Politics & Policy

U.S. Elections and Foreign Observers

George W. Bush invited the OSCE here in 2004, and it has produced reliable election reports.

Some conservatives became outraged last week at news reports the United Nations was sending observers to monitor our presidential elections. Representative Connie Mack, the GOP nominee for U.S. Senate in Florida, was livid: “The very idea that the United Nations — the world body dedicated to diminishing America’s role in the world — would be allowed, if not encouraged, to install foreigners sympathetic to the likes of Castro, Chávez, Ahmadinejad, and Putin to oversee our elections is nothing short of disgusting.”

Soon it was clarified that the 57 planned observers won’t be from the United Nations, but instead from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe — a U.N.-affiliated but separate organization of which Cuba, Venezuela, and Iran are not members. Vladimir Putin’s Russia is part of the OSCE but has been severely criticized by the group for human-rights violations.

This clarification did little to mollify critics. Attorney General Greg Abbott of Texas sent a letter to the OSCE warning that its representatives cannot legally enter a polling place and that it “may be a criminal offense for OSCE’s representatives to maintain a presence within 100 feet of a polling place’s entrance.” Greta Van Susteren of Fox News complained: “The election is none of their business. We ought to be able to police our own election.” The ACLU would be a more appropriate election monitor, she suggested, because it’s made up of Americans.

Oh, please. Spare us the ACLU. There are legitimate concerns about the election monitors, but I think the bashing of foreigners is a bit much. It’s certainly true that Freedom Watch lists twelve of the 44 countries that make up OSCE as “not free” or “partly free,” and it’s certainly offensive to let the likes of repressive Belarus try to exact revenge for U.S. criticism of their sham elections.

But there is nothing new in having the OSCE here. It was George W. Bush who first invited the group, in 2004, to observe U.S. elections. Representative Mack claims that election monitoring “should be reserved for third-world countries, banana republics, and fledging democracies.”

Well, no. The 2000 Bush v. Gore Supreme Court case exposed to the rest of the world the fact that Florida and some other U.S. states have sloppy election systems that are far less advanced than, say, countries such as Mexico.

Ever since the emergence of multiparty democracy in Mexico in 2000, that country has required voters to present a photo ID, write a signature, and give a thumbprint. The ID that voters carry includes a picture with a hologram covering it, a magnetic strip, and a serial number to guard against tampering. To cast a ballot, voters must present the card and be certified by a thumbprint scanner.

Of course, the concern of Texas’s attorney general is that the OSCE will focus not on ballot security but on so-called voter suppression. The OSCE has “reportedly met with organizations that have filed lawsuits challenging election integrity laws enacted by the Texas legislature,” Abbott noted on October 23 in a letter to the OSCE. Further, he objected:

One of these organizations, Project Vote, is closely affiliated with ACORN, which collapsed in disgrace after its role in a widespread voter-registration-fraud scheme was uncovered. . . . According to a letter that Project Vote and other organizations sent to you, OSCE has identified voter ID laws as a barrier to the right to vote. That letter urged OSCE to monitor states that have taken steps to protect ballot integrity by enacting Voter ID laws.

It is a legitimate concern that the OSCE and voters themselves will give too much credence to exaggerated claims that voter-ID laws disenfranchise voters. But I think such claims deserve a response: Evidence shows that voter-ID laws do not decrease minority turnout. Georgia has had a photo-ID law for more than five years, and in both the 2008 and 2010 elections, the turnout of African Americans and Hispanic voters rose dramatically nationwide, and the rate of increase in Georgia was even greater. The same was true in Indiana, which has one of the strictest voter-ID laws in the country, according to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In the past, the OSCE observers have issued solid reports that relied neither on hearsay nor on anecdotal evidence. In the report of the group’s Election Observation Mission on the 2004 U.S. presidential election it found that:

The EOM noted concerns, mainly by several African-American voters’ advocacy groups but also reported in the national media, regarding the so-called suppression of the vote. This term was used to describe the allegedly intentional effort to decrease minority voter participation through administrative shortcomings, such as inaccurate voter registers, purges of the voter register intended to remove ex-felons but which removed non felons, inaccurate voter information, and cases of voter intimidation. Other than press reports, the EOM was not aware of such instances and was not able to identify any first-hand evidence for alleged vote suppression. . . . While recognizing the seriousness of such allegations, the EOM was not provided with substantial evidence that such practices existed.

As for its mission this year, there are signs that the OSCE will prevent U.S.-bashers from having free rein to criticize U.S. elections.

This week, Russian foreign-ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich bitterly criticized the OSCE for its “strange attitude” toward monitoring the U.S. election, evident, he said, in its plan to send only a small team of observers. “Our efforts for organizing full-fledged control of the voting by the OSCE have failed to meet with the understanding of that organization’s leadership.” He noted that there will be only one Russian delegate in the group’s 57-person team.

I am confident that the voter-ID laws and other ballot protections that are in place in many U.S. states will not disenfranchise voters; on the contrary, they will increase public confidence in the integrity of our elections.

Given the hyper-partisan rhetoric of the ACLU, the NAACP, and the Advancement Project in denouncing sensible steps to clean up our election process, I’ll take my chances on having foreign observers come in and look at things dispassionately. But if they don’t find evidence of “voter suppression,” don’t expect to hear much about their conclusions in the mainstream media.

— John Fund is national-affairs columnist for NRO and a co-author of the newly released Who’s Counting? How Fraudsters and Bureaucrats Put Your Vote at Risk (Encounter Books).

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