Election observers will be watching at the polls Tuesday
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE, is sending international election observers to the 2018 U.S. midterm election. American voters may be surprised to learn such visits are routine. This will be the seventh such visit since 2002.
This year, with the ongoing Mueller probe about election meddling and concerns about cybersecurity, the election observers are likely to encounter a growing climate of distrust among U.S. voters about elections and the voting process.
As I describe in my book “Monitoring Democracy,” international election observers are representatives from intergovernmental organizations or nongovernmental organizations from other countries. They monitor elections during the pre-election period, on Election Day and during the postelection period.
The OSCE, created in 1972, is one of the most active groups that monitors elections around the world. All 57 member states, including the U.S., have agreed to allow the OSCE to monitor their elections.
Election monitoring has grown dramatically since the end of the Cold War. At first, election monitors focused on emerging democracies such as those in Eastern Europe. But in an effort to be more egalitarian, observation missions to established democracies such as the United States have become common. Monitoring teams usually fan out across the country and compile their observations into national reports. They make recommendations not only about the conduct of the polling, but also about the electoral system and political environment more broadly.
In the 2016 general U.S. elections, OSCE observers praised the integrity and conduct of voting, but raised concerns about the candidates’ campaigns using “harsh personal attacks.” They also noted voting rights were denied to some citizens, due to “recent legal changes and decisions on technical aspects of the electoral process [that] were often motivated by partisan interests.”
Some of the OSCE recommendations have been addressed. Still, many of the concerns remain. In June 2018, the OSCE said its U.S. midterm election monitors should focus on concerns about “voter rights, registration and identification, security of election technologies, alternative voting methods, campaign finance, and the conduct of the electoral campaign, particularly online and in the media.”
Traditional voter fraud, such as impersonation at the polls, is rare. Instead, Americans are worried about hacking and disenfranchisement – voters having their ballots disqualified or being prevented or discouraged from voting at all.
Civil rights groups in Georgia sued, arguing that a voter registration law requiring an “exact match” between a registration form and voter’s existing identification suppressed minority votes. In Florida, Georgia and North Carolina rising rates of voter registration purges have raised concerns that people – again mostly minority voters – might be removed without justification. And in other states extreme gerrymandering leads some voters to think their votes are unimportant, because even large changes in the votes a party receives can lead to no change in the number of seats that party wins.
My own research, as well as that of others, has found that election observers can – under some conditions – lead to improvements in conduct and quality of elections.
However, this year’s mission to the U.S. will be small. The 2016 U.S. general election had 400 observers. Because it is a midterm election, the 2018 mission will feature only 13 international experts in Washington, plus 36 observers throughout the country.
Meanwhile, the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision to strike down parts of the Voting Rights Act has reduced domestic election oversight.
While the United States has been on the forefront of sending various observer missions to other countries, the OSCE is the only serious group that conducts international election observation in the United States.
As a result, their presence and insights are likely to remain, as they have in past U.S. elections, largely under the radar, stimulating discussion mostly among insiders. Still, such discussion can be valuable to signal to other countries that the U.S. is willing to hold itself accountable for its electoral integrity.