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U.S.: Monitors Are Welcome, But Some Observers Blocked From Polls

International observers have arrived in several U.S. states for the presidential election on 2 November. Independent nongovernmental organizations and foreign diplomats will be scrutinizing activities in Florida, Ohio, and several other closely contested states. But in many states, those observers will not be allowed inside the actual polling stations. That task is reserved for official "monitors" -- such as those the U.S. State Department has invited from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

Prague, 1 November 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The Belarusian Foreign Ministry says it has formally complained to the U.S. ambassador in Minsk about Belarusian diplomats who have been banned from monitoring tomorrow's U.S. presidential election.

Deputy Foreign Minister Alyaksandr Sychow says the Belarusian Embassy in Washington applied for its diplomats to directly monitor polling stations in Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, and the District of Columbia. He says the applications were refused in all cases except Virginia, where the diplomats will be allowed inside polling stations in two out of 135 counties -- and then, only then for a maximum of 10 minutes.

Steve Pike, a spokesman for the U.S. State Department, says the Belarusian statement is misleading because it implies that monitors will not be allowed during the U.S. election.
"We didn't accept it in Belarus and we don't accept it anywhere else that we are told that some observers can come and some cannot come. Either everybody comes or nobody." -- Urdur Gunnarsdottir ,spokeswoman for the OSCE's Election Observer Mission

He notes that in the United States, political candidates are allowed to have representatives -- so-called "candidate agents" -- at each polling station as an official monitor.

Pike also tells RFE/RL that Washington has complied with its international treaty obligations on free and fair elections by issuing invitations to official OSCE election monitors. He also notes that those 75 OSCE monitors include representatives from Belarus and other OSCE countries.

In essence, the official election monitors can travel to different polling stations. They also have the authority to intervene in cases of alleged ballot box misbehavior by filing a formal complaint with local election officials at any particular polling station.

In contrast, at least in most states, many international election observers will not be allowed within a certain distance of polling stations, usually about 90 meters.

Urdur Gunnarsdottir, the spokeswoman for the OSCE's Election Observer Mission in the United States, says it is unacceptable for some observers to be allowed inside the polling stations while other are not.

"We didn't accept it in Belarus and we don't accept it anywhere else that we are told that some observers can come and some cannot come. Either everybody comes or nobody," Gunnarsdottir said.

Gunnarsdottir attributed the complaints about observer access to the bureaucracy surrounding a national election being conducted under different laws in each of the 50 U.S. states.

"It is not always easy to get accreditation on a state and a county level. This is done completely differently than it is in Europe. This is enormously complex because this means that you have to apply not once -- like you do in a European country -- but, I don't know how many times. Fifty times. I mean, for every state, and then [again] for every county that you wish to observe in," Gunnarsdottir said.

Global Exchange is a San Francisco-based human rights group that has invited 20 experienced international election observers to report on what they see happening tomorrow. One of those observers, Justice Bekebeke from South Africa, says the lack of access to polling stations will not hinder his work.

"We have not been allowed access to the polling stations to observe first hand. But I don't think that is going to detract from our mission here. We are going to interview people who have been inside -- whether things have gone well, whether they haven't gone well -- and then we will be drawing our report," Bekebeke said.

Owen Thomas, an international election observer from the United Kingdom, says he will be watching developments in the closely contested state of Florida.

"The issues that will concern me on Tuesday will probably be things like capacity. In 2002, with a much lower mid-term turnouts of voters, there were queues of people -- that would just not be accepted in the U.K. -- waiting three and four hours to vote. We are seeing that again in the early voting [in Florida]. I have real fears on election day [about] whether this is actually going to deter a lot of voters [and they will turn] around and go home," Thomas said.

Roberto Courtney, an international election observer from Nicaragua, also will be posted outside of polling stations in Florida.

"I think it's as well prepared as it can possibly be under the circumstances. There are a number of things that present problems in any set-up. High turnouts make things very difficult. Difficult ballots or a number of issues on the ballots also make for a difficult election day. And you have both those elements here in Florida," Courtney said.

Meanwhile, filmmaker Michael Moore has announced his own large-scale effort to combat potential election irregularities during the vote.

Moore -- who created the controversial documentary-style film "Fahrenheit 9/11" -- says he will station some 1,200 professional and amateur photographers with video cameras near polling stations in Florida and Ohio. Those are the two states that have been the focus of the most serious allegations of potential electoral fraud.

Moore says the video cameras will be used to document anyone who tries to stop voters at the polls or who challenges the validity of a voter's registration.