Foreign Election Observers in U.S. to Increase Tenfold From 2012

By Patrick Goodenough | August 24, 2016 | 4:09am EDT
OSCE/ODIHR observers watch as Mark Anderson, election supervisor of Florida’s Bay County, collects a printout from a ballot scanning machine during a test a fortnight before the 2012 U.S. election. (Photo: Office of the Election Supervisor of Bay County/OSCE)

( – When Americans went to the polls four years ago, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) deployed 44 observers, a quarter of whom came from countries deemed by a leading democracy watchdog to be “not free” or “partly free.”

This year, the OSCE plans to send more than ten times that number – and some civil rights groups in the U.S. say even that won’t be enough.

Following a “needs assessment” visit earlier this year, the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) decided to send 100 long-term and 400 short-term observers to monitor the November 8 election. The former will follow the electoral process across the nation while the latter will monitor Election Day itself.

The nationalities of those who will be deployed have yet to be announced. Queries sent to ODIHR headquarters in Warsaw, Poland, brought no response by press time.

In 2012, the much smaller team included members from OSCE members Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, all at the time ranked “not free” by Freedom House.

Others came from six countries graded “partly free” – Albania, Armenia, Bosnia, Georgia, Macedonia and Ukraine.

(Washington-based Freedom House each year evaluates political rights and civil liberties in the nations of the world, and then ranks them as “free,” “not free” or “partly free.” Since 2012 it has upgraded Kyrgyzstan from “not free” to “partly free.”)

The significantly larger observer group to be sent this time reflects the fact that the OSCE believes this year’s election requires a “full-scale” election observation mission, while in 2012 it felt that a “limited” election observation mission was sufficient.

OSCE explains that a full-scale mission is sent in cases where “there is limited confidence among election stakeholders in the election administration, the long-term process and election-day proceedings and … the presence of observers could enhance public trust in the process.”

By contrast, a limited mission is sent when it’s determined “that serious and widespread problems on election day at the polling-station level are unlikely, but that observation of the entire long-term process throughout the country might still produce useful recommendations.”

For a coalition of U.S. civil rights groups, the difference between 2012 and 2016 has to do with the Trump campaign; and with the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision to strike down a key provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act (VRA). The ruling paved the way for states with a history of racial discrimination to change their election laws without “preclearance” from the Justice Department.

While supporters of voting laws passed in some states since the Supreme Court decision argue that they are needed to counter electoral fraud, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights describes the developments as “a tidal wave of voter discrimination efforts.”

On Tuesday the Leadership Conference released a letter sent to OSCE/ODIHR director Michael Georg Link, urging him to “greatly expand” the monitoring of the U.S. election and to “target resources to states where voter discrimination and intimidation is most likely.”

Those states, it said, include Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, North Carolina, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, Texas and Wisconsin.

The coalition pointed to the VRA changes, and to Republican nominee Donald Trump’s campaign for the White House.

“A confluence of factors has made the right to vote more vulnerable to racial discrimination than at any time in recent history,” it told Link, a German politician who has headed the ODIHR since 2014. “The need for additional election observers is paramount.”

“The unprecedented weakening of the Voting Rights Act has led to a tidal wave of voter discrimination efforts nationwide and has required the United States to drastically scale back its own election monitoring program,” the letter continued, referring to federal observers used in past elections.

“In addition, a leading presidential candidate who has made the demonization of racial, ethnic, and religious minorities a hallmark of his campaign has recently urged supporters to challenge voters at polling sites nationwide.”

Leadership Conference president and CEO Wade Henderson said in a statement the right to vote in the U.S. “is more vulnerable now than at any time in the past 50 years.”

“Additional monitors can never replace what we lost when the VRA was gutted but we have to use every possible means to ensure the integrity of this election isn’t compromised by racial discrimination and intimidation,” he said.

“We now have to fight in the courts and at ballot box for every voter and even our nation’s best and most well-organized efforts will not meet the demand we’re confronted with.”

“Congress needs to restore the VRA immediately,” Henderson added.

When the OSCE/ODIHR carried out its “needs assessment” visit earlier this year it held meetings with representatives of federal and state institutions, political parties, media, and civil society groups.

It said these interlocutors had mostly expressed confidence in the election administration.

OSCE/ODIHR did, however, cite issues including the “implementation of new state laws regarding voter registration and identification, changes to alternative voting methods, the reliability of NVT [new voting technologies], the effectiveness of campaign finance rules, and the conduct of the electoral campaign, particularly in the media.”

The OSCE has observed U.S. elections since 2002.

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