The deployment of election observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) has sparked controversy, with Texas Attorney-General Greg Abbott warning the OSCE and the Obama administration that any observer who approaches a polling station in the state risks criminal prosecution.
The OSCE’s election-monitoring arm, the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), has been invited by the federal government to observe elections since 2002 and it says the U.S., like all OSCE partner states, has an obligation to allow the practice.
The Kremlin is no fan of the OSCE/ODIHR – which, like the U.S. government, regularly criticizes Russian elections – but it has seized on a chance to turn the spotlight onto the U.S.
“It is strange why the U.S. authorities, who often accuse other countries of being not democratic enough, prefer not to notice such violation of democracy in their own country,” the Russian foreign ministry said in a statement carried by the Voice of Russia.
On its Twitter account, the ministry called the situation regarding OSCE/ODIHR monitors in Texas “disturbing.”
“The U.S. lectures the world on democracy and human rights, but looks only to its own laws when flaws in its voting system are pointed out,” it said, adding that “the U.S. electoral system is decentralized, fragmented and obsolete.”
The head of Russia’s election commission, Vladimir Churov, also waded in, charging in an article in the Rossiyskaya Gazeta newspaper that U.S. elections are neither transparent nor fair.
He said electronic voting machines were vulnerable to manipulation, and took issue with the electoral college system, arguing “one can only talk about the American people’s right to elect their president with reservations.”
(Churov is a former lawmaker with Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s ultra-nationalist Liberal-Democratic Party, a party critics say is neither liberal nor democratic. When tens of thousands Russians took to the streets last December to protest legislative elections won by Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party, Churov’s resignation was among the protest leaders’ formal demands.)
Meanwhile, Moscow Times reports that a senior lawmaker in the ruling United Russia party is urging lawmakers in the European Union to bar Abbott from traveling on the continent because of his position on the OSCE monitoring.
Sergei Zheleznyak, a deputy speaker in the State Duma who co-chairs an E.U.-Russia parliamentary group, said the E.U. should apply the same standards to monitoring U.S. elections as it does to those elsewhere, including Russia.
Moscow Times noted that Zheleznyak’s intervention comes amid Russian lawmakers’ unhappiness over U.S. legislation targeting Russian human rights violators, the Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act.
Named for Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian whistleblower who died in custody in 2009, the bipartisan bill would establish a public list of rights violators who would be denied U.S. visas and have their U.S.-based assets frozen.
Last week the foreign ministry in Moscow produced its annual report on human rights in the U.S. that accused authorities of a range of violations at home and abroad.
A section on voting said U.S. citizens’ electoral rights were limited, citing voter-ID laws, the barring of convicted felons and the electoral college system, which it said was considered by many to be “out-of-date and non-democratic.”
The OSCE comprises 56 member nations in Europe, Central Asia and North America, and is focused on human rights and security.
Russia’s criticism of Abbott’s stance on the OSCE monitors is ironic, given the Kremlin’s own combative relationship with the organization. Near the end of his previous term as president, Putin in 2008 advised OSCE observers to “teach their own wives how to cook cabbage soup” rather than lecture Russia over its elections.
Apart from 44 OSCE/ODIHR observers – who include delegates from such non-democratic countries as Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan – another OSCE body, the Parliamentary Assembly, is sending more than 100 parliamentarians, including Russians, to observe the polls, with a focus on swing states.
Separately, the Russian foreign ministry has announced that diplomats from the Russian Embassy in Washington and its consulates in New York, San Francisco, Seattle and Houston, plan to observe balloting in their respective areas next Tuesday.
Part of Abbott’s criticism relates to the fact the OSCE/ODIHR mission in the U.S. has met with activist groups opposed to voter-identification laws and those restricting felons from voting.
The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and others urged the observers to deploy in states where they allege there is “a coordinated political effort to disenfranchise millions of Americans,” especially minorities and low-income groups.
In a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last week Abbott voiced concern that “an unnecessary political agenda may have infected OSCE’s election monitoring activities.”
“The OSCE may object to photo identification laws and prohibitions on felons voting – but our nation’s Supreme Court has upheld both laws as entirely consistent with the U.S. Constitution,” he wrote.
Abbott noted that the Netherlands – the home country of the head of the OSCE/ODIHR team in the U.S. – itself has voter-ID requirements in a bid to counter fraud.
“Why the OSCE appears to now question voter identification laws in the United States is beyond reason,” he said. “Perhaps it is just politics. Regardless, the OSCE’s perspective on Voter ID is legally irrelevant in the United States.”