“The threat of criminal sanctions … is unacceptable,” said Janez Lenarcic, the Slovenian diplomat who heads the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), a part of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).
“The United States, like all countries in the OSCE, has an obligation to invite ODIHR observers to observe its elections,” he said in a statement. It added that he “shared his concerns in a letter” to Clinton.
Lenarcic was responding to a letter sent by Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott to the ODIHR Tuesday informing it that “groups and individuals from outside the United States are not allowed to influence or interfere with the election process in Texas.”
“The OSCE’s representatives are not authorized by Texas law to enter a polling place,” Abbott wrote. ‘It may be a criminal offense for OSCE’s representatives to maintain a presence within 100 feet of a polling place’s entrance. Failure to comply with these requirements could subject the OSCE’s representatives to criminal prosecution for violating state law.”
Lenarcic’s letter to Clinton is the latest development in a simmering controversy over an OSCE/ODIHR mission that aims to assess the November 6 vote “for compliance with international obligations and standards for democratic elections.”
As reported earlier, the mission includes observers from several non-democratic countries that are members of the OSCE, including Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. More than a quarter – 12 of a total 44 observers – come from countries assessed by Freedom House as either “not free” or “partly free.”
The plans have triggered some protests on the campaign trail.
“Every American should be outraged by this news,” Rep. Connie Mack (R-Fla.), who is running for a seat in the U.S. Senate, declared on Monday.
International monitoring of elections is “usually reserved for third-world countries, banana republics and fledgling democracies,” he said. “The only ones who should ever oversee American elections are Americans.”
The speaker of the Alabama House of Representatives, Mike Hubbard, announced plans to introduce legislation that would bar non-U.S. citizens from observing elections in the state in future.
“If you can’t participate in an election in the United States, and if you can’t cast a vote in the United States, you really have no business serving as a poll watcher in an election being held in the United States,” he said.
(Both Mack and Hubbard included criticism of the United Nations in their comments. A much-cited article in The Hill on Saturday highlighted a U.N. link to the plan, calling the monitors “United Nations-affiliated” and describing the OSCE as “a United Nations partner on democratization and human rights projects.” In fact the U.N. partners with dozens of international organizations, ranging from the European Union to the Red Cross.)
Spotlight on voter-ID laws
One area the OSCE/ODIHR plans to focus on in its monitoring is that of voter-identification laws.
Groups including the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People earlier urged the mission to deploy its monitors in states where they allege there is “a coordinated political effort to disenfranchise millions of Americans – particularly traditionally disenfranchised groups like minorities, low-income people, women, young people, persons with disabilities, and the elderly.”
In his letter to the ODIHR, Texas AG Abbott cited that element of the mission.
“The OSCE may be entitled to its opinions about Voter ID laws, but your opinion is legally irrelevant in the United States, where the Supreme Court has already determined that Voter ID laws are constitutional,” he wrote.
“If OSCE members want to learn more about our election processes so they can improve their own democratic systems, we welcome the opportunity to discuss the measures Texas has implemented to protect the integrity of elections,” he continued. “However, groups and individuals from outside the United States are not allowed to influence or interfere with the election process in Texas.”
In his response, Lenarcic denied that the OSCE/ODIHR planned to interfere.
“Our observers are required to remain strictly impartial and not to intervene in the voting process in any way,” he said. “They are in the United States to observe these elections, not to interfere in them.”
“The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, as they always do at election time here and in other member-states, has fielded a delegation to come and observe the U.S. elections, and we welcome that,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters on Tuesday.
At the end of its mission the OSCE/ODIHR plans to “issue a statement of preliminary findings and conclusions at a press conference.” It will publish a full report about two months later.
“We welcome the OSCE’s presence and hope that the American people pay close attention to its findings,” Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights president Wade Henderson said in a statement.
Russian lawmakers too
The OHIDR is not the only OSCE body planning to observe the elections. The organization’s Parliamentary Assembly, comprising legislators from its member states, will deploy more than 100 monitors with a focus on swing states. The Moscow Times reported this week that 10 Russian lawmakers are among them.
The OSCE is an organization of 56 member nations in Europe, Central Asia and North America, focused on human rights and security. It has been invited to observe U.S. elections since 2004.
Lenarcic’s assertion that the U.S. has an “obligation” to invite the observers alludes to an agreement signed in Denmark in 1990 by the members of the OSCE’s precursor organization, the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe, which states in part:
“The participating States consider that the presence of observers, both foreign and domestic, can enhance the electoral process for States in which elections are taking place. They therefore invite observers from any other CSCE participating States and any appropriate private institutions and organizations who may wish to do so to observe the course of their national election proceedings, to the extent permitted by law. They will also endeavor to facilitate similar access for election proceedings held below the national level. Such observers will undertake not to interfere in the electoral proceedings.”
The same document, however, also commits member states to a range of actions that are not uniformly observed – especially in OSCE members from the former Soviet bloc. They include “free elections that will be held at reasonable intervals by secret ballot or by equivalent free voting procedure, under conditions which ensure in practice the free expression of the opinion of the electors in the choice of their representatives.”