Ambassador Karen L. Williams’s Speech on Democracy

Remarks as prepared for students at Anton de Kom University on February 18, 2020

Thank you, Dr. Abiamofo, for your kind words.  Thank you, Dean Lachmon, for the warm invitation to Anton de Kom University.  It’s a great pleasure to speak with you all today.

I want to talk to you about democracy from the U.S. perspective, our definition of democracy, and the examples we see – both positive and negative – within democracy and elections in the United States.

On paper, democracy is deceptively easy.  It is the act of holding free and fair elections, the people having a say in their government.  But ensuring a free and fair and well-run vote is not easy.  We have seen that throughout history and in many nations, including the U.S.  As you probably know, we are at the start of our presidential election cycle with the first primaries and caucuses over the past two weeks.  Is everyone familiar with the terms primary and caucus?  A brief explanation then for those who aren’t familiar.

Primaries and caucuses are the tools U.S. political parties use to help determine who will ultimately become the nominee for the Presidency at each party’s national convention.  Each of the state level parties has its own method of deciding who they will support.  In some states there are elections – primaries.  In other states, caucuses are used.  A caucus is a gathering of people who discuss and decide on nominees within their locality.  Primaries are individual voters and anonymous voting.  In both cases, many states also send ‘uncommitted’ delegates to the national party convention which means that these delegates are not tied to vote for a particular nominee.  So, while sometimes it is very clear who will be a party’s nominee, it is also true that it can be undecided right up until the convention meets at the national level.

Two weeks ago, we saw the difficulties of balloting when the results from the Democratic Caucus in the state of Iowa were delayed due to a technical glitch in an app used by local election monitors to report their results to the state-level party leaders.  And with that glitch, the legitimacy of Iowa’s vote was called into question by some.  I make no judgment on that issue, but it does illustrate the importance of methods that are thoroughly vetted and tested for security and reliability.  For democracy to function, the population must have confidence that their vote is counted and that their vote matters.   I can speak personally to this as what we call an absentee voter.  After the contested vote in Florida between Bush and Gore in 2000, it came out that some states weren’t even counting the absentee ballots if the number of absentee votes was less than the number of votes between two candidates.  After that discovery and the subsequent outrage, many states made it mandatory to count these votes.

Elections are an important, fundamental part of democracy which we inherited from the Greeks and Romans.  For a democracy to thrive, however you define it, you need to start with citizens being assured their voices are heard and that they are free from reprisals for the selections they make.  And the easiest – or perhaps the only way – to ensure that is with free and fair elections.  In the world today, we define free and fair elections as ones that are periodic, held by secret ballot, and based on universal and equal suffrage.

Within certain limits, everyone needs to be able to participate in an election.  Not so long ago, laws existed that banned women and people of color from voting.  Fortunately for us today, outmoded laws that outright restricted suffrage on these bases are remnants of a sad past.  But does that mean everyone is able to vote?  We as societies must ensure the elderly, the disabled, the infirm, the literacy challenged – we must ensure the most vulnerable citizens in our countries have access to the ballot as well.  That may mean ensuring polling stations are wheelchair accessible, printing ballots in other languages for citizens who do not speak English or making sure that those who are confined to their home can vote in a secure manner.

And I think that is an important point. For democracy to work, voting must be secure.  We as voters must be confident our vote will be counted and not thrown away or spoiled.  We must be sure no magic bag of ballots will show up at the last minute to overwhelm our legitimate ballots.  We must be confident in the political system of which we are a part.  If we are not, it can call into question our participation and the legitimacy of our elected leaders and their mandate to pursue their agenda.  It can lead to apathy and a population less and less inclined to believe their voice is heard, their opinion matters, or that they hold the power.  And that, surely, is a quick way for democracy to be hollowed out and extinguished.

Now, ensuring voting is secure is not an easy task. It is something in the U.S. we work hard to ensure.  And we do this through our political systems and the transparency and accountability built into them.  We have representatives from each of the two major parties working together at the voting offices throughout our nation.  On election day, each polling station is staffed by volunteers from each of the parties sitting side-by-side as voters cast their ballots.  We have both parties sitting together counting the ballots, ensuring at all levels that the count is fair and that there has been nothing done to alter the outcome.  They do all this with the ever present eyes of independent media who can track the tally as it comes in, who can see the process fully, and who can quickly report the results to ensure a lack of information does not provide cover for fraud.  This requires significant effort and commitment on the part of paid personnel and volunteers.

And one thing that makes the U.S. experiment different and unique, I think, is that our elections are decentralized.  The rules, procedures, schedules – all of that is determined in the 50 state capitals throughout our nation.  Elections are run by the states, giving us 50 different ways to conduct the elections.  They all share similar traits as the ones I mentioned earlier, but in other ways they are different.  Some require voters to be registered months before the election, others only weeks, and some allow voters to register the day of the election.  The state of North Dakota does not require voters to register at all.  The same variety can be seen in laws and procedures for requiring IDs to vote, which some states mandate and others do not; facilitating absentee voting via mail or email; and the process and requirements for how candidates get on the ballot in the first place.

This speaks to, I think, the fact that the U.S. is not a nation with 50 administrative district divisions, but a nation made up of 50 states that retain their own sovereign rights over a myriad of issues as outlined in our Constitution.  It is a system set up by our Founders in the shadow of the British monarchy to actively work against centralized power.  Our system is also designed to decentralize political power and influence, to have state leaders who have authority through popular votes and levers of government with which to challenge the national status quo.  It is designed to protect the minority against the majority, rural agrarian families against the wishes of a more urban elite.  That is why we have the Senate, where each state is equally represented regardless of population size; why we retain the Electoral College, which provides incentives to presidential candidates to work in the interests of less populated areas, ensuring they do not just play to the interests of a few high population areas.  As Dr. Abiamofo mentioned, “majority rule but minority rights.” We sometimes say tyranny of the majority if the system does not take into account minority rights and needs.

The U.S. electoral and political system is, of course, not a perfect system, no system is.  But it is our system.  It is the system we have developed as a society to attempt to ensure our elections are as free and fair as possible.

But you will note in the above description the number of people needed to serve at voting stations, to be volunteers as the votes are counted, and to work as journalists.  The participation of each one of us in the democratic process is an essential pillar of democracy.

Another form of participation is called “vigilance,” which means keeping an eye on the freedoms you have and the quality of your democracy.

Vigilance requires that you be informed to some degree and take an interest in the news and study the current issues.  If you do not know what is going on, how can you be an active member of society, how can you be engaged in your democracy?  Using that knowledge, you can then complain, or argue, voice your opinion or hold elected officials accountable with your vote.  You can get involved in a political party or join an NGO to advocate for a cause that is near and dear to your heart.  Citizen participation can also mean putting yourself forward as a political candidate.

A critical factor in citizen participation is that the government allows the citizenry the space and freedom to meaningfully participate.  And this brings to the forefront the importance of another aspect of vigilance – citizens must demand that freedom and space to participate from their governments and actively work to preserve their freedoms.  There have been, and continue to be, nations around the world that label themselves democracies, but the practice of democracy is so curtailed, and the participation by citizens so restricted that these states are really thinly veiled authoritarians.  I highly recommend to you Freedom House’s study of a couple of years ago titled Modern Authoritarianism: Origins, Anatomy, Outlook.  It very clearly, and with much research and evidence, details how nominally democratic governments act in authoritarian manners by actively working to suppress academics, independent journalists, and targeting civil society through repressive laws limiting individuals’ and organizations’ ability to effect changes.

As vigilant citizens, we must all work to ensure our democracies do not follow such a path. But how do we do that?  First and foremost, we must educate ourselves and then raise our voices.

And while social media is great – I hope you all like and follow the Embassy on Facebook, look for our photos there later today – we need to question and discuss the effect social media is having on the idea of participating in democracy.

I know there are many here in Suriname working to ensure the next generation is engaged, as there are many working around the globe.  I think back to my posting in Bosnia-Herzegovina, a country picking itself up from decades of strife and conflict.  There, the U.S. Embassy, supported and for years helped run the Civitas project — an effort to teach school age students the importance and value of civic participation.  The young participants researched problems, developed solutions in the form of a public policy, and created a political action plan to push forward their proposal.  For more than 20 years, Project Citizen has taught the next generation in Bosnia how to be participating members of a functioning democracy.  Being part of that program and helping it to become part of the curriculum across the entire country is one of the proudest achievements of my career.

So those, in a nutshell, are two pillars of a definition of democracy:  having a functioning political system that allows for free and fair elections and having a citizenry that participates in all the aspects of civil society and the democratic process.  But if those are the pillars of democracy, there are two concepts that act as supporting buttresses to keep democracy propped up, functioning, and strong. Those are a respect for the rule of law and the protection of human rights.

Rule of law is something I have already alluded to – the idea that elections need to be free and fair.  That is one aspect of rule of law.  It is an idea that we come together in societies that can be described by the laws we make and the rules we follow.  It ensures we know the consequences of our actions are not arbitrary, but are prescribed by laws that we, ideally, have had some role in forming.  The rule of law applies to all, even those entrusted with official responsibility by their peers in society.  Thusly, it ensures democracy by guaranteeing that the government – as well as the people – are accountable under the law.  It ensures transparency in how the laws are made and applied.

The promotion of the rule of law also, fundamentally, requires a social contract among individuals, civil society, the media, the government, the police, and all other sectors of society to fight against corruption.  Corruption is, perhaps, one of the greatest destroyers of the rule of law because it uses the shadows to starve a community of accountability, transparency and critical funding that could have been derived through proper collection and use of public monies.  It is also extremely widespread. Corruption exists in all nations including the U.S.  What is important is that corruption is uncovered and prosecuted and that when we see it, we expose it.

The rule of law also ensures the majority does not trample over the minority. The desire to defend the minority from the whims and numerical strength of the majority is a foundation of American democracy – a built-in response to a seemingly unchecked monarch against which we rebelled.  It is why America’s Founding Fathers created mechanisms like the Electoral College, to have elections one step removed from the majority.  That is why they sought to devolve power away from the national government to local authorities, to ensure more governance was done closer to the voters.

As the rule of law protects the minority when it comes to governance it also offers protection of human rights.  We believe that there are some rights that are universal and natural and that means that everyone starts from the same place in society, regardless of their income or gender, or age or race, or sexual orientation or physical abilities.  A society that recognizes and celebrates the value of human rights for all is a society is also likely to be a thriving democracy.  Because out of that understanding of universal rights comes the rights of each of us as individuals to have a say in how we are governed.

A true democracy ensures participation by the citizenry – including in free and fair elections – protected by the rule of law and in fulfillment of their fundamental human rights.

In the U.S., we are a work in progress.  Each nation is.  We each face challenges unique to our histories, cultures, and populations.  In America, we face a nation with a declining number of people involved in civic organizations, who are passionately moved by social media into seemingly unmovable positions.  But we are maintaining the pillars of democracy I mentioned above.  But is it like that elsewhere?  While we have seen the number of countries practicing democracy grow over the past few decades, are they supported by the pillars of the rule of law and human rights?  I refer back to Freedom House and its Freedom in the World report, which has seen more than a decade of declining global freedom.  Their chilling conclusion is that after decades of advancement, “democracy is in retreat.”

Before I conclude, I’d like to briefly explore the role of a diplomat in discussions about democracy.  It is no secret that a diplomat’s core mission is promoting their nation’s interests abroad.  We do this by building partnerships and alliances; by finding common ground to work together multilaterally; by learning about our host country and reporting back to our policy makers; by ensuring a safer world; by supporting economic ties that boost us all.  So why does democracy matter to a U.S. diplomat?  It is because, in general, democratic nations are freer nations.  Democratic societies are more peaceful societies.  Democratic countries are more prosperous and equitable countries.  And democratic nations are less likely to go to war with one another.

By promoting democracy our intention is not to dictate to our friends and neighbors how they should organize their society.  No, what we try to do is hold up democracy as a good model of government and society that promotes a better world for us all.  Many on my Embassy team have witnessed elections throughout the world.  When we can, we work to be there as a set of international eyes hoping to be able to certify that the rules are followed.  And this is not unique to American diplomats. Diplomats from almost every nation and indeed from international organizations as well often, to some degree or another, take on this task during election season. Indeed, many nations and international organizations like the OSCE and the Organization of American States have observed elections in the U.S.  It is a way to not only ensure fairness but share best practices.

In this country, the U.S. Embassy works to encourage civic participation by supporting Surinamers looking to develop Suriname.  We do this, often, through exchange programs where leaders from Suriname travel to the U.S. to meet with and share with their American – and often international – peers.  These are leaders in Suriname’s political world, academia, media civil society, arts organizations – leaders from almost every sector of society.  By traveling to the U.S. and returning, they bring back new ideas and skills to help them build Surinamese solutions for the unique challenges facing your nation when it comes to ensuring participation in society.

We work to promote the rule of law through a number of activities with civil society and the government.  Our support for the National Risk Assessment, for example, is a concrete effort to assist Suriname in countering money laundering and fighting corruption.  Corruption is not easy to understand or fight against – and is a huge subject on its own – but let me briefly address one aspect – money laundering – as a corrosive to democracy.  Money laundering, corruption’s best friend, allows criminals around the world to take their ill-gotten gains and figuratively “wash” that money, by utilizing it in seemingly honest businesses, and they can then use the proceeds for anything they want.  Money laundering hurts honest businesses, since criminals pay bribes, not taxes, and are able to offer goods at low prices because of the hidden cash flows.  And targeting taxes, the funds government uses to enact our democratically developed polices, is an attack on democracy’s ability to function.  And money laundering is often a source of support for violent terrorist organizations and drug cartels, threatening the lives of innocent people.  And if you feel unsafe in general, how secure do you feel being an active participant in the democratic process?  So it is why we have efforts like these to partner with Suriname to fight corruption and money laundering, through which we work to help ensure fair and equitable application of the law as a pillar of the democratic process.

So, that is our definition of democracy.  It is not just about voting, not just about forming a political system, not just about participation, not just about ensuring the rule of law.  Democracy requires all of that from each of us.  It asks us each to do our part.  For if we envision a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, where the government’s authority stems from the sovereignty of each individual citizen, then what is central is the citizen not the government.  What is central is our participation in our systems.

Thank you.