Casting Foreign Eye On Voting

As Americans go to the polls in what may be record numbers and officials from both political parties and their lawyers prepare to pounce on any voting irregularities, another set of monitors will be taking notes on this Election Day. Ninety election observers from 34 countries will represent the OSCE -- the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe -- in its first monitoring mission of an American presidential election.

The OSCE, an organization which counts all of Europe, as well as Canada and the U.S. as members, has sent observers to more than 150 elections and referendums in the past ten years, according to Urdur Gunnarsdottir, spokeswoman for the OSCE mission now in the U.S. The only previous OSCE missions here have been for the 2002 mid-term election in Florida and the 2003 special gubernatorial election in California.

Electoral reform is the main interest for the OSCE and the monitors will be taking notes on voter registration, use of various electronic voting machines and similar technical issues related to running elections. While not focusing on this year's swing states, there will be OSCE monitors in Florida, Ohio and Minnesota, as well as in California, Nevada, Illinois, Maryland, Virginia, New Jersey, North Carolina and the District of Columbia. Where the law allows it, the observers will be present inside polling stations; in other places, where only election officials and voters are allowed, they'll have to content themselves with watching from outside.

OSCE election monitoring is noted most often in the fledgling democracies of Central and Eastern Europe and the states which were part of the former Soviet Union. Washington often expresses its concerns about elections abroad and has recently about the lack of so-called "free and fair" elections in Ukraine and Belarus, for example. Asked if the OSCE decided to take a closer look at this year's American presidential election because of Florida's hanging chads in the 2000 election, Spokeswoman Gunnarsdottir explained that as it studies electoral reform, to the extent hanging chads and other voting machine irregularities were a problem in 2000, well, yes, that's one of the reasons to take a closer look at this year's elections.

The OSCE observer team will offer its preliminary findings on Thursday morning and a final report will follow 30 days to six weeks after the process has ended.

The Department of State facilitated the visit of the OSCE's team of observers and put them in touch with election officials in various states and, says Adam Ereli, Deputy Spokesman, "…the presence of OSCE election observers we don't find troubling at all."

Perhaps not troubling but there was the touchy subject of whether to officially refer to the delegation as "observers," and not "monitors."

Asked about the distinction, Ereli explained "Oh, because there was some kafuffle at the beginning that monitors actually have some kind of -- how should I put it -- authority to declare something right or wrong based on agreements, or international agreements. They're here to observe…I was making the distinction, because some people think that monitor has a force and an authority greater than observer."

A reporter got to the heart of the matter: "So they can't overrule the outcome of the election?"

"That's a safe bet," said Ereli.

It may be the only bet that's safe this Election Day.

By Charles M. Wolfson