Elec­tion ob­servers will be watch­ing at the polls Tues­day

The News & Observer (Sunday) - - Opinion - BY JU­DITH KEL­LEY Ju­dith Kel­ley is dean of the San­ford School of Pub­lic Pol­icy at Duke Uni­ver­sity.

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.

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