Sunday, October 10, 2004

Worldwide Scrutiny Is Coming to the U.S. National Election

The New York Times
October 10, 2004

Worldwide Scrutiny Is Coming to the U.S. National Election

WASHINGTON - An international group that specializes in evaluating elections in former dictatorships plans to scrutinize presidential balloting in the United States for the first time.

The group, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which is based in Poland and supported by the United States, has begun deploying 160 people across the country.

The international monitoring comes after the highly disputed presidential election four years ago that concluded only after 36 days and a Supreme Court decision. Problems cited in 2000 included those with voting procedures, equipment and registration methods.

As a member of the organization, the United States has routinely invited it to monitor American elections, and the State Department did again this year in a June 9 letter. But this time the group has accepted the invitation.

That decision has not proved entirely welcome, though.

"You are seeing a step toward subordination of the American political and legal system into a global government," said Representative Jeff Miller, a Florida Republican. "I hope those people just get on the next plane out of the United States to go monitor an election somewhere else, like Afghanistan."

Christian Strohal, director of the organization's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, said no insult was intended. "We do not come with an attitude to find fault, but we do try to know what the problems are," he said.

He added: "We look at the United States as a country that has undergone a substantial amount of election reform in the last few years. We want to see the progress, and I do think all democracies can learn from each other."

Congress passed the Help America Vote Act in 2002 to address some of those problems, but the observer group expressed serious concern that disputes would arise again in hard-fought races for Florida and Ohio as well as with newly introduced electronic voting machines that leave no paper trail.

The monitors - none of whom can be American citizens - are drawn from more than 20 of the institution's 55 member states and include 100 foreign ministry officials as well as members of parliaments from Kazakhstan, Byelorussia, Russia and Romania.

In recent months the organization has monitored elections in Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Byelorussia, Russia, Macedonia and Bosnia.

The observers who are members of parliaments will be organized and led by Barbara Haering, a representative for Zurich on the Switzerland National Council who has visited the United States five times, but never for more than three weeks.

Ms. Haering had never visited Bosnia and Herzegovina before monitoring a general election there in 1998 and does not consider a lack of local knowledge a hindrance.

"We learn about the local culture while monitoring and have advance teams looking out for the issues before we get there," Ms. Haering said. Monitoring of the American news media has already begun, Ms. Haering said, adding that procedures followed guidelines laid out in the organization's handbook.

Among other news media issues, the handbook warns election monitors to be wary of incumbents who confuse campaign events with issues of state and the ability of less well-financed candidates to get coverage.

As for monitoring of polling stations, Ms. Haering said she would likely dispatch observers in groups of six to about 10 states, including Florida and Ohio.

The use of electronic voting will be of particular interest, Ms. Haering said. "The use of new voting technologies is a challenge for all democracies. Other countries, both developed and transitional democracies, can learn from mistakes and successes in the United States."

The organization gives no specific guidelines for the best way to run an election, but strict rules govern observers. Identified by armbands, observers are to avoid interfering with the process and are to survey each polling station with a checklist that usually includes questions about voter intimidation and the presence of security forces.

Feedback from voters is important in the monitoring of an election, Ms. Haering said, adding that she had already received about 50 e-mail messages regarding her role. Most messages were from U.S. voters expressing worry about the fairness of the election, but one came from a Swiss citizen criticizing the organization for expending resources outside a transitional democracy.

The organization's assessment of the election will come in two reports, one issued at a press conference within several days and a more comprehensive document released several weeks later.

"We will not give the United States a simple grade," Ms. Haering said. "The purpose is to present a report with a balanced picture of the election process in this country and its fairness."