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Broken US System Needs Watching: International Election Observers Could Face Arrest
Tuesday’s national election in the US is shaping up to be a bruising affair, with both parties hiring armies of lawyers to fight over likely contentious battles over voter access to polling stations, dealing with long lines that could prevent people from voting after polls officially close, the counting of votes cast, and now, the right of international inspectors from the respected Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to monitor the process.
The OSCE, a 56-member international organization (including the U.S.) which routinely sends observers to monitor and oversee elections in countries around the world, has been monitoring US elections since the highly controversial presidential election of 2000, which ended up having the presidential race decided by a split 5-4 decision of the U.S. Supreme Court. (The OECD was invited to start monitoring US elections in 2004 by none other than President George W. Bush, who was handed the presidency in 2000 by the Supreme Court.) Until this year, its monitors have had no problems doing their job, but this year hard-right officials in at least two states -- Texas and Iowa -- have threatened to have the international observers arrested and criminally charged if they attempt to monitor any polling places in those two states. Other states may join them.
“The OSCE’s representatives are not authorized by state law to enter a polling place,” said Texas Attorney General Greg Abott, an activist in the right-wing Tea Party movement who is in his first term as the state’s top law enforcement officer. “It may be a criminal offense for OSCE representatives to maintain a presence within 100 feet of a polling place’s entrance. Failure to comply with these requirements could subject the OSCE’s representatives to criminal prosecution.”
Abbot’s threat to arrest OSCE poll watchers was echoed a few days later by Iowa’s secretary of state, Matt Schultz, who warned that any international monitors who came within 300 feet of voting stations in his state would be “criminally prosecuted.”
Meanwhile, in Florida, Congressman Connie Mack, the Republican candidate for US senate in that state, playing to widespread antipathy among right-wingers towards the United Nations, which the more fevered among them believe is trying to take over the US, angrily denounced the monitors saying, “The very idea that the United Nations — the world body dedicated to diminishing America’s role in the world — would be allowed, if not encouraged, to install foreigners sympathetic to the likes of Castro, Chávez, Ahmadinejad, and Putin to oversee our elections is nothing short of disgusting.” (Mack needs to do his homework: The OSCE is a European-based organization, not a UN organization, and in any case, Cuba, Venezuela and Iran are not members. Only Russia is, and it allows monitors -- including US monitors -- at its elections.)
Ambassador Janez Lenarčič, director of the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, has fired back an angry letter to the US Department of State and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton denouncing the threats. She wrote, “The threat of criminal sanctions against international observers is unacceptable. The United States, like all countries in the OSCE, has an obligation to invite observers to observe its elections.” She added, “Our observers are requested to remain strictly impartial and not to intervene in the voting process in any way. They are in the US to observe the elections, not to interfere in them.”
The US State Department has issued a statement saying that “in general we give monitors protected status, as we expect of our people when we participate in OSCE delegations.” It is not clear, however, how state and federal courts would rule in a dispute between state and federal authorities over a state’s arrest of monitors who are charged with violating state election laws. Under the US Constitution, voting is the responsibility of the states, not the federal government, although the US Supreme Court has said the federal government has a responsibility to ensure that states do not deny people the right to vote.
The OSCE was asked to come and observe this election by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and other organizations this year especially to monitor a range of voter suppression efforts being implemented in dozens of US states where the state legislatures and governor’s officers are in the hands of the Republican Party. An organization of Republican state officials, known as the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), has over the last two years sent out a number of boiler-plate laws related to voting and elections designed to suppress the votes of those groups -- particularly minorities, students and the elderly who tend to vote for the Democratic Party’s candidates -- and many of the states currently being run by Republican Party officials did adopt some of them, although no study has found evidence of voter fraud involving the use of false identities in any state.
One particularly controversial law proposed by ALEC, and passed into law by such states as Texas, Pennsylvania , Georgia, South Carolina, Wisconsin, Kansas and Florida, requires that anyone going to their neighborhood polling station to cast a vote has to provide a state-issued photo ID -- either a drivers license or a state ID. Experts estimated that these laws, if applied on November 6, could reduce the number of Democratic voters allowed to cast votes by several million.
In Pennsylvania alone, where one very strict version of the law was passed last summer, it was estimated that 800,000 of the state’s 8 million voters, mostly blacks and elderly citizens who do not drive cars, could be blocked from voting. In that state, opponents went to court and got the law blocked, at least for the current election, but the Republican-run state government is still running advertisements warning voters -- incorrectly -- that if they don’t have a state photo ID they will not be allowed to vote on Nov. 6.
It is this kind of chicanery (as well as others, such as conducting computerized “purges” of voter lists that attempt to remove convicted felons, who are barred from voting in some states, but that then remove all people with common last names like Jones, Thompson or Freeman, or running fake “voter registration” efforts in which the collected registration forms are then tossed in the trash instead of being filed with election authorities) that the international observers are being asked to monitor and expose.
There will, of course, also be lawyers and activists from the Democratic Party on hand at most polling stations to try to make sure that those who show up to vote who are registered but do not have photo IDs, do get to cast their ballots.
It is ironic that the US, which has been dispatching its military to invade far-flung countries like Iraq and Afghanistan, claims to be “bringing democracy” to their people, while at home one of its two main political parties is openly trying to prevent millions of Americans from exercising the basic right to vote. Ironic too that the US government, through the so-called National Endowment for Democracy, sends funds to other countries allegedly to help encourage democracy (a dubious claim, to be sure, as it generally funds opposition groups that have been linked to coup attempts as in Venezuela).
Most ironic of all, of course, the US itself regularly sends election monitors under OSCE auspices to countries like Iraq, Afghanistan, Venezuela and other states to monitor the fairness of their elections, but when it comes to monitoring elections at home, it threatens other countries’ monitors with arrest and jail for trying to do the same thing.
Even the conservative magazine National Review acknowledges that foreign monitors are justified. As the magazine’s national columnist John Fund notes, “Representative Mack claims that election monitoring ‘should be reserved for third-world countries, banana republics, and fledging democracies.’ Well, no. The 2000 Bush v. Gore Supreme Court case exposed to the rest of the world the fact that Florida and some other U.S. states have sloppy election systems that are far less advanced than, say, countries such as Mexico.”
The truth is that the whole election process in the US is badly broken. Not only has the country moved backwards over the past 12 years in terms of making it easier for people to vote. It has also put the whole process in jeopardy by pushing for electronic voting, substituting computers, which leave no paper trail to audit them for accuracy or for recounts, for mechanical voting machines or paper ballots.
The computer voting machines are produced, maintained, run and even tallied up by the private companies that make them, not by elected or civil servant officials of municipal or county or state elections departments as in years past. Some of the companies that make the machines and do this counting are directly linked to Republican candidates. For example, Hart InterCivic, one company that has supplied computer voting machines to the state of Ohio -- seen as the crucial “swing” state in the current presidential election -- is run by executives who have made $195,000 in financial contributions to the campaign of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. That this kind of thing can be allowed to happen makes a joke out of the whole election process.
The OSCE says it has sent 57 monitors to the US to monitor voter suppression, campaign finance, and new voting technologies in the US election. It looks like they will have their hands full, even if they aren’t locked up for their efforts.