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U.S.: Foreign Election Observers Urge Improvements In U.S. Voting

  • Andrew Tully

A group of international election observers has issued its preliminary report on the 2 November general election in the United States. The 20 observers from 15 countries were assembled by the American human rights group Global Exchange because of problems faced by voters in 2000 -- not just in Florida, where a close vote delayed the outcome of the presidential race, but in other parts of the country. The report cites progress made over the past four years in registering voters, as well as in voting and vote-counting procedures, but says more needs to be done to make the process fully fair and transparent. Five of the observers discussed their initial findings yesterday in a global telephone conference call.

Washington, 22 October 2004 (RFE/RL) -- In opening the teleconference, Jason Mark, the communications director for Global Exchange, made it clear from the start that the presence of the election observers is not meant to make the United States appear to be a struggling democracy.

But Mark said problems exist in the United States' voting system that threaten its integrity. He expressed hope that the presence of the inspectors will help boost the confidence of voters.

One of the observers who took part in the telephone conference was Caerwyn Dwyfor Jones, an election official from Wales who helped supervise the first elections in Cambodia.

Speaking from Wales, Jones said the United States may be unique in the world for permitting political partisans to run election infrastructures in states.

"We believe partisan oversight and administration of elections is not the international norm, as it builds in the possibility for perception of conflict of interest," Jones said. "The delegation recommends that states establish independent and impartial bodies to administer, oversee, and certify elections."

The Global Exchange observers spent time in five U.S. states -- Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Missouri, and Ohio. They will also be present at voting and vote-counting facilities on election day.

The southern state of Florida is well known for the disputed presidential vote in 2000. The central state of Missouri was chosen because many of its voters were denied the opportunity to vote that year. Georgia, in the southeast, was chosen because it uses so-called "touch-screen" electronic voting exclusively.

Despite their focus on individual states, the observers said they found some problems that apply to all states. One overarching problem they cited is that political campaigns are privately financed, giving an edge to the rich. They recommend public financing to help reduce even the perception of such an advantage.
One overarching problem is that political campaigns are privately financed, giving an edge to the rich.

Brigalia Bam, the chairwoman of the Independent Electoral Commission of South Africa, is another election observer. She said she is "disturbed" that seven U.S. states strip convicted felons of their voting rights for life.

"I think this is a concern, very much, considering that the United States is one of the countries that have the oldest democracies in the world, a country of freedom, and I never realized that such restrictions [existed there] that unfortunately lead to subcategories of citizens," Bam said.

Bam said she is equally shocked that minorities are often disenfranchised from the election process, in part because the voter-registration process is more complex in some states than it needs to be.

An increasing number of states are using electronic voting machines. Such techniques are used because they are quick and efficient, but they also can be unreliable.

Jones noted that such machines have no backup mechanisms -- or "paper trail" -- and so there is no way votes can be recounted.

"If the election is so close, does it mean that you press the same button as you did for the initial count, and you get the same result, because it's all done electronically? Without a paper trail, there's no way of certifying the initial result," Jones said.

A third observer participating in yesterday's telephone conference was Irene Baghoomians, a professor of law at the University of Sydney in Australia. Speaking from her home country, she stressed that the Global Exchange group is made up of observers, not monitors.

Baghoomians said the difference is that, unlike monitors, election observers have no mandate to intervene if they suspect irregularities.

The inspectors gathered by Global Exchange are not the only foreign observers who will be in the United States for the election. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), is also sending observers at the invitation of the U.S. State Department.

The OSCE has sent observers not only to fledgling or fragile democracies, but also to countries such as France and Spain.

Previously, it sent a team to monitor local elections in Florida in 2002 because of the problems the state had two years earlier. The mission reported that the vote in 2002 showed significant progress, but it called for further improvements.