[Image via optimaxblog]
With voting underway in many states and Election Day less than five weeks away, delegations from around the world are arriving in the United States to observe the 2016 vote. The Washington Post has more:
The world will be watching from close-up when the United States chooses a president next month, as foreign election observers fan out to polling places across the country.
For the first time, the Organization of American States (OAS) will dispatch 30 to 40 observers and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which has been sending small groups of observers to U.S. elections since 2002, hopes to boost its contingent dramatically, fielding hundreds of poll watchers.
Even Russia, where 63 U.S. observers traveled for parliamentary elections last month, is considering sending people to watch Americans vote, according to Yury Melnik, a spokesman for the Russian Embassy in Washington.
U.S. elections always draw interest from around the world, but there is a definite sense that this year is different:
The plethora of poll watchers — some of whom are veteran monitors of elections in countries where voter fraud is rampant — is another sign that the 2016 contest is unlike any other.
Usually, the United States sends observers to countries where the vote is in some manner suspect. This year, America is on the receiving end of the scrutiny.
One reason is concern over new voter registration and identification laws passed by the states as well as diminished Justice Department oversight since parts of the 1965 Voting Rights Act were struck down by the Supreme Court.
Adding to the spike in interest is the allegation by Republican nominee Donald Trump that the election could be “rigged.” He has called on his supporters to go to polling places to act as a deterrent to potential fraud.
The ongoing challenge, of course, is finding ways for observers to do their jobs – which often includes assuring state and local policymakers that they are not an impediment to the voting process:
Some of the foreign observers take pains to stress they are no more than what their name implies. They insist they will not intervene on Election Day but will instead publish their observations in postelection reports and make suggestions to improve any practices they find wanting.
“We are not policemen,” said Audrey Glover, a British Dame with the rank of ambassador who will head the OSCE mission here. “We would not interfere. We would not intervene. We would observe, and record if we see anything untoward happening…”
One challenge is getting permission to observe polling places.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 12 states prohibit international observers. Among them are Texas and Iowa, where in 2012 state officials threatened to arrest OSCE monitors if they set foot in any polling place. [I blogged that controversy here.] Tennessee has a law forbidding observers from the United Nations, which has a partnership arrangement with the OSCE.
Many here, however, welcome observers as an opportunity to prove – or protect – the strength of the American system:
Mark Toner, a deputy spokesman for the State Department, said the presence of election monitors is a way of promoting free and fair elections in the region.
“We welcome OAS observation as an opportunity to demonstrate the United States’ dedication and support for this important function of the institution,” he said.
Michael Shifter, president of Inter-American Dialogue, said it may help when Washington argues other countries should do the same. Some, like Venezuela, have refused…
Some argue that more outside eyes are needed this year. That’s why the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a coalition of groups, asked the OSCE to expand its observer mission from the 44 who came in 2012.
Limits on the federal observer program run by the Justice Department mean there will be far fewer official U.S. observers, said Scott Simpson, a spokesman for the group.
“On top of that, you have a presidential campaign run with racial and religious animus as primary hinges, and a candidate actively encouraging people to go to polls to challenge voters,” he said. “This is dangerous confluence of events that make a perfect storm for voting discrimination in 2016.”
As I’ve written before, international observation is a fantastic opportunity for state and local election officials to show what they can do – and in some cases, get the chance to see standard procedure through (many!) different eyes. I look forward to seeing more about both the OSCE and OAS delegations’ work.
33 days until Election Day – stay tuned …