The global implications of the U.S. election are undeniable, but international monitors at a polling station in southern Florida said Tuesday that voting procedures being used in the extremely close contest fell short in many ways of the best global practices.
The observers said they had less access to polls than in Kazakhstan, that the electronic voting had fewer fail-safes than in Venezuela, that the ballots were not so simple as in the Republic of Georgia and that no other country had such a complex national election system.
“To be honest, monitoring elections in Serbia a few months ago was much simpler,” said Konrad Olszewski, an election observer stationed in Miami by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
“They have one national election law and use the paper ballots I really prefer over any other system,” Olszewski said.
Olszewski, whose democratic experience began with Poland’s first free election in 1989, was one of 92 observers brought in by the Vienna-based organization, which was founded to maintain military security in Europe at the height of the cold war.
Two-member observer teams fanned out across 11 states and included citizens of 36 countries, ranging from Canada and Switzerland to Latvia, Kyrgyzstan, Slovenia and Belarus.
Formation of the U.S. election mission came after the State Department issued a standard letter on June 9 inviting the group to monitor the election. All 55 states in the organization have, since 1990, agreed to invite observation teams to their national elections. The decision to observe a U.S. presidential election for the first time was made because of changes prompted by controversy over the U.S. elections in 2000, involving George W. Bush and Al Gore.
“Our presence is not meant as a criticism,” said Ron Gould, Olszewski’s team partner and the former assistant chief electoral officer for Elections Canada. “We mainly want to assess changes taken since the 2000 election.”
Speaking as voting began at 7 a.m. in the Firefighter’s Memorial Hall for precincts 401 and 446 of Miami-Dade County, the observers drew sharp distinctions between U.S.-style elections and those conducted elsewhere around the world.
“Unlike almost every other country in the world, there is not one national election today,” said Gould, who has been involved in 90 election missions in 70 countries. “The decentralized system means that rules vary widely county by county, so there are actually more than 13,000 elections today.”
Variations in local election law not only make it difficult for election monitors to generalize on a national basis, but also prohibit the observers from entering polling stations at all in some states and counties. Such laws mean that no election observers from the organization are in Ohio, a swing state fraught with battles over voter intimidation and other polling issues.
As for electronic voting, Gould said he preferred Venezuela’s system to the calculator-sized touchpads in Miami.
“Each electronic vote in Venezuela also produces a ticket that voters then drop into a ballot box,” Gould said. “Unlike fully electronic systems, this gives a backup that can be used to counter claims of massive fraud.”
Venezuela had trouble implementing the system, Gould added, because the ticket printers kept breaking down.
The United States is also nearly unique in lacking a unified voter registration system or national identity card, Gould said, adding that he would ideally require U.S. voters to dip a finger in an ink bowl or have a cuticle stained black after voting.
“In El Salvador, Namibia and so many other elections, the ink was extremely important in preventing challenges to multiple voting,” Gould said. “In Afghanistan it didn’t work so well, because they used the dipping ink for the cuticles, so it wiped right off.”
To observe elections in Florida, Gould and his partner first stopped to meet state election officials in Tallahassee.
Their visit to Miami included failed attempts to witness election preparations at two polling stations on Monday evening. After a two-hour drive through heavy traffic, the observers found both polling stations deserted.
“In Venezuela we drove around to all the polling stations ahead of time to make sure this didn’t happen,” Gould said. “Here we consider studying the system more important than looking at actual voting.”
Indeed, the team left the Miami polling station little more than half an hour after voting began to make a live interview scheduled on CNN. Media relations has become a major part of their mission, with reporters mobbing the monitors at every stop in Florida and a Japanese television crew from NTV tailing them across the state since Friday.
“There is a lot of interest in Japan where this election observation is seen as a kind of satire,” said Fumi Kobayashi, the New York-based correspondent for NTV. “So strange to imagine Europeans coming to monitor elections in the U.S., don’t you think?”
A selection of voters and election officials who were questioned as they left the Miami polling station said they mainly found the monitors reassuring.
“The United States has long been a model for the world,” said Richard Williams, a poll watcher officially designated by the Democratic party. “If we allow international observers, we will continue to have a leading role.”
Not everyone agrees. Jeff Miller, a Republican congressman from Florida, considers the monitors an insult and has publicly urged them to leave. “Get on the next plane out of the United States to go monitor an election somewhere else, like Afghanistan,” he said.
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