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S2E23 – HTWM Global Edition: Brianna Goes to Tunisia

In December, host Brianna Lennon went on her first international election observation mission. She traveled to Tunisia in northern Africa to observe their December 17, 2022, Parliamentary election, which comes after a consolidation of power under their current president and a relatively new constitution that he helped craft.

She and co-host Eric Fey spoke with Don Bisson, the head of the Tunisia Election Observation Mission for the Carter Center before the observation took place to learn more about his experiences, as well as more about international observation, in general.

And then Brianna spoke with Justin Roebuck, the County Clerk of Ottawa County, Michigan, after the observation was completed about some of what they both learned throughout the process.

You can read the Carter Center’s Preliminary Report from the Tunisian elections on December 17, 2022, “Historically Low Turnout in Tunisia’s Parliamentary Election Confirms Need for Renewed Dialogue” at https://www.cartercenter.org/news/pr/2022/tunisia-121922.html.

You can read about the Carter Center’s Preliminary report from the Tunisian runoff elections on January 29, 2023, “Post-election Statement: Low Turnout in Tunisia Election Reaffirms Need for Broad-Based Consensus” at https://www.cartercenter.org/news/pr/2023/tunisia-020123.html/.

High Turnout, Wide Margins Credits:
Managing Editor: Rebecca Smith
Managing Producer: Aaron Hay
Associate Producers: Katie Quinn, Abigail Ruhman

Transcription of the episode is as follows:

Brianna Lennon: For this particular election in Tunisia, it was really, really small turnout – like smaller than even a local American election. We're, you know, our tiny elections are 12 to 15% turnout for a municipal election or something like that. This was even less than 10%.

[High Turnout Wide Margins Introduction]

Eric Fey: Hello, I'm Eric Fey, Director of Elections in St. Louis County, Missouri.

Brianna Lennon: And I'm Brianna Lennon, County Clerk for Boone County, Missouri.

Eric Fey: And you're listening to High Turnout Wide Margins, a podcast where we explore local election administration.

Brianna Lennon: And welcome to one of our international episodes. We are talking about elections in Tunisia that happened over December 17, their elections are on a Saturday, and we just wanted to give a brief overview about the history of Tunisian elections really recently – what's changed and why it's really important that we're paying attention to democracy in Tunisia.

So, Tunisia is a small country in North Africa. It's a pretty recent democracy, not unlike some of the other countries that we have talked to on High Turnout Wide Margins, and Tunisians start to democracy began in 2011, when they had the Jasmine Revolution.

So, they had adapted a constitution in 2014, and over time, I think people got disillusioned with that model.

And so, there were Presidential elections that were held – it's had democratic Parliamentary elections, but over the past year, two years, they have consolidated power under this President, and the President actually held a Constitutional Referendum, created this new constitution along with some of his advisers, and essentially instituted an entirely new form of electoral administration.

They instituted a number of things that were more similar to American democracy, and without much of a lead up to voter education, the President called for the first set of Parliamentary elections under this new model of electoral administration that was put into effect, and nobody internationally really knew what to expect.

I think a lot of people were looking at Tunisia, as this was kind of a make-or-break moment for their democracy. They were kind of sliding towards more of an autocratic system because the President had consolidated so much power, and a lot of international observers and people from the African Union were there to monitor what was going on in these elections and to see really what the average voter thought, as well, about whether this would be a legitimate election – a democratic election and what the turnout would be.

Eric Fey: Brianna participated in this election observation mission under the auspices of the Carter Center, which is a US-based nonprofit organization named for former President Jimmy Carter, and amongst a host of other things, they observe elections in a number of different countries as part of their democracy program.

The Carter Center is one of several different international organizations – some are nongovernmental organizations like the Carter Center, some are intergovernmental organizations like the Organization of American States, or the OSCE [Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe], and the purpose of these missions is to assess the host country's compliance with international democracy norms, and, in some cases, these countries have signed documents or treaties saying that they'll uphold certain democratic norms and rights – of course free and fair elections being one of them.

And so these missions are interesting. I've been on a number of them, probably about a dozen or so, and unlike a lot of people's perception that, you know, these missions are kind of like the election police and like if you see something wrong, do you correct it? Do you have people arrested? You know, whatever and – no.

International election observers – if they're adhering to the internationally recognized principles of election observation – are not the election police. They're there to observe, they make reports on what they see, and they make recommendations to host country having the election as to what things might be improved, what went well, what went not so well. Things like that.

So, we’re interviewing Don Bisson, the head of mission of the Carter Center Tunisia Election Observation Mission.

Don Bisson – Recorded prior to the December 17, 2022, Tunisian Election Observation

Brianna Lennon: Have you been able to find commonalities between what drew you to public defense and elections?

Don Bisson: Yeah, a lot of it's about defending standards and commitments and believing in a certain - I believe in a certain world that unfortunately doesn't exist. It's actually probably worse than it was when I started. I've done a very good job in 20 years. Times are worse than what I started doing this.

I believe in helping people, I believe that we owe something back to society. I had the opportunity to become a lawyer – I'm from a very poor family from New Hampshire with seven kids – I'm the only one who went to college or law school. All of family still lives in some sort of [indecipherable] For me, it's appalling. This is the same kind of thing.

When I did development – there's nothing better than when you're training your judges and lawyers. I was in Uzbekistan, where they've never done a bail motion, because they always get denied. So we trained them on the standards, and the best thing in the world was to see two Uzbek lawyers stand up in a court of law and say, "Judge, I'm going to argue the International Covenant.” Those simple things for me – that makes my soul better.


That's just the way it is. I care too much about people.

Eric Fey: So Don, you mentioned that sometimes things have not always progressed the way you'd like. Have you seen any examples where election processes have improved over time as the result of election observation missions.

Don Bisson: Yes, and mostly in many countries – the best places where it's worked are countries that had a history of democracy before they fell under communism – those countries that had no history of democracy like Tunisia, it's very difficult, and the transition takes a long, long period of time.

It makes me angry that the international community in many places I've worked in, they judge people by standards that we first of all, don't meet. And second of all, that it took us 200 years to get. You know, we're 10 years into democracy in Tunisia. I was like, "Guys, this is a long, long process." It takes a lot of time and its small baby steps, and if you're not willing to go down that road – then this is not going to work because you cannot have democracy overnight. It doesn't work that way. Most people in Tunisia don't know what democracy is. They're like the rest of the world.

The one thing I have found is that people are the same everywhere – they care about food, their children's education, whether they can travel or have a good life, whether their children will have a better life then they do, and when you lose hope about that, like they have in Tunisia.

People leave in droves. I mean, it's happening in Albania. It's happening in Tunisia. It happens in the stans – Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, and I get a little annoyed when the West says, “Well, we can't take these immigrants." I’m like, “Wait a minute here.” Part of the reason they're in the situation they're in is because of us. Because we took all their natural resources. We colonized all these people, and then all of a sudden, we say, “Okay, now you got to become a democracy.”

I think that a lot of development work, is money thrown away. Because it's driven by – we call them the “beltway bandits,” [indecipherable] contractors – a lot of white lawyers like me who make a lot of money to go to a foreign country and write a report about our country they have no clue what they're talking about.

Brianna Lennon: So, when you go in to do an observation mission, what's your ultimate goal and what comes out of it?

Don Bisson: My goal is to observe what happened, report on irregularities, make sure that the law meets international commitments and standards. I like what I do because I get to affect policy.

Elections is different from development. I was a technocrat delivering technical assistance, which was fine. I mean, because I'm a lawyer, I like teaching. So, I did a lot of startup law clinics in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Armenia, that I really liked because I saw students getting excited about a different way of learning how to practice law.

But, you know, now – when I started doing elections, especially after I became the deputy head of mission [indecipherable] the director after I've stopped being legal analyst, I get to drive policy. I get to decide what the statements gonna say – not so much with the Carter Center. More with the ODIHR [Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights] than with the Carter Center.

I like that. I get to sit around a table with a bunch of parliamentarians and they listen to what I have to say. A lot of times I get that feeling, in the middle of a meeting – “I'm a little hick from New Hampshire. What the hell am I doing sitting in the room with the president of this country, and they're listening to what I have to say?” But they do because I'm good at what I do, and I like that part of it. I like the fact that I can push the statement in a direction where I think it needs to go. I can try to focus the core team, and those others who have influence in a statement on the issues that I think will make change in the country.

For me, it has to be more about observation for the sake of observation. You have to have an end game, and the end game for me is what happens afterwards, which is why I stayed in Tunisia – because then we affected the election law. We came up with amendments with ODIHR, they send me back to the country and I meet with the Parliament. I've sat with the Parliament of Albania, Georgia, Armenia, Montenegro for hours and days, explaining to them why we made the recommendation we did and helping them to rewrite their law so that it does meet the international standards. That's exciting to me that.

That's been the best part and why I stayed in elections was because I really feel like I have an impact. I also like the idea of going for a couple of months – it's a snapshot. You do what you need to do to drive policy, and then going back and trying to implement change. To me, that's the best part.

Eric Fey: Hey Don, if you had a magic wand – how would you improve election observation missions?

Don Bisson: I think Election Observation needs to – even more than it does now – to focus on the long-term observation. I think you should be there at least six months before the election. Hardly anybody does that. The Carter Center is the best about longevity. They've understood that.

It's what happens before the election that matters. Election Day is not as important as it used to be when I started doing this work. Election Day was very important because there was lots of fraud – it was the Bulgarian [indecipherable], all these things, ways to stop ballots and do this stuff.

What election observation has done is has minimized Election Day fraud – there's no question throughout the world. So, in all of these countries now, they've just more creative about how they do it. So now they do before the election. Mostly by pressure on civil servants is a very big problem. Especially in places like Macedonia, Armenia, Georgia, Montenegro – where it’s a huge problem because they work for the government. So, the government pressures the servants.

In Macedonia, we actually got ahold of – they gave all of the teachers and the other civil servants a sheet and it had to list 10 people who were going to vote for the government with their IDs. We stopped it because we got a hold of it, and we put it up all over our report. But those kinds of things happen. Tunisia – not so much. Tunisia is an interesting place when it comes to elections. There's not much cheating – even before the election.

[HTWM Mid-break] Hey, everyone, this is Eric Fey, co-host of High Turnout Wide Margins. This is another international episode of High Turnout Wide Margins. We hope you're enjoying it, and coming up next is Justin Roebuck from Ottawa County, Michigan, who was on the mission with Brianna and will share his experiences.

Justin Roebuck – After the December 17, 2022, Tunisian Election Observation

Justin Roebuck: We are in Tunis, the capital city of Tunisia, and we have just kind of wrapped up an observation mission with the Carter Center of the Parliamentary election that was held on December 17.

Brianna Lennon: And what's your background? How did you get involved in elections?

Justin Roebuck: Yeah. Well, I have been a nerd, I'm a lifelong nerd who has always loved history and politics and kind of fell in love with elections when I worked for the Michigan Secretary of State. Kind of started as a teenager, and then, you know, worked on a couple of political campaigns, and then became a part of the Secretary of State's executive team, and then sort of, yeah, just kind of fell into an election administration role, because I saw the behind-the-scenes stuff that Secretary of State did in election administration, and decided, "You know what, I really like politics, but I also really love election administration.” So, that's where I am today.

Brianna Lennon: So what interested you in being part of a mission? Is this your first mission? Have you done this before?

Justin Roebuck: This is my first mission. I've been a part of an international delegation before, but this is my first real election observation mission. And I think, you know, I'm passionate about elections – period. I love the process and the administration and the nuts and bolts of elections, but I also am passionate about the Democratic process and what that actually means, right? What's actually the result of our administration of elections is so important. And so the opportunity to come be here in Tunisia and sort of see the behind the scenes of a really critical piece of where they're at right now — which is, of course, a critical time in their own democracy — was a very cool opportunity. I'm really grateful for it.

Brianna Lennon: I know that you and I had talked very briefly and not, you know, as a criticism or anything, but about the importance of having election officials and elections administrators, especially – There are some things that unless you really know elections from the nuts and bolts level, it may seem like something has gone wrong, or it may seem like there's been some sort of like, odd thing that's happened, but you're like, "Oh, that happens all the time. We know that that happens all the time." What do you think, is the value in having elections administrators being a part of the observation process?

Justin Roebuck: I feel like the Carter Center, and I've done, you know, no previous work with the Carter Center, but as an NGO, I really respect the fact that they come in really early in the process, and they observe a lot, you know? Everything from voter registration processes, to speaking with civil society organizations, and speaking with people on the ground in the countries that they're in, and really like building relationships leading up to the process of actually observing an election. And I think that is really critical.

But I think you're absolutely right, because there are times where election administration is a process. It's a process-oriented function of government, right? And so you can have some outside context, that might be political context, but when you go in to actually observe a process, I think it's so helpful to have somebody there who's done that thing before.

Brianna Lennon: Somebody else on the mission had asked us both, too, “what are we going to take back?” What do you think is something that you don't do now, but would find some value in adding into your processes?

Justin Roebuck: So one of the key takeaways for me on that part is the, you know, elections in the United States are so decentralized. In Michigan, where I'm at, elections are even more decentralized than a lot of other places. We have, you know, we have 1,600 election jurisdictions, election officials in the state of Michigan. And observing what happens here [Tunisia] – it's amazing how everything is just streamlined. They have the exact same material. Every single polling places has the exact same material, the exact same setup, and, I think, you know, what that ends up creating is this commonality and this trust with the voters, right? The voter kind of understands the process now, and, of course, here in Tunisia, they've had a number of elections since the Jasmine revolution or whatever, in 2011, and so I feel like what we observed of the voters, essentially, they kind of knew the drill. Like as we were watching people getting processed in the polling locations.

The other thing that I think that level of coordination does is it helps in your own training processes. So you have all these election workers in the field, but they've all been given the very same instruction, they're using the same materials. So that was really interesting, I think.

Brianna Lennon: One of the things that I was not expecting to have so many opinions about the preparation process that we received as STOs – short term election observation – there are always a core team that are putting together, you know, the recommendations and are really kind of the central part of the mission, there's long term observers that go out and establish these relationships, as you said, and then there are short term observers, which is what we've both been — and Eric has been in many, many missions, as well — to talk about, you know, what happens on the day of the election. We come out for Election Day. And so a core part of that is the briefing that we receive and the training that we receive as short-term election observation people so that we have some idea of what to expect when we go out. How did you feel being dropped into a new election process and having to pick it up in a few days, and then go out and make educated observations about how everything was working on election day?

Justin Roebuck: Yeah, 100%, like, all of a sudden being put into the shoes of both really, you know, an election worker who's just, you know — what I always say — “normal human being,” unlike us in election administration, who are like consistent election nerds. These are just normal people who we asked to do this, you know, very important, sometimes tedious administrative function. And I think we get lost in the terminology. We're in it every day. We understand what we're talking about, but that doesn't mean that other people understand it the same way. It gave me a really great perspective, and I've always said, in my own election worker training – we train about 1,200 election workers in an election cycle, and we do cover the process. In Michigan, we call observers, “challengers.’ Essentially, a poll challenger is – equates to the same thing in Michigan, but you know, challenges play a really critical role in our process. It is so important that we're transparent. That we give them the access that they need – and we do talk about that, but I think I'm going to talk about it from a much deeper perspective now in my own trainings. Because it's – you're in a polling place, you want to understand what's going on for the very specific purpose that we have to, right? Report back so that these things can be followed up on, and reported on, and included in a final analysis of what happened. But at the same time, you see that struggles that election workers are going through, and you don't want to interrupt, and you feel kind of out of place.

The process of observation is so important. Transparency is so critical to trust in elections. You could have a great election process, and if there's no trust, you still don't have an election that works.

Brianna Lennon: And I mean, you're in Michigan, which is one of the places where, I would say, you probably have more scrutiny on you than many other states – Missouri included. Did you – so one of the other things that we had to do here was that we had to have surveys. We had to do surveys of just your average potential voter on the street before Election Day. Did you see any similarities with how people were viewing democracy, trust, confidence, things like that, that you – that resonated with you at all?

Justin Roebuck: You and I were having a little bit of this discussion, and certainly with other short-term observers, as well. We had to ask like a series of these questions, right? Just kind of, "In general, how do you feel like the direction of your country is going?" And, you know, "What is your – what is your sense of the political parties here in the country?" And so forth, and, you know, in a lot of those answers, I think you might find the same thing walking through my neighborhood at home, right? Where – "do you feel like the United States is generally going in the right or the wrong direction?"

I think a lot of people get jaded about the process sometimes, and again, putting yourself in the context of a normal human being when, you know, you care about providing for your family, paying for groceries, all the basic things here in Tunisia – that is the real struggle right now, right? The economic hardship that these people are facing is really serious.

I think, you know, I had a conversation with one person in particular really just struck me when they said, "You know, really, the only thing I see I gained from the revolution is a freedom of expression and the freedom of speech, which is important, but it's not as important to me as providing milk for my son who when he's hungry in the morning and needs some milk." And that was powerful for me, because I think that gives you a different perspective of the need to – how do you fundamentally take care of basic issues? And what's the government's role in that? And how does that play into – how does your economic need or hardship or whatever play into your trust in your government? And so I think some of those same things are happening right now.

Brianna Lennon: Did it give you a different perspective as – I mean, elections administrators allow people to express their opinions through democracy – did it give you a different sense of your role in the democratic process at all?

Justin Roebuck: For me, one of the things that was a hard thing to watch – I don't know about you and how you experienced this – but you know, clearly there was – it was low turnout election. It was a very low turnout election. In fact, globally, I think one of the lowest turnout elections ever in a legislative cycle. And so it says something, right? It says something about where the country is at, where the country is headed in terms of freedom and democracy and the will of the people being listened to versus autocracy and all those things. But I saw so many really hard-working diligent election officials on election day in every location that we were at. People really caring about the process. People wanting to get it right, and they were getting it right. By and large, it was great.

I mean, the observation went really well in terms of the actual technical administration of the process, and then to walk away and realize, like – this was sort of an abysmal turnout, and they're not really sure in those surveys as we're talking to everyday people here on the ground – they're not really sure where their country's going. And all of that hard work and thinking like, "Wow, what was that for? You know, what did that actually result in?"

And I think, you know, we still have so much to be grateful for in the United States – where we do have some challenges right now that we're going through with trust in our process, but by and large, our democracy is strong in the sense that the will of the people has prevailed, and it continues to prevail in the US, and, you know, we abide by the outcome of elections.

[Music Transition]

Brianna Lennon: One of the more interesting things – which I think I have since learned is not always the most common thing – that we did when we got there was actually interview voters and go talk to them about what they expected to see in the upcoming election, in the days leading up to it.

When we actually got to election day, what it really is, is observation, I mean, it's very appropriately named. You're not getting involved in the process. If you see something, you make a note of it, but you're not, you're not supposed to actually go up to a poll worker and tell them they did something wrong. You don't pull a voter aside and say, “Hey, did you know that you have certain rights that you could,” you know, don't, don't get involved in the process, just watch the process. It's very interesting. And you know, at the end of the night, you can watch all the counting procedures, and really just, you're just kind of there as a fly on the wall in a lot of cases.

You're not, you're not supposed to be part of the process. If you are involved in the process, that kind of defeats the whole purpose. The point of the mission is to see how the process works on its own naturally, and the part that was most striking to me is that like language of elections administration, the language of chain of custody and checking in voters and poll workers and like how ballots get counted, and all that – that language is the same no matter where you are.

And so I felt like I had a little bit of an advantage, really, because the people that I was traveling with were not elections administrators, but when we would go talk to the local elections administrators that were explaining how the process worked, they had to take some time catching up to talk through the whole thing for the people that I was with, but I could kind of read between the lines about what they were actually doing and how the process was working.

So, I found that really interesting that, you know, when it comes to making sure that democracy is working, elections administration pretty much has to be the same everywhere. So, it's easy to have conversations with other elections administrators – even when you're not speaking the same language.

Eric Fey: You've been listening to High Turnout Wide Margins, a podcast that explores local election administration. I'm your host, Eric Fey, alongside Brianna Lennon. Thanks to KBIA for making this podcast possible. Our Managing Editor is Rebecca Smith. Our Managing Producer is Aaron Hay, and our Associate Producers are Abigail Ruhman and Katie Quinn. This has been High Turnout Wide Margins, and thanks for listening.

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After serving as Assistant Attorney General in the Missouri attorney general's office and as Deputy Director of Elections in the Missouri secretary of state's office, Brianna Lennon made the decision to pursue election administration at the local level. She was elected county clerk in Boone, Missouri, in 2018, making her responsible for conducting elections for more than 120,000 registered voters.
Eric Fey is a lifelong resident of St. Louis County, Missouri, who fell in love with election administration as a teenage poll worker. He has worked in the field for a decade, and became director of elections in 2015. He’s on the executive board of the Missouri Association of County Clerks and Election Authorities, and has observed elections in twelve countries, including Ukraine, Sri Lanka, and Uzbekistan.