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Failing the Electoral Standards
by Andrew Gumbel    The Nation   25 April 2005

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has been monitoring elections in emerging democracies ever since the fall of the Berlin wall, but now it has done something different and uniquely controversial. It has turned its attention to the United States, issuing a report that highlights numerous areas in which this past November's presidential and Congressional elections failed to meet international standards.

One would have thought the voter reform movement in this country would jump at the chance to see the United States judged by the same criteria as Ukraine, Georgia or Kyrgyzstanespecially since the report finds it badly wanting. Here, in black and white, is authoritative proof that the disenfranchisement of ex-felons, the uneven rules applied to provisional balloting, the unreliability of voter registration procedures and the dual role of election supervisors who also help run partisan political campaigns are not merely objectionable but also violate international norms to which the United States, as a participating member of the fifty-five-nation OSCE, is a leading signatory. 

 And yet the OSCE's twenty-nine-page report, published in April has not generated a single column inch in any US newspaper. There are both good and bad reasons for this. For a start, the report has come out five months after the election, virtually guaranteeing its lack of topicality. It is also written in excruciatingly careful prose, belying the pointedness of its conclusions. There is no summary sentence stating explicitly that the United States has failed to meet its international commitments. (That has to be inferred.) Nor does it allude to the fact that Ohio was just a few tens of thousands of votes away from another Florida-style meltdown. This is a document that takes every conceivable step to avoid being controversial, even as it delivers its damning assessment.

Therein, though, lies the real story. The OSCE report has been the hottest of political hot potatoes for months, its reticence the result of an escalating diplomatic battle pitting the United States against the countries of the former Soviet Union, not unlike the cold war standoffs of old.

OSCE sources complain that US officials made "inappropriate" phone calls in the run-up to the report's publication, in the hope that its conclusions would not come down too hard on the dysfunctions of its electoral system. Russia and the other former Soviet republics, meanwhile, have accused both the United States and the OSCE itself of a glaring double standardmaking no bones about criticizing the conduct of their elections (in Georgia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and, most recently, Kyrgyzstan) while skirting over the inadequacies of voting in the world's sole remaining superpower.

There is far more to this debate than mere diplomatic brick-throwing. At stake is the integrity of the single most powerful institution pressing for global democratizationa phenomenon President Bush professes to cherish these days. There is little doubt that the reason the Russians, Belarusians and the rest want to get the OSCE off their backs is that they are terrified of a Ukraine-style democratic uprising in their own autocratic backyards. (Kiev's Orange Revolution was sparked, in part, by a withering OSCE election report, as was the popular revolt against Eduard Shevardnadze in Georgia.) But the reason they feel able to protest so vehemently comes right back to the United States and the fact that this country's electoral house is in such manifest disarray.

The Russians have been banging the "double standard" drum ever since their own OSCE observers saw Florida's electronic voting machines melt down during the 2002 midtermsa fiasco less well remembered than the punch-card disaster of 2000 but one that has poisoned just about every effort at electoral reform since. The Americans, admittedly, did not help themselves when, at an OSCE meeting on international election standards right after the Florida primary, they refused to acknowledge the slightest flaw in their domestic system.

OSCE officials sought to get around the mounting fracas in a couple of ways. First, they indicated they would entertain the possibility of much bigger election observation missions to the United States in the future. And then they commissioned a report drawing up universal standards applicable to all democracies, both emerging and established. This report came out in October 2003 and, to the attentive reader at least, suggested eleven areas in which the United States was falling shortthe failure to establish nationwide voting procedures, the felon problem, the inequitable distribution of voting machines in poorer areas, the lack of money and media time accorded to third-party candidates, and so on.

The international tensions, though, continued to mount. By 2004 the OSCE's reports on the former Soviet zone were proving so incendiary that President Putin personally ordered his OSCE ambassador to make the neutering of the OSCE's election monitoring division his top priority.

In response, the OSCE seriously considered a full-scale observation of the Bush-Kerry presidential race, which would have involved hundreds of international monitors spread out across the entire country. The treacherous waters of US politics, however, made this option next to impossible, not least because the person pushing hardest for a major monitoring mission, the president of OSCE's parliamentary assembly, turned out to be a black Democratic Congressman from Florida, Alcee Hastings. The OSCE realized a full-scale mission could easily be misinterpreted as a partisan assault on the Republicans, so it backed off.

 It opted instead for a so-called "targeted observation mission," focusing on just a handful of districts in swing states. Even this, though, ran into trouble. No European government wanted to risk the wrath of the United States by offering up observersthe whole EU ended up providing just two people, both from the Netherlandsand barely any state or county officials in this country wanted to allow the OSCE near their polling stations, even though they had a commitment to grant access under the terms of the OSCE's founding 1990 Copenhagen agreement.

The OSCE appealed to both the State Department and the National Association of Secretaries of States for help, only to be told there was nothing either of them could do. As a result, the OSCE deployment on November 2 was patchy at best in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida and a couple of less contentious states.

The Russians were not impressed. At a high-level meeting in Sofia last December, the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, denounced the OSCE as a divisive and dishonest organization. "Election monitoring is not only ceasing to make sense," he said, "but is also becoming an instrument of political manipulation and a destabilizing factor."

The delay in publication of the OSCE's final report on the US election only infuriated the Russians and their allies further. At this point they are threatening to withhold their portion of the OSCE budget unless the whole institution is restructured, starting with its election monitoring division. The actual content of the US report does not appear to have mollified them.

The Russians want the OSCE to prune back its monitoring procedures, so that instead of taking stock of the target country's overall democratic health, as it has routinely done, it would merely measure voting procedures against a narrow technical checklist. The problem with such a list is that it would create boundless opportunities for loopholes and political sleight of handsuch skulduggery has been going on in the United States, for starters, for the past 200 years. Senior OSCE officials believe it would effectively gut their organization and the work they have done for the past fifteen years.

And so the debate rages on. The moral of the story is that meaningful electoral reform is not only a burning issue here in the United States. The democratic future of much of the world could depend on it.

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