U.S. Voting Under International Scrutiny

The United States, accustomed to giving advice on democracy, is in the unfamiliar position of getting some from international election observers schooled in Tajikistan, Ethiopia and other emerging democracies.

Two observer groups have been examining U.S. voting systems for compliance with international standards for free and fair elections. The very idea disgusts some Republicans, who say it sends a message of weakness and compromises U.S. sovereignty. Some Democrats say the scrutiny is overdue.

Former President Carter, for one, has said some U.S. voting systems don't meet international standards "even as many other nations are conducting elections that are internationally certified to be transparent, honest and fair."

The observers already have found problems typical in countries with far less than 200 years of voting experience.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (search), a 55-state security group, said ballot secrecy is at risk because of the way some overseas ballots are being handled. The Bush administration invited the OSCE observers as part of a standing agreement among member states.

David MacDonald, a Canadian member of a team organized by the San Francisco human rights group Global Exchange (search), said observers were shocked to find that partisan officials run U.S. elections.

Requiring election officers to be nonpartisan "is as close as you can get in democratic or electoral terms to a universal norm," MacDonald said after visiting Missouri, where Secretary of State Matt Blunt, a Republican, is the chief electoral officer and a candidate for governor. "There are some very serious problems that need to be addressed."

The two organizations' teams represent the largest effort yet by foreign observers to watch a U.S. election, though it's small compared to the armies of lawyers and volunteers recruited by the political parties and civic groups to watch the polls on Election Day, Nov. 2.

The OSCE, which has assigned more than 100 observers to the task, declined to make any of them available for interviews before a news conference Thursday. But it catalogued potential problems in a preliminary report issued Sept. 28.

The report said touch-screen machines that don't print paper ballots for use during a possible recount could delay the election outcome beyond Nov. 2 and create more, not less, controversy.

It faulted procedures with absentee and provisional ballots, cited reports of voter intimidation and disenfranchisement, and criticized moves by a few states to allow overseas and military voters to fax rather than mail completed ballots.

The report also noted that many of the reforms envisioned by an election assistance law enacted after the disputed 2000 presidential election won't be in place by Nov. 2, and raised concerns that the right to vote "may not be evenly applied or protected throughout the country."

Whether U.S. voting systems meet international standards has been the subject of intense debate since major weaknesses were exposed during the recount of presidential ballots in Florida in 2000. United Nations guidelines call for an "independent electoral authority," and for systems that guarantee the will of the voters will be followed and counted equally. The OSCE specifies that vote-counting must be transparent and open to observation.

The observers' presence has drawn stinging criticism from some Republicans.

"What do foreign observers bring to American elections?" Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., wrote to constituents. "We are not a country suppressed by tyranny and aggression; we are a free nation built upon a foundation of citizen democracy."

Democratic Party attorney Bob Bauer said the presence of foreign election monitors along with observers from civic groups will help the party ensure access to the polls. Some Democrats failed in an attempt to bring in U.N. monitors.

"We're all essentially trying to assure that the laws are followed and the rights of voters are respected," he said. "So we view them as doing work that is entirely compatible with our own."