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.