Accessibility links

Breaking News

U.S.: OSCE To Observe General Election In November

John Kerry will challenge President George W. Bush in November Washington, 11 August 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S. presidential election in 2000 came down to one state, Florida. The vote was so close that the country and the world waited more than four weeks before the race was decided. The Supreme Court, the nation's highest tribunal, ruled that George W. Bush had won by only 537 of more than 6 million votes cast in the state. Many Florida Democrats have complained that their votes were improperly nullified, giving an unfair advantage to Bush, a Republican. This year, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) will be observing the U.S. election.

The OSCE will not be in the United States on 2 November to judge the election's fairness, but merely to observe. Still, the mission will issue a public report on any problems it finds.

Allan Lichtman, a professor of U.S. political history at American University in Washington, told RFE/RL that he expects the OSCE will find many problems. "We have not yet reached the point where we have the technology in place, the education in place, and the training in place to make sure that everyone eligible to vote will have a chance to vote and that their ballot will necessarily be counted," he said.

Lichtman pointed to untested computerized voting machines and outdated mechanical ballots as examples of the country's lagging electoral technology. More disturbing, he said, are the election workers who too freely discard votes they believe were cast improperly -- such as apparently blank votes, or votes for more than one candidate seeking a single office.

According to Lichtman, 3 percent of all votes cast in Florida were declared invalid. Worse, he said, between 10 and 12 percent of the votes cast by black citizens were discarded, effectively stripping them of their most important right of citizenship.
"Beyond pointing any fingers of blame, the issue of enabling every eligible voter to have his or her vote count matters in this country. And it's not just a tiny handful of voters affected, it is millions of voters across the nation." - Lichtman

Lichtman told RFE/RL that he is not suggesting racism on the part of election workers in Florida -- where, coincidentally, Bush's brother has served as governor since 1999. But he said that however the discarded votes are apportioned, the problem is significant, and not limited to Florida.

"Beyond pointing any fingers of blame, the issue of enabling every eligible voter to have his or her vote count matters in this country. And it's not just a tiny handful of voters affected, it is millions of voters across the nation. Florida is perhaps the most egregious example of problems with voting rights, but it is certainly, by far, not the only example," Lichtman said.

Lichtman said he is disturbed that the presidential election is under observation by the OSCE. After all, he said, the United States is supposed to be the exemplar of democracy, not the object of study by a political crisis-management organization. But he said the problems with the U.S. electoral system justify the OSCE mission.

David Boaz sees the situation differently. Boaz is the executive vice president of the Cato Institute, a private policy-research center in Washington, and specializes in U.S. political issues.

Boaz told RFE/RL that he welcomes the OSCE mission, and challenges it to find any significant problems. "If they're coming here to observe our elections, then they might learn something, because on one day in November, we have a country stretching 3,000 miles where people go to thousands of voting booths and cast votes in an election that always comes off smoothly," he said. "[There are] always a few little problems, but overall, this is a tremendous example to the world."

Boaz said he has little sympathy for people who complain that their votes were discarded for what they call trivial, technical reasons. He said election boards and the news media in communities around the country provide detailed instructions on how to operate the voting machines in their precincts. And yet, he said, voters continue to cast errant ballots. The culprit here is not a poorly managed and badly trained electoral bureaucracy, Boaz said, but a group of Democrats in Congress.

"This is a partisan jab at the Bush administration. I think that this is indeed supposed to suggest that the United States is not the oldest and longest-standing functioning democracy in the world, which, in fact, we are. And these countries that had monarchs and nobility and aristocracy for much longer than the United States ever did have no business telling us that they know how to run elections better than we do," Boaz said.

Last year, 13 Democratic members of the House of Representatives urged the United Nations to monitor this year's elections because of the Florida debacle in 2000. The full House rejected that request, so the Democrats forwarded their case to the State Department. It then invited the OSCE observers, who have observed elections not only in fledgling or fragile democracies, but also in countries such as France and Spain.

This will not be the first time the OSCE has observed a U.S. election. It sent a team to monitor local votes in Florida two years ago because of the problems highlighted by the election in 2000. The mission reported that voting conditions had improved significantly in 2002, but also cited what it called "room for some further improvement."