Germany's election is being assessed by an OSCE team for the first time in history.
For the first time in history, OSCE assessors are looking at the German election
Armin Rabitsch and Elena Gnedina are political scientists working on their PhDs, but over the past week they have been roaming around western Germany assessing the national election on behalf of the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe, or OSCE.
Elena, who is working for the OSCE for the first time, says that she's been surprised at how much work the job entails - even in a country like Germany.
"It's been a long week and a long day, but happily we have made it to the evening" she confided late on election Sunday. "We have been through every single procedure from the opening of the polling stations, then going to different polling stations to see the various ways people vote, then we also came back here for the counting and now we will also oversee how all documents get collected together, and how the data gets transferred to the next level."
In the run up to the vote, Armin and Elena travelled around three of Germany's states, meeting with election officials, political parties, candidates and the general public.
Assessing, not observing
Among other things, the OSCE will look for ways to help Germany reduce its 60 million euro election price tag
Armin, who is from Austria, and Elena, from Russia, make up one of the four roving teams touring Germany as part of the OSCE mission, with a further four observers based permanently in the capital, Berlin. Twelve assessors would normally be a very small team to monitor an election in a country with roughly 62 million eligible voters, but the German election mission has different goals than usual.
This OSCE visit is classed as an "assessment" mission, not as an "election observation" mission, so the investigation focuses far more heavily on the underpinnings of the German vote than on issues like election fraud or vote counting irregularities.
"I think there's no electoral system which is perfect," Armin Rabitsch says. "We always come up with some recommendations, we might find some contradictions, and we write a final report which is then used for the electoral stakeholders in a given country to improve the electoral framework for the next elections."
In talks with politicians, electoral commissions and the general public, the OSCE team focus far more on the administrative side of the ballot. They are looking for ways Germany can improve efficiency, reduce costs and make campaigning regulations more fair.
Their questions generally have relatively little to do with the vote-counting process.
In the city of Mainz they asked questions such as these: How can homeless people apply to vote without an address? What rules must political parties adhere to in their campaigning? Were any would-be election candidates denied the chance to run for office, and why? How many people in this constituency "split" their two votes between different parties? Is the significance of the two separate votes that a German can cast understood by the general public? Can a voter who marks his ballot sheet and then changes his mind before submitting it get a replacement form? When is the deadline for voter registration? How can people lose their right to vote, and does this happen often?
Are the ballots too confusing? Do people know what their votes mean?
Some people in Germany had suggested that the OSCE's presence was patronizing, that the country didn't need any advice on how to run elections, however, the assessors came here on Germany's invitation. They were also invited to Germany in 2002, but then the OSCE couldn't spare the resources to send a team.
"This is standard practice; we have had observers in other established democracies such as France, Italy, Great Britain, the United States, and others," explains OSCE chief spokesman Jens Eschenbaecher. "We have not had an observer team in Germany so far, although we had been invited in the past as well, so we are very happy that this time we could positively respond to the invitation and send a small expert team."
Armin was part of the OSCE mission to the US last year, helping the monitoring team in the state of Florida. He says that, as a political scientist, Florida was one of the most interesting places imaginable to observe an election, given the key role the state has played in recent US votes. Armin was also excited about seeing an election take place in Germany, a nation so close to his native Austria. He said that OSCE experts also learn from the countries they assess.
"It's give and take. It's not a one-sided highway of information flow. We try to bring in our knowledge and experience, but we also take on knowledge and experience for our own countries. And I think that's best practice, because our team is not neutral election experts from Mars, we all come from our own countries, whether they are Austria, Uzbekistan or Kazakhstan or Macedonia."
Elena has never had such an up-close and personal encounter with an election in action, and she is overwhelmed by the organization and coordination involved in collecting and counting well over 40 million votes.
"Everything was very quick, considering that it's a huge logistical effort for people to organize elections in every single village, in every single city. That was really surprising how all procedures were done at the right time by the right people."
The OSCE's final report is due in roughly two months, and it will offer non-binding recommendations that Germany could implement for its next general elections.
Author: Mark Hallam
Editor: Nancy Isenson