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Annan Commission Criticizes US Election Financing

Selah Hennessy

September 14, 2012

A commission headed by former United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan charges that the soaring cost of U.S. elections is a major hindrance to democracy. The charge appears in a report published Friday by the Global Commission on Elections and Democracy, which says its goal is to promote the integrity of elections.

Former United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan spoke to VOA at the launch of the report in London.

He says each nation must develop an election framework that suits its needs.

"There are certain fundamental issues or fundamental requirements, which each country should try to respect. Beyond that they know their society better, they know their environment better and they may come up with approaches that work for them. You cannot expect everyone to solve the same problems the same way," Annan said.
In the report published Friday, the commission laid out what it sees as prerequisites for elections to take place with "integrity."

The 12-member commission includes former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and former secretary general of the Council of the European Union, Javier Solana.

Also on the panel is Vidar Helgesen, head of the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance.

"The world has seen over the last 20 years a considerable rise of democracy and correspondingly a considerable rise in the number of elections. But we have also seen that while governments and the international community has gotten better at organizing elections, authoritarian leaders have also become better at rigging elections and they do that in more advanced ways," Helgesen said.

The report says there are five major challenges that must be overcome for elections to have integrity. They include an effective rule of law; strong, impartial electoral management bodies to oversee the vote; and regulated political financing.
Helgesen singles out the United States as a country where, he says, uncontrolled political financing is a problem. He says soaring costs are undermining citizens' trust in their system.

"The American people through credible opinion polls have indicated that the problem is on the rise. Two-thirds of the American people say that their trust in the political system has been weakened by the recent developments in political financing - the Super PACS.

Even more people think that politicians can more easily become corrupted and Congress is to a large extent representing special interests rather than the holistic interests of society," Helgesen said.

Spending in the U.S. has been boosted by a 2010 Supreme Court ruling that effectively scrapped limits on corporate and union spending in elections. Now Super PACs, or political action committees, and tax-exempt advocacy groups can support candidates without a cap on spending, as long as they do not coordinate with official campaigns.

Those in the U.S. who advocate increased spending on elections say it helps promote democracy.

Paul Sherman is an attorney at the Institute for Justice, a libertarian law firm based in the United States. He says high campaign spending means a more informed electorate.

"By having reduced regulations on campaign finance it makes it easier for more different types of voices to get in so we don't have a political debate that is dominated entirely by the central parties themselves," Sherman said.

The Global Commission on Elections, Democracy and Security is an international initiative aimed at promoting the integrity of elections. It was launched in South Africa last year.

Funding for the report came from the Kofi Annan Foundation, the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, along with the governments of Australia, the Netherlands, and Norway.

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