Election observers on the ground in the US
International observers are on the ground in the U.S. to monitor one of the most consequential elections in modern American history between President Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden.
It will be the 16th year this group has observed and monitored the state of voting freedoms in the U.S. But this time it is taking place during an election year like no other, amid the COVID-19 pandemic and uncharted levels of political and social polarization.
The pandemic has already limited the number of observers who are taking part, made up of representatives from countries part of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
Trump’s rhetoric raising doubt on the validity of the elections, increased concern about voter intimidation and harassment, and the potential for violent riots has added a level of heightened tension to this year’s polling observations.
“A bit scary: In Washington DC, near the White House, many shops have barricaded their windows. One probably fears riots after the election,” Andrej Hunko, an election observer with the OSCE and a German member of parliament, wrote on Twitter. “Hope it doesn’t come to that.”
“There’s certainly a tension in the air,” said Nat Parry, spokesperson for the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA), which brings members of European parliaments to be short-term observers.
The OSCE PA has sent election observers to the U.S. since 2004. It is part of a larger mission of observers under the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR).
ODIHR has observed U.S. elections going back to 2002. An assessment report it published in July stated that “the conduct of these elections will be the most challenging in recent decades.”
In total, there are 102 observers from 39 countries to observe the U.S. elections. This includes 50 ODIHR-deployed experts and long-term observers and 52 parliamentarians and staff from the OSCE PA. It is a scaled down version of an original assessment that called for 100 long-term observers and 400 short-term observers.
The pandemic caused the ODIHR to scrap short-term observers in the U.S. entirely and rebrand its long-term observers and parliamentarian observers as a “limited election observation mission.”
ODIHR long-term observers have reported from 28 states since the end of September, and on Election Day will be present in 15 states. A core team of experts are observing in the District of Columbia.
“We’re still confident that our assessment is going to be, maybe not quite as comprehensive as we had hoped, but is still going to be comprehensive enough and certainly accurate enough to be useful, and above all it’s neutral,” said Katya Andrusz, spokesperson for the ODIHR.
The mandate of the OSCE observers is not to make a judgement on whether the U.S. elections are free and fair, but observe and report the conduct of the process, that it is adhering to agreed-upon criteria and make recommendations to improve election conduct in the future.
“It’s an international observer mission that’s based on a methodology that’s been tried and tested over many years and it’s completely politically neutral and nonpartisan,” Andrusz said.
In addition to the deployment of ODIHR observers, OSCE PA observers are being deployed to seven states and the District of Columbia, including Maryland, Virginia, California, Nevada, Michigan, Missouri and Wisconsin.
These states were chosen based on state laws that permit outside observers at polling stations and in an attempt to cover the wide range of regions in the U.S. and some key battleground states, Parry said.
“We only consider going to places where there’s a very clear legal mandate but then of course we also focus on battleground states, we try to get a good range of regional differences,” he added.
Yet one of the states legally barring international observers from polling places this year is North Carolina, a key battleground and one that the OSCE PA wanted to include as representative of the Southern region of the United States.
North Carolina’s Board of Elections gave notice late last week that it would no longer allow international observers access to polling places, McClatchy reported, despite previous years permitting outside observers into the state.
Karen Brinson Bell, executive director of North Carolina’s Board of Elections, said in a letter obtained by McClatchy that the OSCE PA’s request to observe the polls was being denied based on a law that only North Carolinians can be present in polling places.
“We were hoping to go there but the authorities decided that based on their reading of the law we would not be allowed to visit polling stations,” Parry said.
International election observers have long been challenged by the enormity of the U.S. in general and the complexity of election laws and regulations from the state and local level. The pandemic has added a new layer of obstacles for this group and they will, in particular, be focusing on how health precautions and concerns impact the ability of people to go to the polls or cast their vote.
The political tension and polarization around mail-in voting, Trump’s repeated attacks on the security of such voting measures and the media climate surrounding the elections are also key areas of focus.
“Many ODIHR [limited election observation mission] interlocutors have expressed grave concerns about the risk of legitimacy of the elections being questioned due to the incumbent President’s repeated allegations of a fraudulent election process, and postal vote in particular,” an interim report published last week noted.
Beyond the importance of observing the conduct of the elections in the U.S. as an exercise to help the country improve on its election process by offering observations and recommendations; the permission of international observers also sets a precedent for election watchers in countries that are at greater risk of fraud and repression surrounding democracy.
“By coming here [to the U.S.] it demonstrates that we don’t have any double standard. We apply the same standards — East and West, new democracies and old democracies – and that we follow the same methodology throughout the OSCE area,” Parry said.
The conduct of the U.S. election is likely to have as great an impact on global governments and populations as the outcome of the presidential contest.
“Elections in the U.S. are hugely important for democracy around the world,” said Sarah Repucci, vice president of research and analysis with Freedom House, a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting democracy around the world.
“We are the most visible democracy, arguably the most influential — both in terms of democracy advocates in other countries and dictators in other countries looking to us,” Repucci added. “Both of those things could be affected by the results of this election, by the way that this election is conducted and I definitely think that what happens here will be noticed by people all around the world.”