Int’l Election Observers Grumble, But Agree Not to Enter U.S. Polling Places Where Law Forbids

Patrick Goodenough | November 2, 2012 | 4:32am EDT
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The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe says in states where laws forbid them from entering polling stations on November 6, they will comply. (AP Photo)

( – The multinational body planning to observe next Tuesday’s elections says its monitors won’t enter polling stations in states where that would be illegal – but adds that laws barring their entry are not in line with America’s international commitments.

A spokesman for the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), the election-monitoring arm of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), told Thursday its monitors are in the U.S. to observe, not “to break any laws or in any way interfere with the election process.”

“In those instances where it is against state law for international observers to enter polling stations, they will comply with the law,” said Thomas Rymer.

“At the same time, the lack of access to polling stations for international observers in some states is not in line with the United States’ international commitments, and we have noted this in past final reports issued by observation missions.”

At the invitation of the U.S. government, the ODIHR is deploying 44 observers across the nation, a practice it has following in past national elections since 2002. Another 13-strong team of “international experts” will be based in Washington.

Separately, more than 100 other monitors – lawmakers from OSCE member-states – will also be observing the polls.

Rymer was responding to queries following a warning by Texas Attorney-General Greg Abbott that any foreign observer who approaches a polling station in the state risks criminal prosecution.

Iowa’s secretary of state, Matt Schultz, has now issued a similar warning.

While he welcomed OSCE observers to the state, he said in a statement provided to, they would not be allowed to gain access to polling stations.

“My office met with two delegation representatives last week to discuss Iowa’s election process and it was explained to them that they are not permitted at the polls,” he said. “Iowa law is very specific about who is permitted at polling places, and there is no exception for members of this group.”

Under Iowa law, Schultz said, anyone violating the applicable provision is to be arrested on the orders of poll workers.

The OSCE, a grouping of 56 member nations in Europe, Central Asia and North America, says its members are obliged to have their elections observed, under an agreement signed in Denmark in 1990, which says member states will invite observers “to observe the course of their national election proceedings, to the extent permitted by law.”

Rymer pointed out that American citizens are regularly involved in OSCE/ODIHR observation missions in other countries.

The mission’s task goes beyond just observing inside polling stations, he said.

“We look at a broad range of issues, including electoral frameworks, candidate and voter registration, the role of and balance of reporting in the media, the work of the relevant bodies in administering the elections, and the work of those bodies responsible for addressing complaints and appeals.”

At the end of its mission the OSCE/ODIHR will “issue a statement of preliminary findings and conclusions at a press conference,” and publish a full report some two months later.

In its report following the 2004 election, the OSCE/ODIHR said its observers’ access to polling stations “was not possible or was limited” in some states, although it did not name them.

Among its recommendations in that report, it said, “Congress and individual states should consider how to ensure unimpeded access to all stages of the election process for international observers who have been invited to observe U.S. elections by the U.S. Government, in order to bring state laws fully in line with the United States’ OSCE commitments.”

In its report after the 2008 election, the organization said its observers were unable to access polling stations in Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Ohio and Texas due to state laws, and had also faced difficulties doing so in some specific locations in Colorado, Louisiana, Pennsylvania and Virginia.

“Election-related legislation at federal and state level should establish minimum standards

for access of international observers invited by the U.S. authorities,” it said in its recommendations in the 2008 report.

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