officials from more than ...

Josh Rogin/Foreign Policy
Josh Rogin/Foreign Policy
Josh Rogin/Foreign Policy

For the head of Libya's national election commission, the method by which Americans vote is startling in that it depends so much on trust and the good faith of election officials and voters alike.

"It's an incredible system," said Nuri K. Elabbar, who traveled to the United States along with election officials from more than 60 countries to observe today's presidential elections as part of a program run by the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES). Your humble Cable guy visited polling places with some of the international officials this morning. Most of them agreed that in their countries, such an open voting system simply would not work.

For the head of Libya’s national election commission, the method by which Americans vote is startling in that it depends so much on trust and the good faith of election officials and voters alike.

“It’s an incredible system,” said Nuri K. Elabbar, who traveled to the United States along with election officials from more than 60 countries to observe today’s presidential elections as part of a program run by the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES). Your humble Cable guy visited polling places with some of the international officials this morning. Most of them agreed that in their countries, such an open voting system simply would not work.

“It’s very difficult to transfer this system as it is to any other country. This system is built according to trust and this trust needs a lot of procedures and a lot of education for other countries to adopt it,” Elabbar said.

The most often noted difference between American elections among the visitors was that in most U.S. states, voters need no identification. Voters can also vote by mail, sometimes online, and there’s often no way to know if one person has voted several times under different names, unlike in some Arab countries, where voters ink their fingers when casting their ballots.

The international visitors also noted that there’s no police at U.S. polling stations. In foreign countries, police at polling places are viewed as signs of security; in the United States they are sometimes seen as intimidating.

Sara Al-Utaibi, IFES deputy country director in Jordan, said that the fact that voting is done differently in different U.S. states is highly unusual. In Maryland, for example, electronic voting is common, whereas in Washington paper ballots predominate. If there are different voting procedures within another country, someone assumes fraud or abuse, she said.

“What’s very unique about the way the Americans do it, it’s not the process, it’s the confidence that’s placed in the process,” she said. “This is what lacks in other countries. They say if this would happen in Arab countries it would not work the way it does in the United States.”

Many of the visiting international officials noted that there were no observers at the polling places to ensure that proper voting procedures were being followed. IFES staffers explained to them that in the United States, election observers are sent by the political parties, which wouldn’t use their limited resources inside the District of Columbia, where President Barack Obama is a heavy favorite.

Many of the visiting election officials were from emerging democracies, including Tunisia, Indonesia, Russia, Nigeria, and Yemen. The will spend a total of four days in the United States in a series of workshops and seminars.

“The point is to bring the highest-level commissioners and election staff here so they can connect and exchange ideas,” said Ambar Riaz Zobairi, IFES deputy regional director for the Middle East and North Africa. “The overall point is to highlight the very interesting electoral process that we have here.”

Provisional ballots are also a source of puzzlement for international officials. American voters who don’t find their names on the rolls can vote anyway and verify their eligibility days later, a system not often found abroad. Ballots in foreign countries are often not as complicated as ballots in the United States.

“Their ballots are simple. We have a range of things on our ballot, referendums and such. In most countries, it’s just president and parliament,” said Cindy McCormick, an IFES consultant with more than 30 years of election monitoring experience.

One observer from Lebanon who did not want to be quoted pressed staffers on how the ballots are handled before and after voting day. He was amazed that ballots are sent directly to poll workers and that the handling of those ballots after the voting ends is also entrusted to local poll workers.

In Morocco, the poll workers take the unused ballots outside at the end of the night and burn them, McCormick said. In Russia, unused ballots are piled up and a poll worker drives a spike though the pile with a hammer. In The Gambia, a country in West Africa, each voter is given exactly one marble, which they place in one of the large marble collecting jars that are set up for each candidate.

“The polls workers are listening because when the marble goes into the jar, there’s a ding. And if there are two dings, maybe somebody came in with extra marbles in their pocket, so they call the police,” she said.

Asked how Gambians do a recount with the marble-based voting system, McCormick said, “I have no idea.”

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