WASHINGTON – The foreign election monitors invited to observe the 2004 presidential elections by Secretary of State Colin Powell are not the only members of an international delegation in the U.S. for the purpose of examining the political process in action this fall.
In addition to the delegation from the Vienna-based Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, a 55-nation body that encourages all member countries to observe each others’ elections, a team of 20 independent “democracy experts” from 15 countries and five continents has arrived in the United States to observe this year’s presidential election campaign.
The election monitors, invited by the San Francisco activist group “Global Exchange,” will be deployed in five states watching for evidence of “disenfranchisement.”
The five states include Florida, Ohio, Arizona, Missouri and Georgia, according to Global Exchange. Florida was selected due to the controversy that erupted there in the 2000 elections; Georgia because it is one of only two states where voters will use only touch-screen voting machines. Arizona was picked because elections there are publicly financed, while Missouri was the scene of widespread reports of Republican efforts to suppress the black vote in 2000. Ohio was also of interest because it is expected to be one of the most hotly contested battleground states in this year’s election.
“The potential for minority and specific groups to be disenfranchised, that’s certainly … a concern that needs to be closely looked at,” said David MacDonald, a former minister of communications and secretary of state in Canada, to OneWorld.net.
Several of the Global Exchange observers stressed that U.S. officials should not be offended by their presence.
“I think it’s productive that America should also invite observers because, if we judge ourselves, we wouldn’t be judged,” said Damaso Magbual, deputy secretary general of the National Citizens Movement for Free Elections in the Philippines. “We may think we are the best, (but) it’s always best to have others see to have others see it from an outside perspective, to find out how things are.”
Global Exchange said the delegation marks the first major effort by a non-governmental organization to monitor U.S. election processes.
“In all places, there is a need for sharing experiences, and there is always room to improve,” said Horacio Boneo, an Argentine professor who has taken part in electoral assistance and observation in more than 60 countries and is one of the United Nations’ top advisers on elections.
Other observers, with similar qualifications, hail from Australia, England, Chile, Ghana, India, Ireland, Mexico, Nicaragua, Thailand, Wales and Zambia.
“Many of us in this room have worked for many, many years in different situations and in different countries,” said Brigalia Bam, one of the observers who also chairs South Africa’s Independent Electoral Commission at a press conference at the National Press Club. “It is that experience that has brought us to the United States.” She said all elections should be assessed by the degree to which they are “responsive, transparent, and fair.”
The Global Exchange group hopes to meet with local and state election authorities as well as with civic groups that are also involved in getting out the vote and ensuring a fair election.
State Department officials stressed that the OSCE delegation will not have the authority to assess the fairness of the vote, but it will be expected to issue a report on any problems or shortcomings as part of a new program for all OSCE members.
That invitation drew praise from more than a dozen Democratic lawmakers who had asked U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan to dispatch observers to the November elections earlier this summer.
In a letter to Annan, which the U.N. subsequently referred back to Powell, the lawmakers said they were concerned about the possibility of irregularities in the 2004 balloting.
“Given the deeply troubling events of the 2000 election, the growing concerns about the lack of necessary reforms and potential abuse in the 2004 election,” the lawmakers wrote, “we believe that the engagement of international election monitors can be the catalyst to expedite the necessary reform, as well as reduce the likelihood of questionable practices and voter disenfranchisement on Election Day.”
The congressional initiative to bring in foreign observers was spearheaded by Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas. She asked Powell to make an official request that the U.N. provide observers for the Nov. 2 elections in the United States to “ensure free and fair elections.”
Previously, the 13 Democratic congressmen, led by Johnson, sent a letter July 8 to the U.N. general secretary requesting the presence of U.N. representatives in every county of the country during the voting process and any vote recount afterward.
The U.N. immediately responded that such a request could not be accepted unless it came from the U.S. government. Otherwise, a spokesman said, it could be considered “intervention in a country’s sovereignty.”
Besides Johnson, the congressional signers to the original U.N. letters included Julia Carson of Indiana, Jerrold Nadler, Edolphus Towns, Joseph Crowley and Carolyn B. Maloney, all of New York, Raul Grijalva of Arizona, Corrine Brown of Florida, Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland, Danny K. Davis of Illinois, and Michael M. Honda and Barbara Lee of California.