Experts: NASS should welcome international observers

Secretaries of state meeting in Anchorage could improve election observer access

With the National Association of Secretaries of State gathering in Anchorage, Alaska this week for its annual meeting, these top elections officials have a chance to take an important step forward that the federal government cannot. 

In a nation where the Constitution leaves most election management details to the states, united action from the NASS could fundamentally strengthen U.S. elections and their compliance with the country’s international commitments.

As a founding member of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), a now-57-country group of Northern Hemisphere nations, the United States historically gets high marks for democracy as measured by the 1990 Copenhagen Document, which outlines many democratic norms one would expect to see in a free and fair election including media freedom, secrecy of the vote, political party competition and the like.

Notwithstanding the occasional hours-long wait to vote, the extraordinary influence of campaign financing, and old-fashioned use of an electoral college for presidential elections, American elections are widely viewed as well-run and democratic. Every year hundreds of Americans—some elected officials, some ordinary citizens – travel to observe elections abroad under the auspices of the OSCE. They’re allowed to do this because the United States, along with all other OSCE member nations, has committed to invite foreign observation of its own elections.

One of the challenges international observers face, however, is that America is the only member country with no central body governing how elections should work. As a result our observers (we had 150 in the United States, including parliamentarians and observers from the Warsaw-based human rights office) have experienced uneven access to polling places in the past—allowed by one clerk and sometimes denied by the next.

The varying laws governing observation from state to state and lack of communication to the local level often make it difficult to uniformly observe a national U.S. election. That's why NASS should unite in support of changes to state laws like those adopted in North Dakota in 2011 that affirmatively welcome the international observers.

This should be non-controversial. We’re not advocating for any new ID or some mandated purchase of electronic machines, and NASS has been clearly in support, twice passing a resolution calling for states to welcome international election observers “where state laws allow.” The hitch of course, has always been that last caveat.

Some state laws still expressly bar observers. And despite support from our 57-country organization, the State Department and members of the bipartisan, bicameral U.S. Commission on Security and Co-operation in Europe, only five states have laws positively permitting international observers access to polling stations on Election Day.

New Mexico enacted in 2011, under Republican leadership, legislation similar to Missouri, South Dakota, and Washington, D.C., to permit foreign observers. But in 2012, we still saw the advent of political rhetoric from some secretaries of state who chose to paint OSCE observers as some sort of unwelcome referees who would break in to polling stations to blow their whistles.

You could only imagine the laughter from less-than-democratic capitals to hear that the land of the free was being made off-limits to observers. And who could blame them, for those with good election practices should look forward to putting them on display.

And any secretary of state who has taken the time to be in Anchorage for this week’s meeting, which runs July 18-21, implicitly has said they value learning from their peers in other states. Election observation provides this same opportunity to exchange best practices on a wider scale. Granting observers access to the polls helps instill greater confidence in the electoral process, and the information gleaned—at no taxpayer expense—from observation reports can be as worthwhile as high-priced consultation.

The current NASS protocol on observation expires in 2015, but we hope secretaries of state will act this year to take their pledge a step further and encourage legislators to enact simple, clear language that allows observers so long as they follow the observer code of conduct and not interfere with election proceedings.

Even if states enact legislation, it’s up to those gathering in Alaska this week to educate and execute. County clerks and election officials need to be trained to accept and welcome observers and realize their apolitical value. Elections face similar challenges across the world from crowded polling stations to attempted fraud, and each election day provides us all a momentary chance to learn from one another, but we can only do that if we are allowed to visit and observe the vote up close.

Joao Soares is a member of Parliament from Portugal and led the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly election observation missions to the United States in 2008, 2010 and 2012. Tina Schoen is the deputy secretary general of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly and in charge of election observation.

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