Foreign Officials Coming in Unprecedented Numbers to Monitor US Elections

In a move drawing fire from voter ID law supporters, the largest global election monitoring organization is sending an unprecedented number of observers to U.S. polling stations, paying particular attention to any signs of voter intimidation.

The website of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe says that more than 100 parliamentarians from Europe and Central Asia will travel to the United States to monitor the Nov. 6 elections.

The site says it is “the largest Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe parliamentary delegation to ever observe a North American election.”

The move comes at a time when Democrats and Republicans have engaged in bitter battles nationwide over voter ID laws and voter registration investigations that Republicans say are necessary because of fraud, but which Democrats call frivolous and meant to intimidate minorities. As is commonly the practice, the U.S. government invited the OSCE .

Civil rights group that oppose voter ID laws and voter registration investigations have urged OSCE to pay particular attention to voter suppression allegations regarding Colorado, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida, Texas, Virginia and Wisconsin, most of which are considered battleground states in the presidential election. The groups include the American Civil Liberties Union, or ACLU, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, or NAACP.

We are not coming to judge a result but to report about the process. In a country so well-known for its diverse citizenry, we will observe how inclusive the election process is.

— Joao Soares, head of the international group that is monitoring U.S. elections

"We are not coming to judge a result but to report about the process," said OSCE member Joao Soares, who is from Portugal and is leading the monitoring effort, in a statement on the group’s website. "In a country so well-known for its diverse citizenry, we will observe how inclusive the election process is in line with the country's own laws and international election commitments."

Several Republican political leaders and conservative groups have expressed outrage, saying that foreign citizens have no business monitoring U.S. polling places. Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott has threatened the OSCE with “criminal prosecution” if they come within 100 feet of the entrance of a polling site.

In a letter to OSCE, Abbott said: “OSCE has identified voter ID laws as a barrier to the right to vote. [Voter ID opponents] urged OSCE to monitor states that have taken steps to protect ballot integrity by enacting voter ID laws.”

“The OSCE may be entitled to its opinions about voter ID laws, but your opinion is legally irrelevant in the United States, where the Supreme Court has already determined that voter ID laws are constitutional… Groups and individuals from outside the United States are not allowed to influence or interfere with the election process in Texas.”

The threat of criminal prosecution prompted outrage in Janez Lenarcic, the director of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), who contacted U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton about Abbott's letter.

“The threat of criminal sanctions against OSCE/ODIHR observers is unacceptable,” Lenarcic said. “The United States, like all countries in the OSCE, has an obligation to invite ODIHR observers to observe its elections. Our observers are required to remain strictly impartial and not to intervene in the voting process in any way. They are in the United States to observe these elections, not to interfere in them.”

An interim report by OSCE on its U.S. monitoring effort says: "Recent state-level legislative initiatives to limit early voting and introduce stricter voter identification have become highly polarized. Democrats are concerned that these would disenfranchise eligible voters, while Republicans believe they are necessary to protect the integrity of the vote."

U.S. Rep. Connie Mack of Florida, a Republican, has said that such monitoring “should be reserved for third-world countries, banana republics and fledgling democracies.”

Mack, and some other critics of the international monitoring effort, have also directed their anger at the United Nations – the OSCE is registered as an non-governmental organization, or NGO, by the United Nations.

Mack, who is chairman of the House Western Hemisphere Subcommittee, said: “Every American should be outraged by this news. . .the only ones who should ever oversee American elections are Americans.”

The OSCE has monitored U.S. elections since 2002, when the Bush administration invited the group to visit the polling stations. But never has it carried out the monitoring amid such intense accusations and counter-accusations by Republicans and Democrats over unethical and illegal activities involving voters.

“In the face of these sophisticated and pervasive efforts involving voter suppression, voter intimidation and charges of voter fraud, we decided that it was important that an international monitoring organization observe and report back,” said Scott Westbrook Simpson, press secretary for The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, which is based in Washington D.C.

The first voter ID law was passed as early as 2003, but momentum has picked up in recent years. In 2011 alone, legislators in 34 states introduced bills requiring voters show photo ID — 14 of those states already had existing voter ID laws but lawmakers sought to toughen statutes, mainly to require proof of photo identification.

Indiana, Georgia, Tennessee, Kansas and Pennsylvania have the toughest versions. These states won't allow voters to cast a regular ballot without first showing valid photo ID. Other states with photo ID laws offer some more flexibility by providing voters with several alternatives.

“The truth is if we want to stand by our role as a beacon of democracy, this shouldn’t be a problem,” Simpson said. “People shouldn’t be afraid of having monitors that are federal and international to see how our democracy works.”