Elections Watched by Foreign Observers

WASHINGTON -- It may come as a surprise to American voters but two international groups will be observing the fairness of our Nov. 2 elections.

Does this have anything to do with the 2000 election fiasco? You bet.

Global Exchange, an international human rights organization based in San Francisco, has gathered civic leaders, parliamentarians, diplomats and journalists from 15 countries to monitor elections in Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Ohio and Missouri.

Jason Mark, Global Exchange's communications director, said the organization has observed elections in several countries in Latin America, Asia and Africa. It is financed by private donations.

Mark said the problems that arose in the 2000 presidential election inspired the desire for outsiders to monitor the Nov. 2 balloting.

"We want to rebuild confidence in the U.S. electoral system," he said.

The second group -- the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe -- has been invited by the State Department to send a delegation of election observers to the United States.

A five-member OSCE team made an initial visit last month and a larger group will monitor on Election Day.

The first OSCE group warned in an 11-page report that slow replacement of outdated voting machines and voting procedures could delay the outcome of the Nov. 2 election, just as the same devilish combo did four years ago.

The delegation also noted that many of the touch-screen machines that will be used by up to 50 million voters do not leave a paper trail that would allow a manual count of the votes in event of dispute or mechanical failure.

In addition, the OSCE criticized poorly maintained voter registration lists and questioned ballot secrecy when states allow military voters to fax their completed ballots.

Former President Carter, whose Carter Center in Atlanta has observed more than 50 elections around the world, said Monday in an Op-Ed piece in The Washington Post that "some elements for a fair election are missing in Florida."

He claimed that Florida voting officials "have proved to be highly partisan, brazenly violating a basic need for an unbiased and universally trusted authority to manage all elements of the electoral process."

Carter charged that Glenda Hood, successor to Katherine Harris as the Florida secretary of state, has "the same strong bias" as her predecessor, who was co-chair of the Florida Bush-Cheney campaign while overseeing the state's election machinery four years ago.

Carter also jabbed the president's brother -- Florida Gov. Jeb Bush -- for not taking corrective steps to ensure "fair and equal treatment" of voters.

The many problems that the Global Exchange teams will grapple with include assuring that the voting technology is effective and that minorities and poor people are not disenfranchised, he explained.

Mark said Florida was selected for monitoring because of its notorious voting irregularities that contributed to the constitutional crisis in 2000.

Georgia was picked because it is one of only two states -- the other being Maryland -- that will vote entirely on touch-screen electronic machines.

Missouri was selected, Mark said, because it experienced "serious troubles" on Election Day in 2000 when many St. Louis residents were unable to vote because their names were incorrectly put on inactive voter lists.

Arizona is being looked at because it has publicly financed campaigns at the state and local level.

Ohio was chosen because it is one of the most hotly contested swing states, he said, with a diverse urban and rural population.

Victoria Somers, an Irish observer on the Georgia team, said the United States is different from other countries where elections are under a central authority.

In some states, she noted, even counties have different systems.

Somers has observed elections on behalf of the Irish government, the United Nations and the European Union.

Mark said that the teams have had generally friendly receptions where they have traveled.

All of which shows that even nations that are considered models of democracy should be open to ways of making their elections better.

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