Of late, the issue of “election interference” rarely has been absent from global headlines. In recent elections — from Kenya to France to the United States — claims of manipulation and disinformation have cast doubt on election outcomes. As concerning as this trend may be, equally worrying is the ongoing effort to conflate election assistance with election interference. It is critical that policymakers, American citizens and the international community fully understand the stark difference between the two.
Election assistance is a key element of international development. It is practiced by nonpartisan, international non-governmental organizations such as mine, the International Foundation for Electoral Systems. Like others who provide election assistance, IFES works with local partners to promote more professional and independent electoral institutions.
Electoral assistance is rooted in the principle of transparency, involving budgeting and open procurement; professional outreach to citizens; clear and inclusive voter education; integrity in results tabulation and transmission; and rule of law-based processes to address electoral complaints. Even the way that electoral assistance is funded is transparent — it’s not underwritten by any “black budget,” but through public U.S. Agency for International Development and Department of State programming. Any taxpayer can access resources such as foreignassistance.gov to see where their dollars are being spent.
Over the past three decades, election assistance has evolved into a sophisticated practice undertaken by most democratic countries, and is underpinned by the following principles:
- Credible elections are a human right — As famously stated by President Reagan in his Westminster speech: “We must be staunch in our conviction that freedom is not the sole prerogative of a lucky few but the inalienable and universal right of all human beings. So states the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which, among other things, guarantees free elections”;
- Election assistance supports competitive, inclusive democratic processes — The goal is to enhance political competition, transparency and accountability, and the legitimacy of outcomes, whatever they may be;
- Election assistance rests on cooperation — Assistance ranging from training to material support is provided by mutual consent. Our relationship with electoral authorities and other stakeholders is based upon open cooperation and depends upon a partnership built on trust;
- Election assistance is a global effort: Assistance to democratic institutions and elections is not an exclusively American endeavor. Countries from all parts of the globe take an active role in projecting democratic values through development. Donors include Australia, Canada, European Union, South Korea, India, Mexico, Norway, Romania, Sweden, Switzerland, United Kingdom and others.
There are also practical, realist reasons to engage in electoral assistance. More stable democracies support American interests by becoming better trade partners, providing new market opportunities for U.S. businesses, improving global health outcomes, and promoting economic freedom and regional security.
Detractors of democracy would delight in the downfall of electoral assistance. Autocrats and proponents of non-democratic systems of governance simply do not want political competition and open election processes. Failing states benefit terrorist, criminal and drug networks, and those who commit human rights abuses; restrict space for civil society to operate; give rise to corruption and the subsequent squandering of assistance dollars; spread unfair economic practices that undermine U.S. businesses; and leave the world unprepared for the crises (terrorism, disease, migration) that transcend borders.
To protect and defend democracy worldwide, we must all be clear: election assistance is not election interference. As a community of international and non-governmental organizations, we have provided election assistance for over 30 years to strengthen institutions, democratic processes, credible elections and more responsive governance. We do not manipulate results, or impose the American system on others. We support champions of democracy all over the world, and tailor solutions to the local context based on international standards and principles.
Michael Svetlik serves as vice president of programs for the International Foundation for Electoral Systems, providing policy and programming guidance to IFES' international operations that include electoral assistance and democratic institution-building in over 30 countries.