How Hard Is It to Hold a Fair Election?

As the chaos in Iran continues, it's easy to wonder how difficult it is to pull off a fair democratic election, one that doesn't end in rioting and violence. Even America has had its share of (somewhat civil) conflict—Florida, anyone? So we turned to an expert to find out just how hard it is to run a fair election. After spending years in South Africa, and leading election-observation missions in the Congo and Ghana, John Stremlau knows how to ensure—and fairly observe—a democratic election, even in a country that might be conducting its first one. Now, as the vice president for peace programs at the Carter Center, he's working to ensure that independent election observation becomes the standard in all countries. He spoke to NEWSWEEK's Kurt Soller about the human-rights revolution, the ways to make an election run smoothly, and what happens when they don't go as planned. Excerpts:

In the wake of Iran, many people start to feel election disputes are becoming more common. Is that true?
When I got to the Carter Center, I thought about how elections don't make a democracy, and there's a big academic debate there. Elections don't really deliver democracy, but we all want to think our votes count. Inevitably, there are going to be election disputes because of that, but that's qualitatively different than [the situation in Iran] where people feel like they have been cheated. In recent years, and especially with the Internet, people can learn about these situations. So while we can't say the number of disputes is rising, we can say that the world has gone through a human-rights revolution; people want fairness, especially as so many more countries are having elections.

When you talk about a human-rights revolution, how does that affect elections?
There are just a growing number of countries trying to enact democratic processes. From the standpoint of election observers [like those at the Carter Center], there's a goal to narrow the gap between election and process. With the Internet, people know how their neighbors work, and they want minimum universal human rights. This is about how you put that rhetoric into practice: when you have good elections, as well as democracy and conflict-resolution programs, it's a good assumption that you have more grass-roots organizations holding their government accountable. Also, all the conflicts become more visible.

And that's what's happening in Iran right now.
Yes. The Iranian government went ahead and had a very active, energetic, election—and they saw this huge turnout. But then people didn't like the results. The Carter Center wasn't there, so I'm not commenting on anything more than what was in the news. But we did observe the 2005 Ethiopian election and we saw very similar parallels where the government saw an outpouring of public expression. It's a reminder of how when people feel empowered, they really react if they don't think the outcome is credible.

So it comes down to perception then, not whether the election was fair but whether civilians think it was fair.
That's why independent observes play such a useful role. In a Ghana election we observed, the margin was less than 42,000 votes of the 9 million people that cast ballots. That was 70 percent voter turnout, and it was close, but the incumbent party lost. They had to stand down, because the opposition won, and they knew that they would have had a constitutional crisis if they bucked the [election] commission. There were independent observers there, thank God. And I think that's part of the reason why Obama is going to go to Accra, [Ghana's capital], next month.

Can you elaborate on the importance of independent observation in preventing disputes?
Yes. There's been this advancement where governments invite independent observers. From that, there have emerged some democratic-election standards. No election is ever perfect, even in America; we don't have a national electoral commission, for God's sakes. There's all sorts of concerns whether votes are credible, and all democracies face a challenge if people don't feel their voices have been heard. Independent observers help make sure that happens. And if you don't get an acceptable result [to the voters], there ought to be recourse, a period to let things cool off, and it's extremely important to shed some light on any electoral process. It's getting easier to make this case because we have more observation groups involved in global election processes.

Then, what makes a truly democratic election?
In 2005, there was a declaration of observation principals held at the United Nations. Those define the role of observers and the preconditions necessary for good elections: You have to have ballot boxes structured in a way that protects a person's private vote; the counting of votes must be done in an open and transparent manner, and posters for all the candidates have to remain away from the voting sites; you also have to make sure voters are not intimidated by the police. These principals are now being adopted by all the observation groups ... but we will only go into an election if we are invited, if the country wants to adhere to a democratic election. I joke that the only places that we humans are really equal is in the graveyard and the ballot booth.

In Iran's case, you weren't invited. So now what?
The people have to figure it out themselves. Personally, I think the Obama administration had the right balance of signaling they're going to have to deal with who comes to power, and expressing their concern for those in Tehran. Frankly, I would have liked the electoral situation to be transparent, but this is for the Iranians to work out themselves.

You're saying the American government shouldn't get involved?
Ever since the 1977 U.N. General Assembly, we've changed international relations: what happens in countries is no longer the exclusive business of those countries alone. I've got my fingers crossed for the sake of the Iranian people. I'm not calling on the Obama administration to pass judgment, especially since I'm intrigued by recent reports in the press that the results may not have been too far off the mark. This just points again to the real importance of having an international transparent election process.