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U.S.: International Election Observers, In U.S., Seek To Learn As Well

In less than seven weeks, Americans will decide whether to keep George W. Bush as their president or replace him with Democratic challenger Senator John Kerry. The election is expected to be tight, perhaps as tight as it was in 2000, when the U.S. Supreme Court intervened and decided not to hold a recount in the southern state of Florida. Without that recount, Bush defeated his rival, Al Gore, by only 57 votes out of the several million cast. Now two groups of election observers will be in the United States to keep an eye on this year's vote.

Washington, 17 September 2004 -- It is unusual for general elections in the United States to be monitored by international observers, but two such groups of observers will be present for the vote on 2 November.

One is being sent by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) at the invitation of the U.S. State Department. The second, a group of 20 observers, is being brought in by Global Exchange, an international human rights group based in San Francisco.

The group sponsored by Global Exchange spoke to reporters yesterday to outline their work.

One of the observers, former Canadian Secretary of State David MacDonald, said his group will focus on three concerns -- that poor and minority voters are able to vote, voting machines function properly, and that wealthy corporations and individuals do not wield undue influence.

Another observer, Brigalia Bam, the chairwoman of the Independent Electoral Commission of South Africa, said the group wants to draw positive lessons from the American experience to help other democracies.
Bam said she expects that, far from being resentful of the observers' presence, election officials in these states will welcome it.

"The challenges that the United States is facing are also the challenges that we have in our own countries," Bam said. "We are grappling to find solutions, we are all finding new ways of counting, the ways of using technology to the best of its ability and how effective it can be. And we're also discovering that many of us have the same obstacles."

Horacio Boneo, an observer from Argentina, said it might seem unusual for election observers to be sent to the United States. But he said there is room to improve in every system -- including in the United States.

He noted that he has served as an election observer in Britain and Denmark. Likewise, the OSCE has sent observers to monitor elections in countries such as France and Spain.

The observers for Global Exchange will be sent to five states. These include Florida, to see how that state has improved its election infrastructure since 2000, and Ohio, a central state considered one of the most hotly contested in the presidential race.

Many Florida voters, including many African Americans, complained they were wrongly denied the opportunity to vote in 2000. The election in that state also was plagued by voting machines that malfunctioned. The result in Florida proved crucial to President George W. Bush's eventual victory.

Bam said she expects that, far from being resentful of the observers' presence, election officials in these states will welcome it.

"The Americans have been all over the world, they have come to many of our countries," Bam said. "They've come to observe. They've come to monitor. And they've never been refused -- [actually] I'm sure they've been refused [occasionally] -- so I'm sure they will reciprocate [with openness]. And most of us are very confident here that they will reciprocate, and I don't think they have anything they particularly want to hide from us."

Boneo was asked how the observers' report might be received. He said that no matter what it finds, it will be important for them to act with the utmost professionalism, showing no partisanship. And he said they must remember that they have no authority.

"I could probably argue that all observation is symbolic in the sense that no observers have any kind of enforcement power," Boneo said. "So it's not only what you say and the information you get, but how you transmit it and how it's absorbed by the people and whether you are believable or not."

MacDonald, the Canadian observer, said he was less concerned with the technical problems that might arise on 2 November than with what he described as growing political apathy among young people.

"People under [age] 30 have to a very large degree -- unfortunately in my country, Canada, and maybe here in the [United] States -- lost confidence in our democratic institutions, and I don't think this is healthy," MacDonald said. "So if we can somehow increase the kind of trust factor through greater transparency and confidence in the way in which the process operates, I think, that's enormously important to all of us."