Land of the free leaves Asian poll monitors in state of confusion

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 06 October, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 06 October, 2004, 12:00am

They say baffling voting methods and the two-party system have turned off voters

Asian election monitors back from a fortnight's study of the United States' political system have been left baffled by what they observed.

While conceding that there was no perfect blueprint for democracy, the monitors believe that perceived flaws in the American electoral process is leading to increasing voter disenchantment.

The 20-member team from 14 countries, including India, Thailand and the Philippines, were wide-eyed at the number of choices voters will have when they cast their ballots.

And they were confused why US voter turnout is so low compared to their own countries. They concluded that the two-party political system, differences in electoral laws from district to district and a decline in confidence in the process were turning away voters. Criticism was also levelled at a lack of campaign spending limits.

The secretary-general of the Asian Network for Free Elections, Somsri Hananuntasuk, observed preparations for the November 2 election in the midwestern state of Ohio, where punch cards will be used extensively to cast ballots. Such a system, which can result in holes not being properly punched, prompted criticism in Florida during the last presidential election in 2000, which George W. Bush narrowly won. 'The machine and punch cards make for suspicion,' said Ms Somsri, who is based in Bangkok and has monitored elections throughout Asia.

Florida monitor Neerja Chowdhury, the political affairs editor of the Indian Express newspaper, said concern was high in the state, where computerised voting machines and optical scans will be used this time. 'Much of the problem in Florida stems from the fact that there's a breakdown of confidence in the electoral process,' Ms Chowdhury suggested. 'Everything is viewed with suspicion.'

The deputy secretary-general of the Philippines' National Citizens' Movement for Free Elections, Damaso Magbual, observed what he said was a confusing mix of voting systems in the central swing state of Missouri. He explained that under the US' decentralised electoral system, regional authorities were responsible for how voting took place - leading to differing methods.

'Sometimes this causes confusion among voters who move from one place to another and results in disenfranchisement,' he said.

The variety of political views available in Asia was stressed by the monitors. They were concerned about the pervasiveness of the Republican and Democratic parties in electoral bodies, which they believed should instead be staffed by independent officials.

'The two parties are too deeply involved in the political process and political bodies at all levels,' Ms Somsri said. 'At every level there is only Republican and Democrat. I am concerned about what kind of democracy America has.'

The monitors were in the US at the invitation of Fair Election International, a project of the San Francisco-based human rights group Global Exchange, which has conducted election monitoring in 10 countries around the world.