Remarks to the Organization of American States on Electoral Commissions

Maria Otero
Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs 
Washington, DC
May 7, 2010

Buenos días. Es un gran placer estar aquí con ustedes.

I would like to recognize the Organization of American States, the U.S. Federal Election Commission and the U.S. Election Assistance Commission for co-hosting this important meeting of electoral authorities from across the Americas. I especially want to thank the Organization’s Department for Electoral Cooperation and Observation for your help in facilitating this meeting.

Those gathered here know that democratic political systems are built on a foundation of free and fair elections. We know that the promotion and protection of human rights requires governance based on the consent of the governed. We know that elections also enable the free exchange of ideas and encourage healthy public discourse. And we know that, in order for the democratic process to be truly legitimate, broad political participation is essential.

Democracy is about more than elections; it is also about freedom of expression, of assembly, and of the press. President Obama has said that democracy depends on a well-functioning society which promotes liberty and equality and fraternity--but a well-functioning society does not just depend on going to the ballot box.

I would also add that respect for human rights and the peaceful, regular transfer of political power are mutually reinforcing. These are core principles of the Inter-American system. Indeed, the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man expresses the importance of “popular elections, which shall be by secret ballot, and shall be honest, periodic and free.” The Inter-American Democratic Charter articulates a similar vision for representative democracy. In this context, we are here today to recognize and enhance opportunities to protect our citizens’ access to levers of power.

Not only do free, fair, and transparent elections foster the functioning of stable societies, they also can play a critical role in returning a country to stability following a devastating disruption to the political or physical order. In our own hemisphere, we have seen how Hondurans clearly signaled their desire to move forward with new leadership through their robust participation in the November 29, 2009 presidential elections. We look forward to the time when Honduras returns again to the OAS, consistent with the principles, practices, and purposes of the Organization.

In Haiti, well-run elections, supported by the UN, the OAS, and CARICOM, could be an important stock-taking and unifying effort to help provide stability and a return to normalcy following the devastating January 2010 earthquake.

Now, electoral processes involve all aspects of society, and they go well beyond election day itself. We must work to foster open discourse--on an ongoing basis--in all of our societies. Of course, we know this is not easy. But it is crucial to the sustainability of democracy. It is this openness; this stability; this foundation for trust and respectful dialogue that the United States seeks to support internationally.

In light of the recently celebrated World Press Freedom Day, I think it is important to underscore the importance played by the press in electoral processes. We all know that support for a free, accessible and independent press able to operate without political censorship is critical for transparent elections. In this regard, the United States is committed to working with our civil society partners and the institutions of the Inter-American system to help foster an environment in which the media can do its job well and freely. Such freedom is crucial to our access to information, which in turn helps better inform voters of their choices.

With regard to vulnerable groups, the Department of State’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (DRL) has supported a project in my native Bolivia that is improving the ability of Quechua-speaking and Chiquitano citizens to participate in elections and exercise their civic rights. The program has provided legal resources to indigenous populations in their own languages; and raised awareness of electoral processes and civic rights.

Through the Department of State and USAID, the United States supports efforts to include persons with disabilities in the work of strengthening democracy, supporting civil society, and promoting and protecting human rights worldwide. The United States also strongly supports efforts to promote political participation for persons with disabilities “in all matters of interest to the community.”

With regard to the media, we are supporting a capacity building project in Nicaragua to strengthen the ability of local and regional journalists to report on national and local level human rights and democratic process issues, including the ability to monitor harassment and/or intimidation of journalists. We are also building the capacity of NGOs to become both sustainable and effective in their pursuit of human rights and democracy.

The US Agency for International Development is also engaged in numerous efforts to improve access to the ballot across the Americas. In Nicaragua, USAID helped the Consejo Supremo Electoral draft and implement administrative regulations, train municipal election officials, and execute civic education campaigns to reach voters with disabilities.

At the United Nations, the United States continues to support UN electoral assistance in Haiti. I note that the President of the Provisional Electoral Council, Gaillot Dorsinvil, is in attendance for this Meeting, and I welcome continued collaboration with the Council in turn.

I thank each of you for allowing me to participate in this Seventh Inter-American Meeting of Electoral Management Bodies. I am very pleased that the United States was able to co-sponsor this event with the OAS this year. I look forward to working together to make real the promise of the Inter-American Democratic Charter for the benefit of all of our Member States’ electorates. Thank you.