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Chester County, Pennsylvania, election workers organize mail-in and absentee ballots for the 2020 General Election in the United States at West Chester University, Nov. 3, 2020.

2020 US presidential election

International election watchdog: Polarization, loss of public trust threaten US election

The Carter Center sends teams of election observers all over the world to ensure they're free and fair. This year, the nonprofit is working to encourage transparency and voters' trust in the US electoral process.

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Chester County, Pennsylvania, election workers organize mail-in and absentee ballots for the 2020 General Election in the United States at West Chester University, Nov. 3, 2020.

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Matt Slocum/AP

For more than three decades, the Carter Center, which was founded by former President Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn Carter, has been sending teams of election observers around the world. Their goal is to make sure foreign elections are free and fair and run the way they're supposed to. 

This year, The Carter Center is looking at the United States’ election for the first time. It is not directly observing it the way it typically does in other countries — rather, it’s working on projects to encourage transparency and build voters’ trust in the US election. 

The Carter Center has said it plans to continue its US projects beyond 2020 to “ensure independent nonpartisan election administration and redistricting, transparency in campaign finance, expanded digital literacy, and reforms to the electoral college.” 

David Carroll directs the democracy program at The Carter Center, which is based in Atlanta. He spoke to The World’s host Marco Werman about why the nonprofit felt the need to assist the United States this year.

Related: Watch live — Trump, Biden hand their fate to voters

Marco Werman: This year, The Carter Center is watching the US presidential election for the first time. Why? That seems significant. 

David Carroll: Yes. And as you noted, we're not working as observers and we've never observed formally in the United States. We are engaging in a public information and education campaign. 

It's the first time we've done this in the United States. And it's really just a reflection of the degree to which, when we looked at the United States election process this year, it became obvious to us that it fit all the characteristics of the places that we would highlight when we say where should we engage in the next year or two years down the road? And usually, internationally, it's a country context where there's either the beginning of a democratic opening or a transition or where we judge that a country is at risk of some serious regression or backsliding in its election processes. 

Where do you see the backsliding in the United States? 

There's no longer the kind of public trust that we've known to be true in the United States, in our election institutions and in our authorities. That deep political polarization, even societal polarization, together with this lack of trust layered over that, the increasing amounts of disinformation that we have and that our elections are subject to — those are the kinds of things that are very troubling signals to us that suggest a country's elections are facing severe threat. 

So, as you said, you're not actually sending out observers. You're running a public information campaign. What does that mean? 

The public information campaign is a series of reports, webinars, other events about the election process and about voting options and about the timeline for getting results. What we've learned internationally is that critical to public trust is transparency and good information. We're trying to do this in a way that can hopefully increase, a little bit, the level of public trust and confidence. 

Since The Carter Center has done so much work overseas, have you seen reforms or ways of managing elections in other countries that you think the US could take a page from? 

It usually will come down to having a strong election administration. So, one of the biggest problems we have is that our election processes are not standard and uniform across the states. In some states, it's much harder to get access to this fundamental right to participate and to vote. So, it will require some creative thinking to try to make a more uniform and harmonized election administration when you also allow it to be run at 50 different state levels. But I think it's just important that we do that. And there's a lot of good international examples. 

The Carter Center has promoted electoral accountability worldwide for decades. A lot of countries look to the US as a sort of gold standard when it comes to elections. Now, we have a president who is undermining publicly that standard. For you, what does this moment feel like? 

If you'd asked me 15 years ago, 20 years ago, even after the 2000 elections, when it became more clear on people's radar screen that maybe we weren't such a model to hold up to the rest of the world, I wouldn't have thought that we would be engaging in the United States with this level of concern. But, you know, the signs have been there and they've only been increasing in how clear and critical they are.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

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