Failing the Electoral Standards | The Nation


Failing the Electoral Standards

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The international tensions, though, continued to mount. By 2004 the OSCE's reports on the former Soviet zone were proving so incendiary that President Putin personally ordered his OSCE ambassador to make the neutering of the OSCE's election monitoring division his top priority.

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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.

In response, the OSCE seriously considered a full-scale observation of the Bush-Kerry presidential race, which would have involved hundreds of international monitors spread out across the entire country. The treacherous waters of US politics, however, made this option next to impossible, not least because the person pushing hardest for a major monitoring mission, the president of OSCE's parliamentary assembly, turned out to be a black Democratic Congressman from Florida, Alcee Hastings. The OSCE realized a full-scale mission could easily be misinterpreted as a partisan assault on the Republicans, so it backed off.

It opted instead for a so-called "targeted observation mission," focusing on just a handful of districts in swing states. Even this, though, ran into trouble. No European government wanted to risk the wrath of the United States by offering up observers--the whole EU ended up providing just two people, both from the Netherlands--and barely any state or county officials in this country wanted to allow the OSCE near their polling stations, even though they had a commitment to grant access under the terms of the OSCE's founding 1990 Copenhagen agreement.

The OSCE appealed to both the State Department and the National Association of Secretaries of States for help, only to be told there was nothing either of them could do. As a result, the OSCE deployment on November 2 was patchy at best in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida and a couple of less contentious states.

The Russians were not impressed. At a high-level meeting in Sofia last December, the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, denounced the OSCE as a divisive and dishonest organization. "Election monitoring is not only ceasing to make sense," he said, "but is also becoming an instrument of political manipulation and a destabilizing factor."

The delay in publication of the OSCE's final report on the US election only infuriated the Russians and their allies further. At this point they are threatening to withhold their portion of the OSCE budget unless the whole institution is restructured, starting with its election monitoring division. The actual content of the US report does not appear to have mollified them.

The Russians want the OSCE to prune back its monitoring procedures, so that instead of taking stock of the target country's overall democratic health, as it has routinely done, it would merely measure voting procedures against a narrow technical checklist. The problem with such a list is that it would create boundless opportunities for loopholes and political sleight of hand--such skulduggery has been going on in the United States, for starters, for the past 200 years. Senior OSCE officials believe it would effectively gut their organization and the work they have done for the past fifteen years.

And so the debate rages on. The moral of the story is that meaningful electoral reform is not only a burning issue here in the United States. The democratic future of much of the world could depend on it.

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