10/31/2009 12:25 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Counting in Kabul: A Virginia Monitor Heads to Afghanistan

A couple of weeks ago, I received an invitation from to travel to Afghanistan to monitor the run-off presidential election on November 7. I immediately accepted. In the days since, as violence has mounted and as the election itself has changed (as of this writing, Abdullah Abdullah, President Karzai's only challenger, has withdrawn, but the election is still scheduled to occur), my family and loved ones have repeatedly asked me for my reasoning. I'm writing this to explain why election monitoring in a country like Afghanistan makes sense.

The first and most important reason is to prove that democracy can exist in Afghanistan. The trip is still on despite the Taliban's brutal attack on U.N. election monitors in a Kabul guesthouse last week. After the assault, which killed eleven people , a Taliban spokesman explained that the intent was to punish election monitors and suppress the election. As I've discussed with my friends and family, this was a classic terrorist attack -- a brutal symbolic gesture aimed to change behavior. The effort was so noxious, so offensive to the notions of fairness and the rule of law that we need in the modern world, that it must be repudiated with an opposite force -- a skilled and conscientious presence aimed at ensuring the election is as democratic as possible, and publicizing its shortcomings.

The second reason is to bring the experience of American election monitors abroad. I'm a Virginia-based lawyer and longtime Democratic activist. For several weeks now, I've served on the steering committee of the Democratic Party of Virginia's own "promote and protect the vote" effort. This is the sixth time I have helped on such programs in Virginia, including in 2001 during Mark Warner's gubernatorial campaign, where, after the 2000 debacle in Florida, Democrats launched such a program statewide for the first time.

These programs are motivated by the desire to avoid problems like Florida in 2000, whether of ballot design (the "butterfly ballot" that caused thousands of elderly voters in Palm Beach County to vote for Pat Buchanan could have been corrected even on Election Day); voter intimidation; or exhausted campaign officials improperly turning voters away from the polls.

Our experiences in Virginia have been intensely satisfying. Volunteers have helped elderly people vote for the first time in 2008, countered belligerent operatives who were intimidating officials and voters, convinced state officials to remove intimidating police presences at minority precincts. In 2005, I even took the affidavit of a terrified middle-aged African-American man in Buckingham County who had received a flier from the Republican National Committee advising him, in big yellow letters, to "Skip this Election." He later persuaded neighbors who had also received the flier that it was nothing more than an intimidation tactic that needed to be overcome.

Despite these problems, we have to keep a sense of proportion. In Virginia, we've been practicing democracy for hundreds of years. We should be proud of a system that generally works extremely well and provides a voice to hundreds of thousands of citizens.

Afghanistan, on the other hand, is a war-torn country with a democracy that not only isn't walking yet -- it's crawling, at best. Illiteracy is well over 50%; hundreds of thousands of people have no experience with the notion of a political system caring what they think, much less approaching a ballot box, registering their opinion on a card, and voting.

And this brings me to the third reason for going -- I want to see first-hand how democracy can work in Afghanistan on a day-to-day level. Over the years, I've come to believe that democracy turns on about everyday folks and their beliefs, attitudes, and actions. In researching my recent book Demagogue: The Fight to Save Democracy from Its Worst Enemies (Palgrave Macmillan 2009), I found many historic stories about how constitutionalism--a rich, deep culture of civic republican values--can aid democracies (particularly the United States) in their historic fights to survive the predations of mob leaders, whether Huey Long, Benito Mussolini, Adolf Hitler, or, today, Hugo Chavez or Moqtada al-Sadr.

As I wrote in the book, "In the end, constitutionalism is about ordinary people doing ordinary things in their ordinary lives to an extraordinary end."

In other words, I believe democracy succeeds not through soaring metaphysical ideas or alliances with leaders or institutions -- it works when it focuses on the great masses of regular people living their day-to-day lives, and grows within them the beliefs, practices, and culture that causes them to regard themselves as democratic citizens with rights and obligations, and to keep a short leash on any leader who would become a demagogue -- and then a tyrant.

My family and loved ones are of course worried about this trip, especially after the Taliban attack in Kabul. It wasn't an easy decision, but I think I've made the right choice -- I hope I have. When I'm there, I won't be looking for highfalutin rhetoric about democracy and destiny. I'll instead be carefully watching to see whether democracy is settling in the lives of ordinary Afghans, whether it's becoming part of the fabric of everyday society.

I hope I'll find that if it's not, that at least it can be. And if I don't have an answer, I can promise one thing: I'll be coming home with some tough questions.