OSCE to deploy more international observers to follow US election | US presidential elections 2016: What do I need to know? | DW | 06.09.2016
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US elections 2016

OSCE to deploy more international observers to follow US election

The OSCE will sharply increase the number of international observers to monitor the US elections. The move reflects voting law changes, concerns about the reliability of electronic voting and the conduct of the campaign.

Following an official invitation to observe the US general election in November and an in-country assessment in May, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) plans to deploy 100 long-term and 400 short-term observers to the US this fall. The mission will also include a media monitoring element and will be complimented by a core team of analysts.

While the long-term observers are slated to follow the election process across the country already before election day, the short-term observers are tasked with monitoring the polls on election day only. Election observers are usually seconded for the mission by OSCE participating states.

Four years ago the OSCE deployed 44 long-term observers across the country as well as a core team of 13 experts to monitor the 2012 US election. No short-term contingent was sent for what was considered a "limited mission."

The decision to bolster the mission and add a long-term contingent this year is based on the results of the in-country "needs assessment" visit earlier this year, Thomas Rymer, the spokesperson for the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), told DW. ODIHR carries out the election observation missions in OSCE participating countries like the US. The US mission is scheduled to begin in October.

During its assessment visit to the US, ODIHR specialists met with officials and representatives from 27 institutions including federal and state governments, political parties, civil society and the media to discuss election monitoring options based on needs identified.

An elections supervisor shows a ballot to observers during the count of provisional ballots in Sanford, Florida in 2012

The OSCE will deploy short-term observers on election day

Voting laws and electronic voting

As a result of that assessment the observers will focus on changes in state laws regarding voting registration and identification and so-called new voting technologies, explained Rymer. "Those things in particular, the needs assessment mission felt, could be better observed and assessed with the presence of short-term observers who would actually be in polling stations watching voting procedures on election day."

The issue of voter registration and identification has become an increasingly controversial topic since the US Supreme Court in 2013 invalidated parts of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, a landmark ruling instituted to prevent racial discrimination in voting.

Democrats generally worry that strict voter registration and identification requirements could lead to the disenfranchisement of minority voters. Republicans generally argue that strict voter registration and identification rules are necessary to prevent widespread voter fraud. A recent study found that voter fraud is not a widespread problem. While most US states require some sort of voter identification when voting, what is accepted as identification varies between the states.

The reliability of so-called new voting technologies is another key issue monitored by ODIHR observers during their mission, since a number of US representatives, according to the assessment report, had expressed concerns over the "reliability and security" of those systems, "mainly due their age." Various forms of new voting technologies - such as electronic voting machines, ballot scanners, etc. - are used in many states.

Media monitoring

As part of their mandate, the international observers will also be monitoring how US media cover the election. To do that eight or nine monitors will evaluate "what kind of information voters are being provided with," said Rymer, for instance by following the major television networks.

"Social media play a bigger and bigger role in the US context, so they will also be followed," Rymer explained. "Of interest here is the messaging and the tone of that, and I think that will also be an issue that we would look at."

ODIHR's assessment reports states that some US interlocutors "noted concerns about negative stereotyping of women and an increase of inflammatory speech targeting minorities."

Asked whether the contentious nature of the US presidential campaign and statements by Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump that he fears the election could be "rigged" might impact or complicate the work of ODHIR's election observers, Rymer said, he did not think so: "We have a methodology we follow, and so we apply the same methodology in any election we observe. Some elections are more contentious and hard fought than others."

A woman submits her ballot at in Middleton, Wisconsin in 2010

The reliability of electronic voting systems is an issue

No election cops

"We are not the election cops, but we observe and assess the way the actual election cops do their jobs," Rymer added.

While ODHIR's mission does not require the support of the political parties and candidates, but from the country's electoral authorities, communication with the parties and candidates is certainly welcome and helpful, said Rymer. "If they have a difficulty or they feel that there is something in that process that isn't following the rules, then that often comes to us."

The Clinton campaign did not respond to a request for comment. The Trump campaign referred to its events with open press availability.

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