State Threats to International Election Observers Symptom of American Exceptionalism
Multiple states, including Arizona, Iowa and Ohio, plan to make certain international election observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) go nowhere near state polling places on Election Day. At least three states, Arizona, Iowa and Texas, have warned observers they could be criminalized for being within one hundred feet of polling places.
The OSCE is a body, which the United States is a founding member. Observers have been sent to the United States to observe US elections since 2002. But, now, Republicans in states where voter suppression could potentially occur are suggesting to Americans these people are here to violate American sovereignty as part of some left-wing ACORN conspiracy.
On October 23, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott wrote a letter to the OSCE informing them that Texas would use state codes and the law to ensure observers were prevented from accessing polling places. Abbott stated, “It may be a criminal offense for OSCE’s representatives to maintain a presence within 100 feet of a polling place’s entrance. Failure to comply with these requirements could subject the OSCE’s representatives to criminal prosecution for violating state law.”
The motivation for threatening observers stemmed from Abbott’s disgust with the fact that OSCE had met with Project Vote in April, a group “closely affiliated with ACORN, which collapsed in disgrace after its role in a widespread voter registration fraud scheme.” Project Vote challenged Texas’ voter registration regulations but that challenge was rejected. OSCE identified “Voter ID laws as a barrier to the right to vote” and Project Vote wrote a letter urging OSCE to “monitor states that have taken steps to protect ballot integrity by enacting Voter ID laws.” He called the international observers’ opinion “legally irrelevant” in the United States,
Naturally, the threat prompted a response from Ambassador Janez Lenar?i?, the Director of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR). The ambassador stated the threat was “at odds with the established good co-operation between OSCE/ODIHR observers and state authorities across the United States, including in Texas.” The threat ran contrary to Texas’ obligations as a participating state.
In a letter to the State Department, Lenar?i? said, “The threat of criminal sanctions against OSCE/ODIHR observers is unacceptable. “The United States, like all countries in the OSCE, has an obligation to invite ODIHR observers to observe its elections.”
The letter to the State Department prompted Abbott to write to the State Department. He contended, “It appears that OSCE is under the misimpression that the State Department can somehow help its representatives circumvent the Texas Election Code.” Abbott went on:
…I am also concerned that an unnecessary political agenda may have infected OSCE’s election monitoring activities. The OSCE has published policy recommendations and other reports that raise objections to state laws that prohibit convicted felons from voting, prevent voter registration fraud, and require voters to present a photo identification at the polling place. The OSCE may object to photo identification laws and prohibitions on felons voting-but our nation’s Supreme Court has upheld both laws as entirely consistent with the U.S. Constitution…
Abbott found he had exposed hypocrisy when he realized the OSCE representative leading the limited observation mission “hails from the Netherlands, which has a photo identification law for voters.”
State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland responded to Abbott on October 26 by saying, “Election observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) have immunity from US laws.” The State Department did not anticipate having to invoke those immunities as OSCE and Texas were “in communication.” Nuland dismissed any idea that these observers were here to undermine American sovereignty and noted OSCE reports are not legally binding but rather the product of observation.
Cynthia Aikon, an associate professor of law at the Texas Wesleyan University in Fort Worth, Texas, who worked with the OSCE and previously served as an election observer in Albania, hit back at Abbott in a Fort Worth Star Telegram op-ed on October 29, where she stated Abbott is “clearly unfamiliar with the common international practice of observing democratic elections.” Aikon continued:
…Texas will not be inundated with foreigners “interfering” at every polling place. At most, we will see a few highly professional and experienced observers who will watch and not interfere in the election process in any way…
I’m left to wonder, however, why anyone would be worried about a few folks wandering around watching an election.
Vibrant democracies should not worry about conducting elections in the open for all to see. If Abbott is, as he says, proud of the “measures Texas has implemented to protect the integrity of elections” he should be equally proud to have any and all come watch the process firsthand…
Aikon also plainly stated, “Just as we expect our citizens to be free from arrest and prosecution when monitoring elections abroad, we must guarantee the same to citizens of other nations serving as election observers in the U.S. — Texas included.”
Neither the State Department nor Aikon’s op-ed stopped the hysteria. Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery sent a letter on October 26 warning he would not be permitting foreign observers in polling places. John Husted, Ohio Secretary of State, wrote a letter reminding OSCE their observers were not approved in state law and so were expressly prohibited. On October 31, Iowa Secretary of State Matt Schultz also threatened to criminalize observers, who came to close to polling places.
In Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, the Philly Inquirer reported that “a leading Republican was urging state officials to bar the group from exercising “fraudulent or corrupt influence” at the polls. According to the Inquirer, “State Rep. Daryl Metcalfe (R., Butler) said he didn’t think the international group had any authority to enter polling places in Pennsylvania.“ Metcalfe, a lead sponsor of voter ID legislation, declared in a letter to Secretary of the Commonwealth Carol Aichele, “United Nations monitors have no right or jurisdiction whatsoever to intrude upon the sanctity or integrity of the commonwealth’s election process.” To which a spokepserson for Aichele replied, “Counties run elections in Pennsylvania…We have nothing to hide and we are proud of the elections process.”
Republican nominee for Attorney General in Missouri used the possibility of foreigners “meddling” in elections to score political points:
…When I saw that Missouri was listed as a location for these monitors, I became alarmed. I am grateful that other Attorneys General in the United States have objected to these monitors.
However, I am now deeply concerned, as are many of the citizens of Missouri, that our Missouri Attorney General, Chris Koster, has done nothing to stop the intrusion of these United Nations monitors into our sovereign state of Missouri. Our Attorney General has ONCE AGAIN chosen NOT TO DEFEND the Citizens of Missouri from this violation to our state…
In his idiotic bluster, he added, “When I am Attorney General, I will not yield our state sovereignty to anyone – not the State Department, not the United Nations, not the U.S. Attorney General’s Office and not any other Federal Government agency. When the rights of Missourians and our state sovereignty are at stake, I will fight back.”
The day before Election Day Secretary of State Natelie E. Tennant in West Virginia said reports of “UN Election Observers” being permitted in polling places were untrue. In Alabama, Secretary of State Beth Chapman’s office stated, “Anyone in any polling place who is approached by or observing anyone from the OSCE” should call her election hotline. House Speaker Mike Hubbard indicated he “would support legislation to prohibit non-US citizens from observing Alabama elections.”
In contrast, both Virginia and South Carolina indicated they would accept observers without hysteria. Chris Whitmire, spokesperson for the South Carolina Election Commission, reported OSCE observers were expected. South Carolina had pushed a voter ID law that had not taken effect. He said, “Whoever wants to come observe South Carolina elections, we welcome them.” South Carolina did not have the same concerns Texas did. “We want our election to be as open as possible.” And, president of the Virginia Electoral Board Association Renee Andrews invited the observers to Falls Church.
Where there’s right wing hysteria, there is Fox News punditry. Bill O’Reilly, Kimberly Guilfoyle, Dennis Miller, Lou Dobbs, and Dick Morris each provided xenophobic coverage; in particular, Miller said the “monitors” would “make sure Jews don’t vote.”
The OSCE mission is a “limited observation” mission. It conducted full observation missions in 2008 in Belarus, Georgia, Montenegro and Azerbaijan. In 2008, the two missions that were “limited observation” were in the US and Serbia.
Now, it should be pointed out these observers are not really from the United Nations, but there’s a strain of conservatism that loathes the UN and thinks it wants to make the US submit to world government. Additionally, one could argue this should be ignored as completely lunatic. Yet, when these exact same people would support sending election observers to other countries to make sure they were actually holding democratic elections, it reveals the sense of exceptionalism these pundits and officials in government have. To them, America is not one of those countries that need observers for elections because it is open, free and fair. There is no truth to reports of tens of thousands of people of color being disenfranchised in recent US elections.
Also, those decrying the presence of observers are the same people who would be outraged if it was found out that Hugo Chavez or anyone tied to Chavez had not allowed elections to be observed. People being threatened with arrest would have been a clear sign to them that Chavez was stealing the election to maintain his role as “dictator.”
What the observers are doing is far from meddling, as the observers are not going to engage in any conduct that would influence the outcome. In contrast, the US government does engage in meddling. From Noam Chomsky’s Hopes and Prospects, “After a popular uprising restored the elected government, Washington immediately turned to funding groups of its choice within Venezuela while refusing to identify recipients: $26 million by 2006 for the new program after the failed coup attempt, all under the guise of supporting democracy. “ Law professor Bill Monning at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California said, “We would scream bloody murder if any outside force were interfering in our internal political system.”
Truth is, America is the greatest democracy on Earth, the world’s last hope, and the indispensable nation to these people until outsiders press for transparency, openness and international cooperation. Then, they recoil inward and urge protection of the homeland from any foreign eyes so that nobody can judge whether the US is truly democratic or not.