What Worries Foreign Election Observers

They have been a part of American democracy for nearly two decades. They’ve never seen anything like this.

Ambassador Urszula Gacek, a former Polish politician leading the OSCE election-observation mission to the United States
Getty / The Atlantic

If ever the United States needed neutral, outside observers overseeing its democracy, it’s now—with presidential-election results still pending and Donald Trump leveling baseless accusations of voter fraud and corruption.

The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which in September deployed an observer mission to the U.S. ahead of the November poll, anticipated that this election would be the “most challenging in recent decades.” Though the mission concluded in initial findings that the vote was “competitive and well managed” despite the obstacles posed by the coronavirus pandemic, it also raised a number of concerns—chief among them that “baseless allegations of systematic deficiencies, notably by the incumbent president, including on election night, harm public trust in democratic institutions.”

I caught up with Urszula Gacek, a former Polish politician leading the OSCE mission, to discuss those conclusions, what she makes of the president’s legal challenges, and ongoing efforts to undermine public trust in U.S. democracy.

Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Yasmeen Serhan: To start us off, how was your Election Day?

Urszula Gacek: Well, it was a long Election Day. And of course this year, because of so much early voting and mail-in ballots, it actually went on for weeks. The earliest state was Pennsylvania; they started in [late] September. We were all able to follow … as much as we can follow in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

Serhan: Pennsylvania has been in the national spotlight—not just because the presidential contest is narrowing there, but also because the Trump administration took legal action over its observers’ ability to oversee the vote count. What did you make of that?

Gacek: It’s interesting that suddenly public opinion has kind of flagged up—Hey, we need to be in these places for the sake of transparency! So some of our long-standing recommendations, one of which is to open up polling places, counts, and tabulation to observers both domestic and foreign, might actually get some traction this time.

Pennsylvania has suddenly [got] people saying, “We’re outraged! How is this possible?” Well, it is possible. Take note of what we say. We’re all about transparency. Had somebody listened to us in the past, they wouldn’t be outraged now.

Serhan: Where else have you had this issue?

Gacek: There are 18 states in total in the United States that do not give access to the polling place. But even in those that we went to where we did not have access, we were still able to follow other things. So we were able to follow, for example, how postal ballots were being handled in post-office depots, working closely with post-office officials.

Serhan: The OSCE originally hoped to deploy 500 observers, but because of a number of challenges posed by the pandemic, could send only a fraction of that. How much ground was the mission ultimately able to cover?

Gacek: We actually did cover 30 states, [plus] Washington, D.C. Bearing in mind that it looks like we’ve broken records here—nearly 150 million people, when it comes to the final tally, have voted—the fact that the system withstood the stress test was a testament to the work of people on the front line in the election administration and also civil society, engaged citizens who did an enormous amount of work in terms of reaching out for new poll workers. That was a concern we had at the beginning, that the system would be lacking in manpower to handle the election, and also there were major drives to counteract voter disinformation … but also because there was so much litigation changing the rules of the game when the game was actually on.

You’ll remember, there was a lot of concern about voter intimidation: that people would be outside the polling places actually scaring people away from the polling place. We didn’t find that. We have no reports of that. I think the only thing that we had that was notable were … these wide-scale robocalls that were saying to people, “Don’t vote on Tuesday. Go tomorrow” ... The question is: Was there evidence of systemic, widespread fraud or wrongdoing? We didn’t find it. Even if we can’t have eyes everywhere—we’re not a big mission—these are the kind of things that would immediately be flagged up. So if somebody has evidence of this, they’re welcome to bring it to us.

Serhan: What has been your biggest takeaway from this election so far?

Gacek: What really struck me was this enormous effort made by election workers and supported by engaged citizens … Those efforts resulted in people being able to cast their ballots despite all the legal confusion, despite the technical challenges, and despite deliberate attempts by the incumbent president to weaken confidence in the election process. I think that’s the takeaway. I mean, as you see, [the OSCE report] is over 24 pages. I don’t think we have ever in living memory written a preliminary statement that has been so long. But, I mean, what were we supposed to do? There was a lot to report on. It’s always complex. This year was extremely challenging, with COVID on top of that.

But then this undermining of credibility and voter confidence has been a theme that has been running through this election. We are not commenting on the political side … on what politicians say. But when they encroach [on] the system, when they encroach on the faith that voters have in the system, then it becomes our business too. Of course, every candidate has the right to voice concerns, to bring issues to our attention and to the attention of the media. But like us, they should be grounding those [concerns] in evidence, and we have yet to see evidence of something really going wrong on a major scale.

Another thing we’ve been following [are protests], including protests … like where we had people … saying, “Stop the count,” [and] some saying, “Start the count.” But it’s very important: If a ballot was cast properly, legally, within the prescribed timeline, it needs to be counted. It needs to be counted properly. And this election isn’t going to be over … until those ballots are counted. Of course, it probably won’t be over until the litigation has run its course.

Serhan: Have there been any pleasant surprises from this observation mission?

Gacek: California decided to give ex-felons the right to vote. Something that we often talk about [is the] disenfranchisement of people with criminal convictions who have already served their time, and California has made a decision that actually addresses one of our long-standing recommendations in the United States. So there are good things happening around the area of elections as well.

Serhan: What would you say to American voters who are concerned about the charges President Trump has made regarding the integrity of the U.S. election?

Gacek: We have found no evidence of systematic wrongdoing with this system, despite this extreme stress test that the system came under. I’m not saying it’s perfect—and there are long-standing issues that need to be addressed. One of them is the access of domestic observers, to make the system more transparent. Maybe this will be a push also to make the system more transparent, because in the past maybe people just didn’t feel that there was a need to scrutinize the system so well. So I suppose in a strange way there’s a kind of upside to this, these issues being flagged up.

Serhan: The last time we spoke, you talked about how your team is a formidable bunch, that they’ve seen everything. Did they anticipate anything like this?

Gacek: I’ll sum it up in one diplomatic sentence: It’s definitely one for the memoirs.