Russians Are Among the Foreign Observers of U.S. Midterm Elections

By Patrick Goodenough | October 17, 2018 | 4:22am EDT
The OSCE has observed more than 350 elections across its region, including seven in the United States since 2002, most recently in 2016. (Photo: State Department)

( – When American voters go to the polls on November 6, an international team invited by the State Department to observe the elections will include six Russians, selected and paid for by President Vladimir Putin’s government.

The six Russians, including two members of the country’s Central Election Commission, will join 30 others from 11 other countries – all members of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) – to assess the mid-term elections “for compliance with international obligations and standards for democratic elections.”

The mission, which will also “analyze and assess the media coverage of the campaign,” will present a statement of preliminary findings and conclusions the day after the elections, and then produce a final report around two months later.

“Obviously, we have serious concerns about Russian participation in the observation mission based on their attempts to attack our democracy and undermine American’s confidence in our elections process,” said Maria Dill Benson, director of communications for the National Association of Secretaries of State (NASS).

Benson told the State Department had assured NASS that “prior to receiving U.S. visas, the Russian observers were fully vetted with all the necessary security checks.”

Apart from the Russians, the 36 “long-term” observers, who are already on the ground in the United States, comprise 10 each from Germany and Switzerland, three from the Czech Republic, and one each from Azerbaijan, Bosnia, France, Georgia, Ireland, Macedonia and Montenegro.

In addition to the “long-term” group of observers seconded by their governments, a “core” team of experts, based in Washington, comprises 14 members selected by the OSCE’s election observation division, the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR).

The core group comprises two Italians, two Germans, two Moldovans, two Macedonians, and one member each from Britain, Ireland, Serbia, France, Poland and Georgia.

‘Critical infrastructure’

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, at least 33 states and the District of Columbia allow foreign observers to be present during elections.

Twelve states prohibit international observers: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Connecticut, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas.

“In most cases this is because election observation is limited to partisan observers who are often required to be residents or registered voters in the state, and affiliated with a political party or candidate,” the NCSL says.

The remaining states have no statutory guidance for international observers.

The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe is a group of 57 participating nations in Europe, Central Asia and North America. (Photo: OSCE)

The OSCE, a grouping of 57 nations in Europe, Central Asia and North America, says its members are obliged to have their elections observed, under a 1990 agreement which says member states will invite observers “to observe the course of their national election proceedings, to the extent permitted by law.”

Benson said the NASS has endorsed a resolution supporting international election observers, where state law allows.

“We have, however, expressed security concerns to OSCE and the U.S. Department of State based on the fact elections are now designated as critical infrastructure.”

“NASS and its members have also been told the President’s Executive Order made clear that the administration will not tolerate foreign interference in our elections,” Benson added, referring to President Trump’s order last month declaring the midterm elections a national emergency.

“Furthermore, we have been assured there will be swift and severe consequences, including mandatory sanctions, if any foreign government or persons acting on their behalf interfere in U.S. elections,” she said.

Code of conduct

Intelligence agencies’ investigations into alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 election led last March to the U.S. Treasury announcing sanctions on Russian entities and individuals for cyberattacks and interference; and last July to the Department of Justice announcing the indictment of 12 Russian military intelligence officers.

In response to questions about the inclusion of Russians in the mission – given the controversy over alleged meddling – spokesman for the Warsaw-based ODIHR, Thomas Rymer, sought to allay concerns.

He pointed out that observers are deployed in teams of two, with each observer “paired” with another from a different country.

“In their observation activities, the observers follow the observation methodology ODIHR has developed over the course of observing more than 350 elections across the OSCE area,” he said.

Observers were also “bound by a strict code of conduct.”

“The international pairs of long-term observers follow the campaigns and election preparations in the field, and the information they collect is provided to our core team of observers, based in Washington D.C., who include this in their work to provide an objective, comprehensive assessment of the electoral process.”

The code of conduct cited by Rymer requires observers to “maintain strict impartiality,” to refrain from publicly expressing or displaying any bias, to undertake their duties unobtrusively and not interfere in the electoral process, comply with all national laws and regulations, and “exhibit the highest levels of personal discretion and professional behavior at all times.”

Rymer pointed out that the U.S. is among the more active contributors to OSCE election observation missions, and provided eight long-term observers for the mission observing Russia’s presidential elections last March.

‘Transition to democracy’

Thirty percent of the “long term” observer group and 36 percent of the “core” team are from countries ranked either “not free” or “partly free” by the Washington-based NGO Freedom House, which each year evaluates political rights and civil liberties in the nations of the world.

In this year’s Freedom House rankings, Russia and Azerbaijan are “not free,” and Bosnia, Georgia, Macedonia, Moldova, and Montenegro are “partly free.”

In a factsheet on the 2018 election-observing mission, the OSCE/ODIHR explains that OSCE participating states include countries “with long-standing traditions of democratic elections, and others that have only relatively recently begun their transition to democracy.”

It says the diversity of contributing countries protects the mission from being “dominated by observers from any one country, or from one group of countries.”

“Most importantly, observers do not represent their respective governments.”

The OSCE has observed seven U.S. elections since 2002, most recently in 2016.

Its final report after the 2016 election found the process “demonstrated commitment to fundamental freedoms of expression, assembly and association,” but also said the right to vote was not guaranteed for all citizens.

See also:

Int’l Election Observer Suspended After Tweeting Support for Clinton (Nov. 8, 2016)

Texas AG Tells International Election Monitors to Butt Out (Oct. 25, 2012)

Officials from Belarus, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan Will Watch U.S. Election to Make Sure It's Free and Fair (Oct. 22, 2012)

MRC Store