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International Observers Turn the Tables
Published on Tuesday, October 2, 2004 by Inter Press Service
International Observers Turn the Tables
by Peter Costantini
 

MIAMI - For decades, groups from the United States have observed elections around the world but in the wake of the 2000 debacle in Florida, observers from other nations have begun to focus international eyes on U.S. voting.

At a polling place open for early voting in Miami's Little Haiti neighbourhood, monitors from Nicaragua, South Africa and England watched as mainly Haitian-American and African-American voters waited in line for up to six hours to vote.

The state of Florida has opened some polling places for early voting over the past two weeks and turnout has been heavy at many.

'El Nuevo Herald' newspaper, the Spanish-language edition of the 'Miami Herald', reported Saturday that about one-third of voters in South Florida have already cast ballots.

The voting machines in Little Haiti's Lemon City Library displayed instructions in English, Spanish and Kreyol (the language of Haiti), and volunteer Kreyol-speaking interpreters helped new citizens exercise their right to vote.

According to a Haitian community leader, Lucie Tondreau, Republican Party poll-watchers had repeatedly challenged her efforts to translate for and assist Haitian-American voters during early voting, making her job much more difficult.

The international delegates noted the complaints of Tondreau and others, but mostly simply watched the voting and the procedures for closing the polling place when the final ballot had been cast for the day.

But behind the impassive demeanour of the observers, were decades of electoral experience in some 40 countries around the globe.

Fair Election International 2004, the initiative to which this Florida delegation belongs, is a project of Global Exchange, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) based in California.

The effort, which has brought 20 foreign observers to the United States, is the second phase of the group's work -- the first was a pre-electoral delegation that observed preparations for the Nov. 2 presidential vote from Sep. 13 to Sep. 27.

In that report, released Oct. 21, the pre-electoral team recommended the United States: consider adopting non-partisan election oversight and administration; strongly encourage non-partisan domestic and foreign observers and provide a paper trail for touch-screen electronic voting.

It also proposed making provisional ballots (which allow challenged voters to cast a ballot conditionally) available throughout the country, the re-enfranchisement of ex-felons in states where they lose their voting and other civil rights (such as in Florida), and public financing of candidates for the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate.

Besides the group in South Florida, other Fair Election delegates are deployed in Tallahassee, the state capitol, and northern Florida.

”Democracy has no single blueprint. It is practised differently in different places,” the group observed in a statement to the media Monday.

”But we share with the people of the United States many of the same challenges. We all grapple with how to ensure that every person's vote counts, that voting technology is effective, and the political contests occur on a level playing field. By recognising the similar obstacles that all democracies face, we can work towards practical solutions.”

Delegates emphasised that observing elections in any country does not imply a criticism of that nation's electoral system, but rather represents an opportunity for best practices to be shared.

”I think it helps a lot to see how different countries resolve their electoral problems,” said observer Manuel Antonio Garreton of Chile. ”Maybe the U.S. can learn something from the countries of Latin America, just as they have learned from the U.S.”

Garreton, director of the Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Chile, is a specialist in democratic systems and has taught at universities in Europe and the United States.

”We'll look at how the election pans out in individual precincts” on Election Day, said Owen Thomas of the United Kingdom, who is chief executive of electoral reform services for the City of London.

Thomas observed the Florida elections in 2002 with a delegation from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which is also monitoring this year's vote.

Aspects of the vote that observers said they will watch closely include the new touch-screen voting machines, which do not produce a paper record, the length of voters' wait and the new provisional ballots.

The three big South Florida counties, Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach, are among the 15 in Florida that have just introduced direct recording electronic voting machines that do not produce a paper audit trail and are often slower than older technologies.

Observation does not mean merely focusing on specific complaints, the team members told the media. They will be watching the entire electoral process and examining its legal framework in the context of international law and other countries' experiences.

The director of Nicaragua's principal electoral watchdog group, Roberto Courtney, noted the Fair Election group had already observed details that differ from international electoral norms, but said the group would wait to see whether they create problems in practice on Tuesday.

Courtney has observed votes in 30 countries, with groups including the Organisation of American States (OAS) and the U.S.-based Carter Centre.

Asked why the Fair Election delegation is working under the auspices of Global Exchange, a San Francisco-based group that sometimes takes political positions, Courtney said the observers are independent of the NGO.

He singled out ”partisan control of pretty much every instance of the electoral system” as one issue the group would probe and that could become ”problematic” if the election is disputed.

He also noted the United States has no central electoral authority, which he described as, ”very striking and probably differ(ent) from international law.”

In many countries, an independent national electoral commission has the status of a fourth branch of government and is shielded from partisan pressures.

The Fair Election delegates privately voiced concerns that long lines at polling places could disenfranchise voters who could not afford to wait several hours, and they questioned Florida's conversion to touch-screen machines, given the speed and familiarity of the paper voting system.

Courtney noted that in places where citizen suspicion or concerns are an important issue, paper ballots can offer ”a greater degree of transparency.”

Another issue the delegation will investigate is the disenfranchisement of ex-felons, which is practised in eight U.S. states including Florida, but nowhere else in the world, according to the observers.

”We are going to have a look at how that will affect people who have been on the inside (of prison) but are outside now,” said Justice Bekebeke of South Africa.

Bekebeke is electoral officer for South Africa's Northern Cape province and has also monitored votes in Australia and Rwanda.

”Is every vote going to be counted? If ex-felons' votes are not counted, that definitely raises some issues about democracy in America.”

© 2004 IPS

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