Health concerns. New voting methods. Social distancing requirements. Allegations of election rigging.
These are just a few of the challenges that make Election 2020 an unprecedented exercise for those who participate in elections — whether as voters, candidates, administrators, or, in our case, as international observers.
Since 2004, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly has sent observers to the United States to assess the electoral process, and over these 16 years, we have become intimately familiar with procedures related to deploying election observation missions there. We generally know how to navigate the decentralized American system by working closely with authorities on the national, state and local levels. We also know what issues in the U.S. are important to keep an eye on — issues such as campaign finance transparency, election security, voter ID requirements, and ballot access for independents and minor parties.
But while in some ways these projects have become routine, this year obviously poses unique challenges.
The first obstacle would be the travel restrictions and quarantine requirements that are in place in many of our countries of origin. Due to these regulations — and ever-changing COVID-related restrictions — the size of our observer delegation has dropped from a little over 100 who were initially interested to 75, including staff. We currently expect nearly 60 parliamentarians from 25 different countries, who will join the 40 long-term observers and experts from our partner organization — the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, or ODIHR — who are already on the ground.
Other challenges relate to the ability to travel freely within the United States, with some states requiring quarantine upon entry. Self-isolating for two weeks is obviously not possible for observers who must be operational from day one, so we are carefully examining and following all requirements. Everybody on our team will be taking COVID-19 tests prior to arriving in the United States, but even still, we must contend with social distancing requirements that could affect how we converse with poll workers when we are visiting polling places on Election Day.
Then, of course, there is the complex task of observing mail-in voting, which is playing an especially significant role in this election. This voting method is not one that we have had much experience observing in the past, as it has never been as widely used as we are seeing this year — but we will coordinate as much as possible with election authorities to incorporate observation of this procedure into our work. The concerns some have raised about the security of mail-in voting make this extra important.
For Election Day observation, the OSCE PA intends to deploy observers to nine states, plus the District of Columbia, where we will visit polling places and meet with relevant authorities and civil society organizations for briefings and discussions on matters related to the election. We will also coordinate closely with the experts from ODIHR who have been conducting long-term observation for the past several weeks.
As observers, we are well aware of the political controversies, allegations and tensions that are characterizing the pre-election period. While we will withhold our overall assessment of the election until Nov. 4, we would just say that it is important for contestants and voters to engage with the process so they can have confidence in the integrity of the results. International observers bring a critical but fair eye to the electoral process in order to assess it for adherence to democratic standards to which the United States has committed. This is particularly important where a polarized political atmosphere has undermined trust in the process.
If there is one overriding goal of election observation, it is to build trust.
Election observation does not mean “monitoring.” We simply observe and note what we see. No more, no less. By following the same methodology in different countries all over the OSCE area — be it in the United States, Germany, Turkey or in Russia — our observations constitute a neutral and valuable fact-based assessment for the general public and political decision-makers alike.
When we observe elections, we do not come with pre-conceived notions and do not root for one side or the other. Nor do we hope for any particular electoral outcome — only that the outcome accurately reflects the will of the people, and that the candidates accept the results.
With this in mind, we look forward to another successful election observation mission to the United States and hope and that despite the new challenges this year, we can contribute to building confidence in the U.S. electoral system.
Michael Georg Link, a Member of Parliament from Germany, is serving as the Special Co-ordinator of the OSCE short-term observer mission to the United States. Kari Henriksen, a Member of Parliament from Norway, is leading the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s delegation of observers.