International Observers in US Elections

by Audrey L. Altstadt

Most Americans would probably be surprised to learn that an international observer team monitored and assessed the US election of November 3. The team’s preliminary report, issued midday on November 4 noted that elections were “competitive and well-managed” and the media, despite polarization, “made efforts to provide accurate information.” The report did sound the alarm that “evidence-deficient claims about election fraud created confusion and concern” and that “Baseless allegations of systematic deficiencies, notably by the incumbent president… harm public trust in democratic institutions.”

“What international observers?” say many Americans, voicing some mixture of doubt and shock. “How can it be? What do they know?”

Among the many international organizations of which the United States is either a member or participant is the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The OSCE considers democracy and human rights to be pillars of the rule-of-law state and, therefore, matters of security. Based on that idea, OSCE offers to consult member states on their domestic processes related to democracy and human rights including the conduct of elections. Member states can invite OSCE to their elections, as the US State Department has done since 2002. OSCE teams follow a carefully crafted procedure to examine a country’s election laws and practice, to observe polling and vote counting, and publish reports explaining the election in a dispassionate way.

We who study the USSR and post-communist states are familiar with the OSCE and its election monitoring in Russia and other states formerly ruled by communist-party governments since the dissolution of the USSR in late 1991. In my studies of (and experiences living in) post-Soviet Azerbaijan, I have watched or read reports by OSCE teams as they do their complex jobs in election after election. The OSCE office that is charged with election monitoring is the Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR – pronounced like “oh, dear”).

Once the host country invites OSCE to monitor its election, ODIHR assembles a Needs Assessment Team to determine specialists and numbers of observers. About two months before the election, a Core Team arrives to set up operations followed by a Long-Term Monitoring team of about 30 that studies conditions, and finally a large Short-term monitoring team is added to expand the number of observers who deploy on the days of balloting and counting. In our recent election, ODIHR deployed 102 observers to various locations as permitted by local laws in most states, though 18 specifically ban international observers including Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and Texas.  (Note 101, p. 19) Among the team members are specialists in law, media, political affairs, and other areas. I have known observers who are permanent OSCE staffers or former diplomats. The team is recruited from member states of the OSCE except for citizens of the host country. The core and long-term teams examine election law and oversight structures, processes for candidate and voter registration, media coverage and campaign atmosphere, and a host of details such as themes of the campaign, and whether an incumbent uses state resources for political purposes.

Since I am most familiar with OSCE-ODIHR monitoring and reports for Azerbaijan, I will explain a few significant features of the process for that post-Soviet country. Since the1990s, ODIHR has reported that structural and practical electoral features favor the ruling party and incumbents to the extent that challenges are extremely difficult and even dangerous. Despite some reform, the Azerbaijani government does not change the features that sustain the lopsided power of the regime. Among the most egregious violations of national law and/or OSCE standards that members agree to follow are the structure of the Central Election Commission which administers elections and is packed with members of the ruling party. The ruling regime consistently uses official resources for political purposes, orchestrates biased media coverage, and threatens critics of the regime. Manipulation goes down to local levels where supervisors in jobs and schools pressure employees and even adult students to vote for incumbents.

Election day shenanigans may be the things we most often associate with stealing elections. Azerbaijan and other post-Soviet states including Russia have engaged in overt ballot stuffing, “carousel” voting when a group of voters is bussed from one polling station to another to vote repeatedly, and the failure of poll watchers to check on these fake voters thereby enabling their actions. In virtually every reporting year between 1995 and 2013, ODIHR rated about a quarter to a third of Azerbaijan’s polling stations as bad or very bad.

But the greater manipulation of Azerbaijan’s elections took place in counting. Observers reported the poorly concealed addition of pre-marked ballots to boost totals for an incumbent. In some years, as many as half the counting stations and procedures were rated as bad or very bad. That included two presidential elections casting doubt on the legitimacy of Azerbaijan’s current president.

What did the OSCE ODIHR team find in the US? On the day after polling, according to OSCE procedures, team leaders hold a press conference and post a Preliminary Report on the website. The team found that procedures were overwhelming orderly and lawful, but “evidence-deficient” claims of fraud risked undermining public confidence. (Schedule, team members, and reports for the US election are available on the OSCE website)

The 24-page Preliminary Report was posted midday on November 4, before several post-election disputes clearly emerged. The report recapped the complex US electoral structure – with elections run by states and varied levels of discretion over thousands of local jurisdictions – and thus provided detailed information that many Americans probably don’t know about their own country’s system. The general conduct was deemed to be orderly and lawful, despite hundreds of pre-election lawsuits. Most problems were dealt with quickly and in accord with appropriate laws. The campaign, however, was “characterized by deepening political polarization, extremely negative campaigning;” and “the incumbent president’s use of discriminatory and pejorative statements against individuals on the grounds of their gender and origin was of particular concern.” (p. 11)

Because OSCE focuses on democratic process, it included in this report many examples of statements that it considered threatening, specifically the president’s allegations “that the electoral process, and postal voting in particular, would be open to widespread fraud, while not providing any further information or evidence…” and his suggestion that he would not honor the outcome and commit to a peaceful transfer of power. Noted the report: “Statements of this nature by a presidential candidate risk eroding public confidence in democratic institutions and delegitimizing the outcome of the election.” (pp. 11-12)

Among the many areas addressed in the report, those on early and mail-in voting take on added significance in the days after balloting. The OSCE reported that “most states” decided to start processing mailed ballots before election day because of the large number of those ballots. It elaborated variations in Footnote 129 (p. 22), beginning with this important point: “Alabama, Mississippi, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania required absentee ballot processing to start only on election day.”  By week’s end, Pennsylvania’s continuing ballot count has become a major focal point of partisan tension.

The OSCE Preliminary Report closed with cautionary comment about the night of balloting:

“Despite the fact that the results of the election were still inconclusive, the incumbent president again questioned the integrity of the process and declared victory. Counting and tabulation are ongoing and should continue in accordance with the law and OSCE commitments. Baseless allegations of systematic deficiencies, notably by the incumbent president, including on election night, harm public trust in democratic institutions.”

As the OSCE ODIHR team worries, the greatest present threat seems to be to the democratic process itself and public confidence in our elections despite the overwhelming evidence that legal procedures have been followed.

Audrey L. Altstadt

1 comment
  1. Nice to get a view from the outside, so to speak. I was teaching a course on the history of the Presidential election process, and found people knew little about it, but (at least those who attended the course) definitely wanted to understand it better. Next time I need to put in more about how structural decisions shape how many people can participate, and under what conditions.

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