US Elections 2016

Polls to draw hundreds of foreign observers

An early voter recording the event in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on Wednesday. For the first time, the Organisation of American States will send 30 to 40 observers to monitor the ballot on Nov 8, and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Euro
An early voter recording the event in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on Wednesday. For the first time, the Organisation of American States will send 30 to 40 observers to monitor the ballot on Nov 8, and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which has been sending small groups of observers to US elections since 2002, hopes to field hundreds this year.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Spike in interest is another sign that this year's contest is unlike any other

WASHINGTON • The world will be watching from close-up when the United States chooses its new president next month, as foreign election observers fan out to polling places across the country.

For the first time, the Organisation of American States (OAS) will send 30 to 40 observers and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which has been sending small groups of observers to US elections since 2002, hopes to field hundreds.

Even Russia, where 63 US observers travelled for parliamentary elections last month, is considering sending people to watch Americans vote, according to Mr Yury Melnik, a spokesman for the Russian Embassy in Washington.

The plethora of poll-watchers - some of whom are veteran monitors in countries where voter fraud is rampant - is another sign that this year's contest is unlike any other. Usually, the US sends observers to countries where the vote is suspect. This year, America is on the receiving end of the scrutiny.

Accepting election observers is a requirement of the OSCE, and the US is a member of the organisation.

One reason is concern over new voter registration and identification laws passed by states and diminished Justice Department oversight since parts of the 1965 Voting Rights Act were struck down.

Adding to the spike in interest is the allegation by Republican nominee Donald Trump that the election could be "rigged". He has called on his supporters to go to polling places to act as a deterrent.

Mr Michael Shifter, president of Inter-American Dialogue, said: "It happens to coincide with a very bizarre process where we have one candidate who's raised the question of the election being rigged. That makes it particularly important and timely to do this."

Some argue more outside eyes are needed this year. Limits on the federal observer scheme run by the Justice Department means there will be fewer official US observers, said Mr Scott Simpson, a spokesman for the group. "On top of that, you have a presidential campaign run with racial and religious animus as primary hinges, and a candidate actively encouraging people to go to polls to challenge voters. This is a dangerous confluence of events that make a perfect storm for voting discrimination in 2016."

An OSCE assessment this year cited concerns with US campaign financing, new voting technology, polarised views over voter identification laws and restrictions on felons voting, among others.

Among the issues the OAS said it will assess are political participation by minorities, campaign financing and identification cards. It will also produce a report and suggest areas for improvement.

Deputy State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the presence of poll-watchers is a way of promoting free and fair elections in the region, adding that OAS observation will be a chance to show US dedication and support for "this important function of the institution".

Some of the foreign observers insist they will not intervene but will instead publish their observations in post-election reports and make suggestions to improve practices. "We are not policemen," said OSCE mission head Audrey Glover from Britain. "We would observe, and record if we see anything untoward happening."

One challenge, however, is getting permission to observe polling places. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 12 states prohibit international observers. Among them are Texas and Iowa, where in 2012 officials threatened to arrest OSCE monitors if they set foot in any polling place. Tennessee forbids observers from the United Nations, which has a partnership arrangement with the OSCE.

WASHINGTON POST

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 07, 2016, with the headline 'Polls to draw hundreds of foreign observers'. Print Edition | Subscribe