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President Woodrow Wilson's vision of making the "world safe for democracy" remains remarkably relevant to both the American public and millions of people across the globe even today. But while America's entry into World War I and the current war on terrorism may have been justified on the premise of securing democracy, the difficult work of consolidating democratic processes after armed conflict has ended is readily apparent. Fulfilling a significant role in building democracies, election monitoring, once the activity of a small cohort of idealistic lawyers and NGOs, has burgeoned over the course of 30 years into an industry encompassing governments, international organizations, and numerous civil society actors.
Eric Bjornlund, a former Woodrow Wilson Center fellow and the founder and principal of Democracy International, has recently published a seminal book entitled Beyond Free and Fair: Monitoring Elections and Building Democracy on the role of election monitoring in the process of democratization. In his talk, Bjornlund argued that although the techniques and methodologies of election monitoring have progressed significantly since the ad hoc activities of the early 1980's, monitoring elections still remains imprecise and unreliable. Stringent criteria for what constitutes a "free and fair" election are lacking and there is excessive reliance on anecdotal evidence and individual instinct. Using case studies, he offered both critiques and suggestions aimed at bringing more rigorous analysis to the process of election monitoring. Bjornlund emphasized that the role of election observers should go beyond election day and beyond specific outcomes, and focus more on broader, more comprehensive processes over time. Elections should serve as a springboard for strengthening democratic processes across the social and political spectrum and not simply as an end in themselves.
In his comments, Thomas Carothers, the director of the Rule of Law and Democracy Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, praised Bjornlund for being the first to treat election monitoring systematically and in a scholarly manner. In response to the commonly heard criticism that too much attention is being paid to elections and not enough to the development of rule of law and civil society, Carothers noted that these questions, while key, ignore the importance of legitimacy to governments, and that elections have now become the universally recognized stamp of legitimacy. But he warned of the "danger of declaring democracy" after elections have been held successfully. Carothers also noted that the issue may not be simply that election monitors are falling short, but that those who seek to subvert democratic processes are becoming more sophisticated both rhetorically and technically. Surveying the field of election monitoring as a whole, Carothers urged academics and practitioners to situate election monitoring within a broader development context.