No, America, Outside Election Monitors Aren't Beneath You

The United States may be a democratic role model around the world, but that doesn't mean it should be exempt from international scrutiny.


Eric Miller/Reuters

There is no shortage of election monitors in Washington, D.C. The vast majority work for NGOs with their sights on far-off countries struggling to be recognized for having held "free and fair" elections. But a handful of observers had their eyes turned homeward on November 6.

A delegation from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), a regional security organization of which the United States is a member, planned to observe voting at polling stations in 40 U.S. states. They came at the invitation of the State Department and have been monitoring U.S. elections since 2002.

Something was different this year, though. The OSCE was subject to a partisan crossfire more familiar to the loyal viewers of Fox News and MSNBC than to the sober deliberations of an international voting body. The attorney general of Texas threatened to arrest OSCE election observers who strayed too close to polling stations.

Due to various restrictions across the country, the OSCE's mission was effectively scaled back from 40 to 30 states. Catherine Engelbrecht, a Tea Party activist and founder of True the Vote, a volunteer group concerned with voter fraud, seems irritated to have competition in the election-monitoring business. In an interview with Fox News, Engelbrecht suggested that the involvement of OSCE observers was an attempt to "discourage American citizens from participating" in this year's election.

Verifying the integrity of an election is not a glorious business, but it is an important means of renewing the social contract a government has with its people. That is why election monitoring is a key tenet of international democratic norms and why Washington urges aspiring democracies to accept outside observers. Why should it be any different for the United States? A basic rule of auditing is that you cannot audit yourself. A second opinion from a team of experts cannot hurt, unless you fear closer scrutiny of the American electoral system.

On election day I kept an ear to conservative radio to gauge the uproar over these "U.N." election monitors. The American Center for Law and Justice, a conservative non-profit founded by the televangelist Pat Robertson, urged its listeners to sign a petition demanding that foreign observers keep their distance from polling stations with an ominous voiceover:

"Liberal organizations are encouraging these U.N. monitors to go to Ohio, Florida, Wisconsin, and several other states. The United Nations will have people looking over the shoulder of poll workers and voters as they go to the polls on election day...The fact is the United Nations has no business monitoring the U.S. election. This voter intimidation tactic is absurd. Stand with the ACLJ and urge every state attorney general in America to follow the lead of Texas. Tell this international group they are not welcomed at our polling places."

The anxiety that conservative groups had built up about the OSCE monitors seemed ready to boil over into confrontation on election day. As head of the OSCE mission Daan Everts put it, "we have had some unpleasant messages, euphemistically speaking" directed at the monitoring team. But it turns out that getting the OSCE team out in the field helped disabuse people worried about threats to American sovereignty.

Fabrice Boulé, a member of the OSCE observer team assigned to Nevada on Election Day, told me about an encounter he had with a True the Vote volunteer. "In the beginning of the conversation (he) was a little bit defiant," said Boule, explaining that the volunteer seemed suspicious of the observer team's intentions. However, after a few minutes explaining in more detail the OSCE's methods and purpose, Boule said, with a hint of irony, "I think we were about to become real friends. This all comes from misunderstanding and maybe a lack of information."

Of the OSCE's preliminary findings released yesterday, two critiques stand out: the politicization of voter ID laws and the United States' noncompliance with its international commitments. On the first point, it is telling that some of the same partisans who cried foul over the OSCE team's original mission are using the organization's findings to justify their stances on voter ID laws. (For example, True the Vote publicized the fact that OSCE monitors were apparently surprised by the voter ID standards in the United States. Polarization of American politics has reached a new high when a team of routine election observers from the OSCE is swept up in a partisan battle to mobilize voting bases.

On the second point, states appeared Tuesday to contradict Washington's promise to grant full access to the election monitors. "It's fairly clear that the state laws aren't in line with the federal commitment," OSCE spokesman Thomas Rhymer told me. Of course, the OSCE cannot force changes in state law. But the United States' claim of commitment to free and fair elections will ring hollow abroad as long as it denies outside observers the ability to confirm that it practices what it preaches.