Washington — Many countries around the world invite election observers from American nongovernmental organizations like The Carter Center and the International Republican Institute to help verify that the process is free and fair. But when it is the United States’ turn, who assesses whether the American electoral process has met international standards?
Since 2002, the United States has invited members of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) to do the job. It is a commitment that the United States has made as a participating OSCE country.
On October 9, the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) opened its Washington-based mission for Elections 2012, led by Ambassador Daan Everts from the Netherlands. According to the OSCE, the Washington office is staffed with 13 international elections experts, and an additional 44 long-term observers are being sent out across the United States.
The OSCE has 56 members — including Russia, Turkey and Switzerland, as well as countries from Central Asia — and says it designs its observer teams to be nationally diverse so that its work is not dominated by either one country or one group of countries.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters October 23 that OSCE members “always observe each other’s elections,” and she welcomed the mission’s arrival in Washington, saying, “We’re an open book.”
The OSCE sends observers to every U.S. general and midterm election. At the U.S. mission to the OSCE in Vienna, Political Counselor Christopher Robinson told member states on October 25 that the OSCE/ODIHR mission was sent an invitation in February for the 2012 national elections, and that the United States “takes seriously our commitments to democracy and transparency in our election system.”
Robinson said the OSCE’s missions “have continually expressed overall confidence in the integrity of the electoral process and the professionalism of the U.S. election administration in previous U.S. elections.”
According to an October 9 OSCE press release, the organization’s observers will be assessing the U.S. vote “for compliance with international obligations and standards for democratic elections, including the commitments agreed to by all the OSCE participating States” in the 1990 OSCE Copenhagen Document, and for compliance with U.S. national legislation.
The mission “will analyze the legislative framework and its implementation and will follow campaign activities, the work of the election administration and relevant government bodies, including voter registration, and the resolution of election disputes,” and it will also be conducting “comprehensive monitoring” of the U.S. media, the OSCE said.
The OSCE says it plans to hold a press conference and release a report on its preliminary findings November 7. Previous reports have concluded that it has found U.S. elections to be free and fair, but they have also suggested room for improvement in some areas. For example, the OSCE has expressed concern that residents of the District of Columbia and other U.S. territories which are not among the 50 states do not have full representation in the U.S. Congress. The organization has also noted that some U.S. states impose disproportionate restrictions on the voting rights of felons and ex-felons.
During the 2008 presidential elections, the OSCE fielded a team of 13 election experts based in Washington, and 48 longer-term observers who were based in teams of two across the country. The OSCE Parliamentary Assembly also sent a short-term observation mission to monitor the November 4, 2008, Election Day proceedings.
According to the OSCE’s 2008 report, the longer-term observers were focused on the overall framework for the U.S. electoral process. This included the legal frameworks for the individual 50 states, election reform issues, the election campaign and the media, electronic voting and other issues such as voter registration, voter identification and voting rights. The teams were sent to random locations, swing states and states where problems had previously been identified or were expected to occur.