The major international body for monitoring elections, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, has begun observing the lead-up to the United States Nov. 3 general elections. At the invitation of the US State Department, the work of the organization, known as the OSCE, started on Sept. 29 and will operate in just 28 of the 50 states and in Washington, D.C.
The elections are less than four weeks away as the US remains in the grips of the Covid-19 pandemic. President Trump recently was hospitalized for having the virus but has returned to the White House amid continuing speculation about his health and few public appearances since Oct. 5. Mail-in voting, which Trump has said is corrupted, has been underway in some states for several weeks. Early voting has begun, too.
The OSCE, based in Vienna, is an intergovernmental body of 57 countries from Europe, North America and Central Asia. It has been monitoring elections in the US since 2002, most recently the 2018 midterm elections. Besides the US, its election observers are now working in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Lithuania, among other countries, for upcoming polling.
As a member of the organization, the US is obligated to invite international election observers by a 1990 agreement. Observers first came to the US in 2002, as a result of the Bush v. Gore presidential election’s complications in 2000.
The current mission is led by Urszula Gacek, a Polish senator and member of the European Parliament, and consists of 11 international experts and 30 long-term observers from 13 member countries. (Originally, the organization wanted to bring 500 observers but Covid-19 kept many people away.) The organization’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, based in Warsaw, is in charge of the monitoring.
The core 11-member team consists of experts from countries in Europe and Central Asia, and the mission is assessing whether the US elections are being held in line with international obligations and standards for democratic voting. Observers will follow campaign activities, the work of the election administration and relevant government bodies, including voter registration and the resolution of election disputes. Meetings with representatives of federal and state authorities, political parties and representatives from the judiciary, civil society and the media will be held throughout the observation.
The experts consist of legal specialists and political and media analysts, Katya Andrusz, an OSCE spokesperson, told PassBlue, and the team will work at polling stations and with board of election offices to oversee and assist in election proceedings, leading up to the election and on Nov. 3. Just before then, approximately 100 more monitors from 30 countries will be sent to work with the team, deploying in pairs under a mandate of strict noninterference, according to a report in The World, a public-radio program produced by PRX and WGBH in Boston.
“What we’re having to do on Election Day is pick our places well,” Gacek said in an interview with The World. “The analysis will be more anecdotal because the sample group will regrettably be too small. And that is not anybody’s fault.”
The day after the elections, a statement of preliminary findings and conclusions will be presented publicly, with a final report due two months later. While mission members will be visiting a limited number of polling stations on Nov. 3, observers will not do systematic observations of voting, counting or tabulation of results.
More than half of all US states allow international observers, at least for some elections, and regulation of such work varies by state, according to the National Conference of State Legislators. Eleven states ban such observers, many of them located in the South.
The OSCE mission was spurred by an assessment report produced in the spring by the organization that raised concerns about the increasingly polarized and hostile political climate in the US and challenges from the Covid-19 pandemic. The report recommended that a group of observers from the organization help oversee the election, and the State Department invited the organization to conduct a limited observer mission.
The US remains the epicenter of the pandemic, currently with more than 7.5 million confirmed cases and 211,000 deaths. Covid-19 was cited in the report as a major cause of many recent challenges in the US electoral process. Mail-in voting has begun in some states, with doubt cast vehemently by the Trump administration on the reliability of the process. And there is the matter of Russian interference in the electoral procedure.
In congressional testimony delivered last month, FBI Director Christopher Wray said he believed Russia was once again “very active” in its efforts to influence the US election, specifically to “denigrate” Joe Biden, Trump’s Democratic Party competitor.
Analysts from the OSCE’s Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights gauged the pre-election climate by looking at such aspects as voting methods, voter rights, cybersecurity and campaign processes. Experts spoke with US government officials, media, political parties and civil society, Andrusz said, in writing the report. It found that distrust in the election has been widespread and could negatively affect the results of the presidential election. An observation mission could ease distrust in the process and ensure fair results, the report contends. But what exactly does it mean for the US and voters?
The sustained prevalence and politicization of Covid-19 is forcing the country, for example, to reconsider its voting methods for November, the report notes. Many states have increased access to mail-in ballots to make voting more accessible, given lockdown and other restrictions from the virus. In addition, the US Postal Service has been mired in controversy after calls for nationwide mail-in voting were criticized by Trump, who says that such methods will lead to voter fraud.
Public scrutiny was raised in the late summer after many reports that public post boxes and sorting machines were being removed from sidewalks and some post offices. Voting advocates, politicians and others considered the removals an attempt to sabotage postal voting, and Postmaster General Louis DeJoy was forced to reverse his decision on the policy. DeJoy is a Republican Party donor who was appointed to the job in June.
According to the report, mail-in voting does indeed pose a risk to the election, but not how Trump portrays it. Funding that is crucial to keeping the US Postal Service operating at full capacity has been threatened because of Trump’s efforts to withhold funding from it. Trump said in August that a new coronavirus relief fund was on hold due to disagreements over Postal Service funding.
The report did not confirm whether mail-in voting could result in widespread voter fraud but noted that high volumes of mail-in ballots will make it more difficult for voters to deliver their ballots and local post offices to collect the ballots efficiently.
Another major concern in the report was election campaigning. In 2018, the OSCE observed the US congressional midterm election and said that the campaign rhetoric was “intensely negative and, at times, intolerant.” The 2020 report expressed similar concerns about “inflammatory speech targeting minorities.”
Trump has accused Senator Kamala Harris, the Democratic vice-presidential nominee, for example, of not being eligible to run because of so-called conspiracies about her birthplace. Trump is also using racist and xenophobic themes in his campaign. More recently, weeks before he tested positive for Covid-19, he said he would not accept election results or leave the White House if he lost.
Freedom of expression was also questioned over Trump’s attempt to “limit the broad legal protections . . . enjoyed by social media companies,” the report said. It also stressed that misinformation and disinformation are more prevalent as news consumption shifts to social media networks, especially with younger people.
Founded in 1975, the OSCE promotes human rights and media freedom, conflict resolution and democratization. Its Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights has observed more than 370 elections and was created to observe electoral processes in recently democratized states but has expanded to include work in all member states.
The office is not the only outside organization to observe democratic elections, and some people are calling for the United Nations to get involved, as it does in many developing countries worldwide. An online petition calling for the UN to observe the 2020 elections in the US has about 4,300 signatures, but there has yet to be a response from the UN about it.
A call for international “intervention” in the elections was also made by a New York Times opinion writer on Oct. 7. “Then, if Mr. Trump and his allies halt the counting of ballots, or disregard them altogether, Democrats should use the O.S.C.E’s report as evidence in an appeal to . . . the U.N. Human Rights Council,” wrote Peter Beinart. He conceded, however, that “international do-gooders at the United Nations . . . are virtually powerless against the most powerful government on earth.”
Moreover, the Nov. 3 results may not be ready immediately. As Tom Daschle and Bill Frist, former US senators from, respectively, South Dakota and Tennessee, wrote in an op-ed in The Washington Post:
“Because of the coronavirus pandemic, millions more Americans will be voting by absentee ballot, so it will take longer to count the votes. For this reason, it is unlikely we will know the winner on election night or the day after, and that’s okay. Voters, the media, the candidates and the political parties will need to be patient.”
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