This group monitors foreign elections. Its latest challenge: American democracy

Kim Hjelmgaard, USA TODAY
·6 min read

A global election monitoring group will be deployed across the U.S. for the presidential election on Nov. 3. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE, an intergovernmental organization, has been monitoring elections among its 57 members in North America, Europe and Asia for two decades. Its mission is to assess how well a democratic vote is functioning and to make recommendations for improvements in areas that touch on transparency, accountability and voter pluralism.

The OSCE has observed eight previous U.S. elections, beginning in 2002 with the mid-term Congressional elections that followed 2000's presidential election of George W. Bush. OSCE called the 2000 vote "highly controversial, divisive and litigious."

Urszula Gacek, a former Polish politician who is leading the OSCE's international delegation to monitor the U.S. presidential election, spoke to USA TODAY about the approaching vote, what her team of observers has noticed so far and the difficulties of being an international observer of fiercely contested elections.

A security camera is positioned to monitor a cage where mail-in ballots will be stored after arriving at the Harris County election headquarters on Sept. 29, 2020, in Houston, Texas.
A security camera is positioned to monitor a cage where mail-in ballots will be stored after arriving at the Harris County election headquarters on Sept. 29, 2020, in Houston, Texas.

The following conversation has been lightly edited.

What do your observers specifically do?

People often think that observers are only focused on watching voting at polling places on election day. In fact, our observation is for a much longer period and has a much wider scope. The fact that we arrived in the U.S. five weeks prior to election day is the best indicator of that. We start by covering the pre-election period, looking at candidate and voter registration, preparations for elections by election officials, the technologies used for casting and counting ballots, election legislation and ongoing court cases, the campaign environment, campaign finance – how money is raised, spent and accounted for, how the elections and candidates are being portrayed in the media. The list is quite long.

For this, we have a team of 15 experts based in Washington, D.C,, as well as 30 observers out in the field. Altogether, we plan to visit 30 states before or during election day. Our observers are talking with all the players in the elections. While many meetings are inevitably (because of COVID-19) taking place online this year, some things must be seen in person, such as:

  • in-person voting

  • voter access to different voting methods, including for persons with disabilities

  • ballot storage, equipment storage and set-up processes

  • ballot processing by election officials, ballot processing at USPS offices

  • training of poll workers and poll watchers

On election day we will be joined by 100 observers from our partners in the Parliamentary Assembly of the OSCE.

What challenges are you seeing in the U.S. vote?

ODIHR (Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, the OSCE unit that deals with elections) spoke several months ago to a large number of people involved in these elections in a wide variety of roles. The message we came away with was that the 2020 U.S. elections would be both technically and politically challenging.

The COVID-19 pandemic poses problems for election officials such as the need to keep voters and poll workers safe and increased volume of postal ballots. For candidates and parties, there's adapting campaigns to COVID-19 restrictions, greater use of media, and fewer large rallies and door-to-door campaigns. And for the voters themselves, they need to be kept informed as regulations change rapidly, often in response to health concerns.

COVD-19 has impacted our own operations. We had hoped to bring in (about 500) observers specifically to observe election day, and with the smaller presence we now have, the assessment of election day will be qualitative, more anecdotal, rather than statistical. However, the rest of our work carries on more or less as planned, including observing early in-person voting wherever possible. I am therefore confident that we will deliver a meaningful and comprehensive assessment that is completely impartial.

(The OSCE will publish an interim report about its work on Nov. 3's vote later Thursday.)

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Are you concerned about calls by President Donald Trump for his supporters to watch polls?

We don't comment on remarks made by specific politicians or parties. It is important to understand, though, that in principle we welcome the presence of domestic poll watchers, both partisan and non-partisan, as we believe their presence contributes to the transparency of the process. However, and this is a big however, they need to abide by strict standards, just as our observers do. They may in no way intimidate voters or election officials for that matter, through their behavior. They should identify themselves to election officials and then simply watch, nothing more. We are not jumping to conclusions here – we have to wait and observe and only then we will be able to assess.

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Among the things that count as voter intimidation, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, a public policy institute that is part of New York University:

  • "baseless or abusive challenges to voters eligibility"

  • direct confrontation of voters"

  • "use of insulting, offensive, or threatening language or raised voices in and around polling places"

  • "blocking polling-place entrances"

  • "following and photographing voters, recording license plate numbers"

  • "brandishing weapons in front of voters"

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If the U.S. election does not end on Nov. 4, but counting goes on and both sides claim victory how long will monitors to stay on the job?

Our job never stops on election day or the day after. We will be following the count, which is expected to continue for some time this year due to the many postal ballots. We will also follow any complaints and appeals made by voters and candidates to the courts. I’m due to stay in Washington, D.C. until mid-November together with key experts, but if it becomes necessary, we may stay longer or will otherwise continue to watch developments remotely. We will see the process through to the end.

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How well has the U.S. implemented previous OSCE election recommendations?

Recommendations are one of the most important aspects of our work. We are currently looking at how and to what extent past recommendations have been implemented and this will be summed up in our final report, which is due to be published early in the New Year.

(After the 2016 presidential vote, the OSCE recommended the establishment of independent redistricting commissions to draw district boundaries free from political interference, "Congress should give urgent consideration to establish the formula to identify jurisdictions to be subject to Section Five of the Voting Rights Act" so that minority groups are not blocked from voting, and improvements to campaign finance transparency.)

What are some of the toughest voting environments your observers work in?

Mongolia with nomadic people of no fixed address voting in yurts out on the steppe is a good example of some of the more unusual environments we have worked in. Vast distances, as in Kazakhstan, or complex electoral systems such as here in the U.S. are also examples. But each country is unique and poses distinctive challenges. On substance, the experts who work with me must be knowledgeable and able to grasp the key issues in a matter of weeks, while setting their own personal views and opinions firmly aside.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Q&A: What leader of OSCE election monitoring group thinks of US voting