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Failing the Electoral Standards | The Nation

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Failing the Electoral Standards

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The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has been monitoring elections in emerging democracies ever since the fall of the Berlin wall, but now it has done something different and uniquely controversial. It has turned its attention to the United States, issuing a report that highlights numerous areas in which this past November's presidential and Congressional elections failed to meet international standards.

About the Author

Andrew Gumbel
Andrew Gumbel is the author of Steal This Vote: Dirty Elections and the Rotten History of Democracy in America (Nation...

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2008 will go down as a year activists were able to keep a rotten electoral system honest.

It's clear that efforts to protect voters rights are working this time--in Virginia, Florida and Ohio.

One would have thought the voter reform movement in this country would jump at the chance to see the United States judged by the same criteria as Ukraine, Georgia or Kyrgyzstan--especially since the report finds it badly wanting. Here, in black and white, is authoritative proof that the disenfranchisement of ex-felons, the uneven rules applied to provisional balloting, the unreliability of voter registration procedures and the dual role of election supervisors who also help run partisan political campaigns are not merely objectionable but also violate international norms to which the United States, as a participating member of the fifty-five-nation OSCE, is a leading signatory.

And yet the OSCE's twenty-nine-page report, published in April has not generated a single column inch in any US newspaper. There are both good and bad reasons for this. For a start, the report has come out five months after the election, virtually guaranteeing its lack of topicality. It is also written in excruciatingly careful prose, belying the pointedness of its conclusions. There is no summary sentence stating explicitly that the United States has failed to meet its international commitments. (That has to be inferred.) Nor does it allude to the fact that Ohio was just a few tens of thousands of votes away from another Florida-style meltdown. This is a document that takes every conceivable step to avoid being controversial, even as it delivers its damning assessment.

Therein, though, lies the real story. The OSCE report has been the hottest of political hot potatoes for months, its reticence the result of an escalating diplomatic battle pitting the United States against the countries of the former Soviet Union, not unlike the cold war standoffs of old.

OSCE sources complain that US officials made "inappropriate" phone calls in the run-up to the report's publication, in the hope that its conclusions would not come down too hard on the dysfunctions of its electoral system. Russia and the other former Soviet republics, meanwhile, have accused both the United States and the OSCE itself of a glaring double standard--making no bones about criticizing the conduct of their elections (in Georgia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and, most recently, Kyrgyzstan) while skirting over the inadequacies of voting in the world's sole remaining superpower.

There is far more to this debate than mere diplomatic brick-throwing. At stake is the integrity of the single most powerful institution pressing for global democratization--a phenomenon President Bush professes to cherish these days. There is little doubt that the reason the Russians, Belarusians and the rest want to get the OSCE off their backs is that they are terrified of a Ukraine-style democratic uprising in their own autocratic backyards. (Kiev's Orange Revolution was sparked, in part, by a withering OSCE election report, as was the popular revolt against Eduard Shevardnadze in Georgia.) But the reason they feel able to protest so vehemently comes right back to the United States and the fact that this country's electoral house is in such manifest disarray.

The Russians have been banging the "double standard" drum ever since their own OSCE observers saw Florida's electronic voting machines melt down during the 2002 midterms--a fiasco less well remembered than the punch-card disaster of 2000 but one that has poisoned just about every effort at electoral reform since. The Americans, admittedly, did not help themselves when, at an OSCE meeting on international election standards right after the Florida primary, they refused to acknowledge the slightest flaw in their domestic system.

OSCE officials sought to get around the mounting fracas in a couple of ways. First, they indicated they would entertain the possibility of much bigger election observation missions to the United States in the future. And then they commissioned a report drawing up universal standards applicable to all democracies, both emerging and established. This report came out in October 2003 and, to the attentive reader at least, suggested eleven areas in which the United States was falling short--the failure to establish nationwide voting procedures, the felon problem, the inequitable distribution of voting machines in poorer areas, the lack of money and media time accorded to third-party candidates, and so on.

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