They are the nearly invisible heroes of democracy.
Under the best circumstances, almost no one takes heed of their work.
But in countries where democracy is in its infancy, electoral officials may put their lives on the line.
In places such as Haiti, for example, "We must be mindful of the death threats under which they do their work," says Jean-Pierre Kingsley, chief electoral officer of Canada. "It's not even 10 years old, this phenomenon of emerging democracies," Mr. Kingsley adds during an interview at a Global Electoral Organizations Network conference, which met here recently. "But it's so fraught with possibilities."
Most of the world's emerging democracies have had their first free elections, with considerable international support. The push is now on for these countries to learn to do it on their own.
However delicate the roots of their democracy may still be, commissioners need to do everything from registering voters to announcing the final tallies in a way that inspires public confidence. People are "seeing that this is not just a clerical job," as Kingsley puts it.
"Electoral authorities may be seen as one of very few institutions in society that are perceived as being clean," says Carina Perelli, director of the United Nations Electoral Assistance Division.
Some nominally independent commissions may still be "in the hip pocket" of the government, as one observer at the conference put it. But networking and professional education for the commissioners are sure to have a beneficial effect, officials here say.
More countries, especially in Central and Eastern Europe and Latin America, are deciding that the best approach is to establish a permanent election commission, independent of the government.
The independent commission model was adopted by Canada in 1975 and by Australia in 1984. Both countries are very active in helping emerging democracies "professionalize" their election management. So are Western Europeans, even though in their countries, election management is traditionally handled by the interior ministry rather than an independent commission.
In established democracies, civil servants are generally trusted to conduct elections fairly. "In Norway, if an elderly voter can't get to the post office to vote, a postman comes on a bicycle to bring the ballot box to the voter," says Rafael Lpez-Pintor, a political scientist at the Autonomous University of Madrid. "Does anyone believe the postman will tamper with the ballot box? No!"
But it has been "hard to transfer this model to the new democracies," says Kingsley - who has been appointed to his job for life, but is no longer allowed to vote. "The independent commission model has taken over."
Technical assistance is important. Since last fall, an online encyclopedia of election lore has been available. The ACE Project (www.aceproject.org) is intended to be complete enough to let officials set up an election system virtually from scratch.
THE ACE Project is a joint project of the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), in Washington; the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, in Stockholm; and the United Nations - the same organizations that sponsored the Ottawa conference, along with Elections Canada. IFES also produces a buyer's guide for election services, supplies, and equipment: Officials can shop for everything from database management software to plexiglass ballot boxes, for truly "transparent" democracy.
K. Afari-Gyan of the Association of African Election Authorities describes how new technologies helped in his country, Ghana. The voter registry was put onto a CD-ROM that was distributed to the political parties for cross-checking. "We all came to agree that we had a reasonably reliable registry, and once you have that, half the battle is won."
Other officials have their own stories. Alistair Legge of the Australian Electoral Commission wears another hat as part of the Pacific Islands, Australia, and New Zealand Electoral Administrators. "These are very poor nation-states," Mr. Legge, himself a Papuan by birth, says of his island neighbors. In Papua New Guinea, he says, "We're working to computerize voter registration. Literacy is good, but logistically, it's very hard to hold elections." Officials "have to fly or go by boat."
He also works with the Pitcairn Islands, an independent nation-state, albeit one with only about three dozen voters. Not only do officials there have to travel by freighter if they want to leave the islands, but they lack access to the Internet. "It's the forgotten part of the world - it's very peaceful," says Mr. Legge.
Not everyone in his line of work has it so easy. In a speech before the conference, Richard Soudriette, president of IFES, cited the role that Alberto Ramirez Zambonini, an election commissioner in Paraguay, played recently in Paraguay's crisis. The president had been impeached and the vice president assassinated. It wasn't clear that the military would allow the constitutional order of succession to be followed.
"During the height of the crisis, as soldiers were shooting unarmed demonstrators and tanks were rumbling through the streets, I received an e-mail from a nine-year-old Paraguayan girl named Carla," Mr. Soudriette said.
"I am very sad because our vice president, Argana, died today," she wrote. "He was killed by bad men who want to put us in chains again. I fear that these 10 bullets may have also killed our democracy."
In the end, though, the crisis was defused, in part because of Dr. Ramirez Zambonini's insistence on constitutional process. Soudriette added, "It is important that each of us carries forward the struggle to promote democracy. We owe it to Carla and millions like her around the globe."