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ICG Risk Blog - [ November 2, 2004 ]

Gazing into the mirror of our own election monitoring

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one monitoring project invited more than 20 international observers from 15 countries including Australia, Argentina, South Africa and Zambia to help monitor the presidential election and increase voter confidence. In addition, more than 60 domestic groups have mobilized volunteers to monitor the election, including a group with technical expertise that will evaluate the performance of e-voting machines.

Viewing domestic policy as a life support system for thoughtful foreign policy, I rarely dwell on the domestic side even as I know foreign and domestic to be deeply intertwined. But as this election year is different from most, I thought to combine the two from the outside looking in. Most readers will have already guessed that the country being monitored is not a third world satrap but the US itself. Long considering itself above reproach, where many of its citizens see themselves as "self-appointed guardians of democracy... monitoring elections overseas in contested hot spots and fledgling democracies, the US finds the tables turned.

What disturbs me is the number that take great umbrage bordering on violence and the number who are very relieved to have both international and domestic support to reduce intimidation and vote spoiling. While I feel that the US remains one of the best 'shining lights' on any hill, it seems that our bulb is a bit dusty:

the Florida experience -- combined with new concerns over touch-screen voting and long-standing controversies about the role of money and politics -- had diminished public faith in our democracy

The observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) will be the first ever foreign organization to officially monitor a US presidential vote. "Although the US State Department invited the OSCE, a 55-nation body covering Europe, the former Soviet Union and North America, the issue was hotly debated in the US Congress." That criticism palls in comparison to condemnation rising in conservative watchdog groups and patriot weblogs. The vitriol is fierce yet I have never heard any of these groups complain when it is the US doing the monitoring.

The US human rights group Global Exchange gathered its own group of international observers (who hasten to stress 'observer' over 'monitor'), making it "clear from the start that the presence of the election observers is not meant to make the United States appear to be a struggling democracy." Following a preliminary trip in September in five states (Georgia, Ohio, Missouri, Florida and Arizona) to "examine election procedures and become familiar with issues of voter disenfranchisement, e-voting systems and campaign finance reform," GE observers returned in late October to observe elections in Ohio, Missouri and Florida.

Joining these foreign observers will be some 25,000 domestic monitors in 17 states buttressed by groups such as the Verified Voting Foundation and their programs such as TechWatch and the Election Incident Reporting System. OSCE observers will make no statements during the voting "about whether mishaps, punch-cards or electronic voting equipment (photo) could influence the election outcome," deferring its preliminary findings and conclusions until 4 November and a final report some thirty days hence.

I think that the US should listen carefully to the preliminary comments coming back from offshore observers:

Despite their focus on individual states, the observers said they found some problems that apply to all states. One overarching problem they cited is that political campaigns are privately financed, giving an edge to the rich. They recommend public financing to help reduce even the perception of such an advantage. One overarching problem is that political campaigns are privately financed, giving an edge to the rich.

The South Africans, having just completed the wrenching Truth and Reconciliation Commission, know something about discrimination:

shocked that minorities are often disenfranchised from the election process, in part because the voter-registration process is more complex in some states than it needs to be.

We should listen as we can always improve.

U.S.: Foreign Election Observers Urge Improvements In U.S. Voting
By Andrew Tully
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
October 22, 2004

U.S. gets election advice from outsiders
CNN/AP
October 7, 2004 Posted: 7:26 AM EDT

U.S. Elections Under a Microscope
By Laila Weir
Wired
02:00 AM Oct. 05, 2004 PT

Foreign Observers Ready to Monitor US Elections
Deutsche Welle
DW staff/AFP (sac)
28.10.2004

US Lawmakers Request UN Observers for November 2 Presidential Election
Agence France Presse
July 2, 2004

Gordon Housworth



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