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Laramie County Clerk Debra Lee sits at her desk on Friday, Feb. 2, 2018, at the Laramie County Courthouse. She has worked in dozens of worldwide elections to ensure fair voting practices. Blaine McCartney/Wyoming Tribune Eagle

CHEYENNE – With one phone call, the trajectory of Laramie County Clerk Debra Lee’s life changed forever.

An international election advocacy group was making calls, looking for people to help hold the first direct election in Bosnia, and Lee decided to help.

After that experience, and throughout her life, Lee has traveled to places like East Timor and South Sudan to help implement fair elections. She spoke about her experiences and voting rights in America at a talk called “How We Vote in America and Around the World” on Thursday night at the Laramie County Library.

“Everyone, from the African villager to the Afghan women to the Bosnian teenager, wants one thing above all else – freedom,” Lee said.

On her trip to Bosnia, Lee said she realized elections are all about hope for the future. Now, as the county clerk, Lee administers elections right here in Laramie County.

Before an election, Lee said she tells the election judges, “You, as an election judge, in a sense, hold the hopes and dreams of Laramie County in your hands.”

According to Lee, the integrity of democracy in the U.S. served as a global example.

“We were a beacon of hope for others around the world when it came to voting,” Lee said.

The main standards for conducting an election are credibility, inclusivity, transparency and accountability, which Lee learned can be challenging to achieve in a country ravaged by war.

“A poorly conducted election in a fragile democracy can spin that country right back into conflict,” Lee said.

In East Timor, they used transparent ballot boxes so voters knew their ballots were cast. In Bosnia, people’s fingers were covered with ink before they voted so they could only cast one ballot.

Through creativity and transparency, Lee and the groups she worked with were able to successfully pull off elections, even in countries like Afghanistan, where conflict was looming.

“The fact that Debra has done this in so many countries makes me realize how many places in the world need free and fair elections,” said Joan Anderson of the League of Women Voters.

During the talk, Lee also traversed through the history of voting rights in the U.S. and the impact those rights have had across the globe.

According to Lee, the U.S. influence spread messages like freedom of information, political expression and peaceful assembly. The talk started with the story of early American elections.

“Voting was not a right, but a privilege of a chosen few,” Lee said.

Lee talked through the first election, where white men cast their paper ballots into wooden boxes. She explained the election of 1920, where women were allowed to vote and cast ballots using a gear-lever machine. And she talked about the amendments and movements that brought our elections to the point they’re at today.

Acts were passed that made voting easier for people of color, the elderly, people with disabilities and overseas military members.

Some of those rights in America were won through protest and marches. Lee has seen firsthand what people are willing to sacrifice for democracy.

“The Timorese, Afghans and Bosnians taught me so much about how we vote and why it’s important, and they remind me of the sacrifices that were made in this country and the sacrifices that continue to be made around the world for this right.”

Margaret Austin is the Wyoming Tribune Eagle’s local government reporter. She can be reached at maustin@wyomingnews.com or 307-633-3152. Follow her on Twitter @MargaretMAustin.

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