On a frigid December morning in 1993, 40 parliamentarians from some 20 countries fanned out across Russia for the first-ever election observation deployed by the Parliamentary Assembly of the then-Conference for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
Twenty-five years and 170 election observation missions later, the Parliamentary Assembly of the now-Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe is deploying some 71 members of parliament to observe the midterm elections in the United States.
In one sense, the mission is routine for us – having observed elections in the U.S. a half-dozen times since 2004 – but we are also keenly aware that this election is taking place in a context of deep polarization, concerns over election security, and an ongoing investigation into foreign interference in the 2016 presidential contest.
Our job as international observers is to bring a critical but fair eye to this process, assessing the elections for adherence to democratic commitments laid out in the OSCE’s Copenhagen Document of 1990. As in previous U.S. elections, we will focus closely on issues such as cybersecurity, gerrymandering, voting rights, and transparency in campaign financing. Observing in the U.S. demonstrates the importance of not only observing in developing democracies but also in established democracies – both “east and west of Vienna,” as we say in the OSCE.
Beyond our mandate to uphold the democratic standards to which the U.S. has agreed – and indeed took a lead role in formulating nearly three decades ago – we also understand that this exercise in election observation helps to build trust, both within countries and between countries. In times of heightened international tensions, these confidence-building measures are more important than ever.
Observation in the United States poses unique challenges. In keeping with the decentralized electoral system that places much of the responsibility for administering elections in the hands of state and local officials rather than a Central Election Commission – as is the case in most of our countries – international observers must contend with a multitude of state laws that provide varying and sometimes contradictory guidelines on international election observation. We work in close consultation with relevant authorities to ensure access to polling places on election day and always make sure to be in full compliance with local laws.
Attention in the U.S. has focused on the fact that the observation team includes some Russian nationals. We understand that in a political climate that for the past two years has been dominated by news of alleged Russian meddling, it might come as a surprise to Americans that Russians are involved in monitoring U.S. elections. It should be understood, however, that as members of the OSCE, both the Russian Federation and the United States have for decades welcomed each other’s citizens into their countries as international observers. Of the 139 total OSCE observers this election, ten will be from Russia, and we consider it useful that within that, our Parliamentary Assembly team will be joined by two members of the Russian parliament.
Americans should also understand that as members of parliament and as representatives of the world’s largest regional security organization, OSCE parliamentarians bring a unique perspective to every election that we observe.
We have competed in elections ourselves, so we personally understand the importance of a clear understanding of the rules of the game. We also recognize the changing character of elections, and in particular the rise of new voting technologies and the challenges, as well as opportunities, that computerized elections pose for voters, administrators and observers alike.
We welcome the increased attention by federal, state and local authorities in the United States to election security in recent years. Ensuring the integrity of elections is a matter of crucial importance and is something that we will look at closely.
As the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly embarks on its next 25 years of observation, we can think of no better place to be than the United States for these important elections.
George Tsereteli, a member of parliament from Georgia, is President of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly and has been appointed Special Co-ordinator of the OSCE short-term observer mission to the United States. Isabel Santos, a member of parliament from Portugal, is Vice-President of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly and is serving as Head of the OSCE PA observation mission.