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