The OSCE is typically associated with monitoring elections in countries with fragile democracies
The organization cited changes in voter registration and identification laws for the greater number of observers
Amid claims by both campaigns of election tampering, foreign observers are fanning out to polling locations across the country to scrutinize the US election system.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe is typically associated with monitoring elections in countries with fragile democracies, such as Ukraine. But on Tuesday, more than 400 observers sent by OSCE member nations will be deployed in 33 states. The number is 10 times larger than the group sent in 2012, with the organization citing changes in voter registration and identification laws.
The US is a member of the OSCE and accepting election observers is a requirement of the body. The State Department welcomed the presence of election monitors, as it traditionally has, saying it helps to promote the importance of free and fair elections.
“The fact that the US invites us indicates they want us to know what they are doing,” said Dame Audrey Glover of Great Britain, who heads the OSCE mission in the US with the rank of ambassador. “It’s a confidence-building measure for the US and for the rest of the world. At the OSCE, all of the members share our election practices with each other.”
For the first time, the Organization of American States has also sent a team of 41 observers from 18 different countries to monitor the presidential vote. The delegation is headed by former Costa Rica President Laura Chinchilla.
Chinchilla said her team, who had been observing early voting, is comprised of experts on electoral organization and technology, campaign financing, political participation in the process and the role of the media, with the goal of sharing best practices with other OAS members, as well as “providing recommendations to the host country on areas of potential improvement.”
The observers have no legal authority under international law and are merely in the US to watch final weeks of the campaign through Election Day. Glover said her team will publish a post-election report and make suggestions to improve any flaws they see in US election practices.
“We are not police,” Glover said. “We are observers, but we don’t intervene in any way.
In addition to the more than 300 short-term observers, the OSCE mission has a team of statisticians, election experts, political and legal analysts and media professionals to watch every aspect of the election process, from the campaigning to the counting of ballots.
“We view an election from the point of view of the voter,” Glover said. “What we want to make sure is that the voter has a chance to be able to vote, that his registration has been properly done, that he can vote in secret and be sure that his vote will be counted.”
Equally important, Glover said, is that voters have the voters have the opportunity to make an “informed choice” by being educated about the candidates’ platform in the media and during debates, as well as that voters are not intimidated when they do make their choice.
Voters rights groups have asked for additional poll watchers. The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights asked the OSCE to send more election observers than planned, citing a decision by the Supreme Court striking down parts of the 1965 Voters Rights Act that has led to less Justice Department oversight.
Glover said the OSCE made the decision to deploy additional short-term observers independent of charges by Donald Trump that the election is “rigged” and allegations by the Clinton campaign and Obama administration officials that the Russian government is attempting to influence the US election.
“When you make an announcement something is rigged or is hacked, you can make the statement but you need proof.” Glover said. “This is something we are watching because that is serious and important that systems not be hacked.”
An OSCE needs assessment this spring asked for 500 observers in total, citing concerns with several aspects of the election process – including campaign financing, new voting technology and voter registration and identification laws passed by states, restrictions on felons voting and the lack of voting representation in Congress for Washington residents. Those concerns were reaffirmed the groups interim report issued last month.
The OSCE did scale back a plan to deploy 100 long-term observers for the election season down to 26, in large part because some states don’t allow foreign observers at the polls.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, a dozen states prohibit international observers. Among them are Iowa and Texas, where state officials in 2012 threatened to arrest OSCE observers if they entered polling stations. Seven states and the District of Colombia allow foreign poll watchers. Most other states leave the decisions up to individual counties.
Three states – Oklahoma, Texas and Louisiana – turned down a Russian request to send its own observers.
The State Department called the Russian request form the consulate in Houston a “stunt” given that Moscow declined an invitation to monitor the American election as part of the OSCE mission, of which it is a member. US officials in September took part in an OSCE observation mission of the Russian parliamentary elections, one of many occasions on which the US has monitored elections abroad.
The Russian Embassy issued a statement saying Russia had sought permission from US local officials to become “acquainted” with election procedures but had been turned down.
Two Russian staff members of the OSCE will take part in the observer mission as part of their regular duties.
Glover acknowledged the 2016 election is “different,” but said that it would be unfair to voters to characterize the election process until the ballots are counted.
She said despite the heightened domestic and international interest in this year’s vote, the US election is “the same as any other” in terms of importance of the observers’ mission.
“We don’t rank elections,” she said. “We don’t rank countries. That’s not our job.”