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Origins of the Carter Center’s Election Observation Work

The Carter Center was founded in 1982 just after President Jimmy Carter was defeated in the 1980 U.S. presidential elections. He and his wife, Rosalynn Carter, partnered with Emory University to begin the non-profit. Today, the center is known, in part, for its efforts to promote democracy around the world, especially through election observation and support.

Election Observation (2010) | The Carter Center
Election Observation (2010) | The Carter Center

This component of the Carter Center’s work has it roots largely in the International Human Rights Law Group (IHRLG), to which Larry Garber belonged before he began working with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The group was the only human rights organization at its time involved in election monitoring. Today, while the original group no longer exists, its vision lives on as free and fair elections are widely considered and fought for as a basic human right. Organizations like the Carter Center have been inspired by the legacy of IHRLG and have taken similar work upon themselves—supporting the rights of citizens around the world to freely elect their own governments. In his oral history, Garber commented, “[IHRLG] showed Carter that he could make a difference in the election field, and since then the Carter Center has observed 110 elections in 37 countries around the world.”

Garber began working with IHRGL in 1983, a few years after he finished graduate school at Columbia University. Later in his career, Garber held positions with USAID in Washington D.C., in the West Bank/Gaza, and at the National Defense University.

Larry Garber’s interview was conducted by Alex Shakow on April 3, 2018.

Read Garber’s full oral history HERE.

Drafted by Ashley Young


“It was called the International Human Rights Law Group . . . we were the only human rights group that did election monitoring”

Working with IHRLG: GARBER: I ended up doing [work] for this human rights organization…. It was called the International Human Rights Law Group; it started in 1979, changed its name late in the 1980s and now is defunct, but while in existence served to bring Washington legal talent to the table to address human rights issues. The elections piece was not anything they had thought about, but once they got the grant, election observing became a hallmark of this human rights group—indeed, we were the only human rights group that did election monitoring.

Q: You were there for five years? During this period, was the elections program part of the mandate?

GARBER: Yes. We developed the guidelines. We started in November 1983 and by September had published the book. We had a two-day conference at Airlie House with several of the folks that had been involved in election observing. I’d gone to visit folks in Canada, London, Geneva on this subject to get their views, gone down to El Salvador as part of an observation effort.

The book was published in September, and at the time was the first and only handbook that addressed issues of election observing; it made two critical points that have continued to inform the discourse for the next 35 years. One was the importance of viewing elections as part of the international human rights system; the right of political participation is recognized in the seminal human rights documents like the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, but people didn’t think of elections in human rights terms but more in political terms. We made the point that elections are related to human rights, and defined what it means to have elections that are consistent with human rights. It set out very specific standards. Second is that if you’re going to be a serious election observer you have to not just look at what happens on election day but at the before and the after.

“Election observers could be more than shills for U.S. foreign policy . . . [they] could inform U.S. foreign policy in a constructive, pro-human-rights manner.”

Election Observation: Q: The Carter Center had not been established at that time, so this is pre-Carter Center work in this field.

GARBER: Right. To give you the evolution of that—and I don’t want to put this on myself but I can tell it… through my own lens. I was working at this small human rights group, trying to sell this effort. We have this handbook, we’re the only ones that have it, we sought to market ourselves as being available to be hired as consultants or to receive grants from foundations, but we were striking out. The only success we had was to receive a small grant for a small group to observe the first post-independence election in Zimbabwe….

So we were having trouble raising funds. NDI, the National Democratic Institute, was formed in 1983 after Reagan’s speech to the British parliament about how democracies needed to support other democracies, and was set up under the umbrella of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) as one of four core institutes—Democratic, Republican, labor, and business. Brian Atwood had taken over as head of NDI in mid-1985 and they organized a conference somewhere in Africa. I’d seen a reference to it, so I called up NDI and scheduled an appointment with Brian, saying “I just wanted to share with you my handbook.”

He says, “Very interesting but I’ve just taken over here and we’ve made a decision with my board that we’re not going to get involved with elections. Too controversial, too sensitive.”

I thought, well, it was worth a shot. This is August 1985. Three months later, Ferdinand Marcos goes on TV to announce he’s going to organize a snap election in the Philippines and that international observers are invited. The next thing I know, somehow Brian remembered the book I had given him and he had been approached by the State Department to potentially organize elections with their Republican counterparts, and I got hired as the consultant for the NDI component of the NDI-IRI (International Republican Institute) delegation.

Q: This was AID funding?

GARBER: This was the first time NDI and IRI ever got U.S. government funding for something like this, not from NED but from State/AID. So I was the consultant and started working with NDI. It was a little controversial. I was coming from this human rights background—and to give you a sense of the times, it was the Reagan administration; human rights were a dirty word. I was the only one who knew anything about the subject on both the NDI and IRI side, and was willing to do the work. NDI was paying me—

Q: This is all focused on the Philippines?

GARBER: On the Philippines. I remember at one point I finished writing the final report (this is after the election which was in itself a watershed election for democracy promotion) and had written an acknowledgment section where I had NDI and IRI thanking me for writing the report. The Republican guy told Brian, “We can’t do this” (i.e., reference Garber as the author) and Brian initially agreed to excise my name.

I said, “What do you mean? I wrote the report.” Brian says, “They don’t want your name in the report because it looks like someone from a lefty international human-rights law group was writing this.” I said, “Brian I can’t believe you’re going along with this,” and I basically shamed him into going back to them and coming up with a formula acceptable to them and me that at least highlighted that I had been involved in writing the report; I think they put someone from their organization as a co-author when they hadn’t really done anything.

That started my relationship (despite that little incident) with NDI. The next two years—I was still working at the Law Group, but NDI would hire the Law Group as consultant to access my services. Under this arrangement, I did work for NDI in the Philippines, Haiti, and Chile.

What the Philippines represented at one level was taking this notional idea of doing election observing in a systematic matter and upscaling it into a much more political, large-scale delegation. Whereas we had four to 10 people in previous missions, for the Philippines we had 44 people. Where we had had some head of delegation, now we had John Hume, a leading figure in Northern Ireland politics, and Manuel Pastrana the former president of Colombia, and then for Chile we had the former Spanish Prime Minister Adolfo Suarez.

We had political impact, certainly in the Philippines—the fact that the international observers came out so strongly against the fraud committed by Marcos, ultimately caused Reagan to acknowledge that there had been fraud and to call Marcos and say, “Time is up; we’ll provide you exile in Hawaii if you so desire.” That really gave a tremendous boost to this idea that election observers could be more than shills for U.S. foreign policy, but could inform U.S. foreign policy in a constructive, pro-human-rights manner. That was significant in and of itself.

“[IHRLG] really showed Carter that he could make a difference in the election field.”
Countries where The Carter Center has observed elections  (2019) | The Carter Center
Countries where The Carter Center has observed elections (2019) | The Carter Center

Involvement of The Carter Center: The next stage came with President Carter. In ’82, the Carter Center was struggling to figure out what it was going to do. I don’t know if you remember a guy by the name of Bob Pastor? Bob was—incredible energy, idea a minute type guy. So in 1987, he organized a conference at the Carter Center for what was the then nascent Carter-led Council of Former Freely Elected Heads of Government in Latin America. Bob invited me to pitch an idea of an Inter-American Commission on Elections, modeled on the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. So I did that, per his script.

The first time the Carter Center observed an election where Carter acted as the head of an NDI delegation was in Panama in 1989. Once again, a joint NDI-IRI delegation. It was Carter and Ford who were the co-leaders of the delegation.

Q: Gerald Ford?

GARBER: Gerald Ford. The mismatch was Carter is intense, wants every detail. Ford flies in for a day and a half from golfing—Carter had convinced him to come. It was again a joint delegation and this time the Republicans were nervous—they wanted to get rid of Noriega and were nervous that Carter was too much in bed with Noriega because of the Panama Canal treaties.

I remember going to brief Carter before the election with Ken Wollack, then NDI’ vice president. I said, “How should I do this?” “Just brief him, don’t worry. He’s interested in the facts, just tell him the facts, don’t be intimidated.” So we went and briefed him.

As it turned out, we had organized a very informal but effective parallel vote tabulation, which a colleague and I put together with a small group of Panamanians. We had information showing the opposition had won. We briefed Carter about it and Carter then went to the election commission; they were producing all kinds of strange results. He reproached them on what they were trying to do, and he said, “If I don’t see things changing, I’m going to denounce this process.”

He went back later and again it seemed like they were mucking around with the results, so he decided to call a press conference in Panama, in the hotel—the whole delegation surrounded him and he denounced the election. There was no statement just him talking about how he had been betrayed by the Panamanians and this was unacceptable. Then the delegation left the next morning; I stayed to see what happened afterwards.

That really showed Carter that he could make a difference in the election field, and since then the Carter Center has observed 110 elections in 37 countries around the world. That became a big piece of it, but what they added (and again I give Bob Pastor a lot of credit for really drawing this out) was the role that the observers, particularly someone like Carter, could play in mediating among the actors. We weren’t just observing the election but trying to convince the parties almost through a personal commitment to Carter that they would be willing to accept the results regardless of who won, and they were making that commitment before the election in a conversation with Carter. The mediation role became much more prominent, at least for him.

“These operations involve long-term observers in-country for several months.”

Long Term Work: Q: What was crucial to that was what you mentioned earlier, that this was not just a day of the election activity. I remember when I did this in Indonesia that there had been people there for a year working with the Indonesians on procedures, processes, so on and so forth in order to build a proper base for the election itself.

GARBER: The historic evolution. The standards I think I got right, but what I never anticipated when I wrote the handbook back in 1984 was the resources and scope of these delegations. I envisioned four to 10 person election delegations, maybe a two to five person pre-election missions, and then a write-up of a report. That was the methodology I was driving.

Today these operations involve long-term observers in-country for several months; we’re going to set up an operation in Zimbabwe that will be present there for three months before the election. The teams include long-term analysts who focus on distinct areas of the process whether it’s the legal framework, gender inclusion, security issues. A relationship with a domestic monitoring group that often has expanded capabilities. Pre-election missions, short-term observers, post-election—most of the professional observer groups be it the Carter Center, NDI, the European Union, OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) all use a much more integrated methodology as a matter of course now.


BA in Political Science, Queen’s College 1973–1976
Master’s of International Affairs and Juris Doctorate Joint Degree, Columbia School of
International Affairs and Columbia School of Law 1976–1980
Joined USAID 1993
West Bank/Gaza—USAID West Bank/Gaza – Mission Director 1999–2004
New Israel Fund—Chief Executive Officer 2004–2009
USAID Africa Bureau—Deputy Assistant Administrator 2010–2011
National Defense University—Visiting Instructor from USAID 2015–2017