Despite warnings from several U.S. states that international observers would not be allowed to visit polling stations, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) completed its observation of the U.S. general elections this week, and in two separate press conferences issued pointed criticisms of the electoral system in the United States. In key respects, the OSCE found the U.S. election falling short of international standards.
In a press conference on Wednesday, the head of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR)’s observation mission, Ambassador Daan Everts, noted “broad public confidence” in the U.S. electoral system, but pointed out that there are “areas that clearly need further study and work.”
The main areas of concern for ODIHR include the accuracy and integrity of the voter registration system, which is overly decentralized and prone to mistakes; the voting rights of disenfranchised U.S. citizens including ex-felons and Americans who are not registered to vote; the politicized issue of voter identification, which is marked by a debate over integrity vs. access, and the campaign financing system, which is characterized by a lack of transparency and accountability.
An overriding concern of the observers appeared to be the tendency to disenfranchise various segments of the population, whether inadvertently by making voter registration a cumbersome process or intentionally, by stripping ex-felons of the right to vote. An estimated 5.9 million U.S. citizens are disenfranchised due to a criminal conviction including some 2 million who have served their sentences. In most states, felons can regain the right to vote after fulfilling their sentences, but in 12 (Alabama, Arizona, Delaware, Florida, Iowa, Kentucky, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, Tennessee, Virginia and Wyoming), felons may permanently lose their voting rights.
Everts stated that stripping ex-felons of their voting rights may be a violation of the U.S.’s international commitments as a member of the OSCE. “International norms,” he said, “require that those rights be restored after the completion of sentences.”
Another issue identified by the observers was regarding the enormous amount of money spent on the campaigns, which this year was estimated at $6 billion – by far the most money ever spent on a U.S. election (or an election anywhere in the world for that matter). Much of this money was funneled through so-called Super PACs, making it virtually untraceable and leading to a proliferation of misleading advertisements and attempts at voter suppression.
This lack of transparency “must be addressed,” said Everts.
With the electoral debacle of 2000 still on people’s minds, Everts acknowledged that fears remain of a prolonged election dispute due to the flawed system of election administration and vote-counting. Specifically, he pointed to the possibility of a Florida 2000 scenario playing out once again, and said that some states have not learned the appropriate lessons. Legislation is clearly needed to ameliorate the outdated election systems of certain states.
Indeed, with the 2012 Florida election still unresolved several days after the Nov. 6 balloting, Everts may have a point. The only reason that the U.S. was not subjected this year to a prolonged electoral dispute as it was in 2000, was that Obama had already clearly won the Electoral College votes without the state of Florida.
In conclusion, the ODIHR noted that despite the elections largely taking place “in a pluralistic environment,” decisions on technical aspects of the electoral process “were often unduly politicized.”
“Highly competitive campaigns were covered extensively in the media, allowing voters to make informed choices,” ODIHR concluded. “While characterized by broad public confidence, further steps should be taken to improve the electoral process, in areas such as voting rights, the accuracy of voter lists, campaign finance transparency, recount procedures, and access of international election observers.”
When it comes to the media environment – the fairness of which is considered an integral aspect of democratic elections – ODIHR observed “highly partisan” coverage on the cable news networks.
Both Obama and Romney received more negative than positive coverage, according to ODIHR’s analysis. Fox News dedicated 66 percent of its coverage to Obama, ODIHR found, and 34 percent to Romney. Coverage of Obama on Fox News was mostly negative in tone (72 percent), while MSNBC dedicated 34 percent of its coverage to Obama and 66 percent to Romney. Coverage of Romney on MSNBC was mostly negative in tone (87 percent).
Another problem identified by ODIHR was that broadcast media dedicated the greater part of their electoral coverage to non-substantive issues such as daily opinion polls and the holding of campaign events (64 percent), often at the expense of substantive discussion of policy (36 percent).
In a separate press conference on Nov. 8 the OSCE’s other election monitoring body, the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA), offered a somewhat rosier picture of U.S. elections, although also identified substantial problems. Joao Soares, the head of the OSCE PA’s election observation mission – which included some 100 members of parliament from across Europe – said that despite some concerns, the election was “yet another demonstration of the country’s commitment to democracy.”
He said among those concerns were the “often negative role” played by campaign financing and “the avalanche of paid advertisements,” which he described as “propaganda.” The OSCE PA observers also noted controversial legislation on voter ID and early voting, which it said had “a tendency to reduce confidence in the process.”
Despite those concerns, Soares said “things work very well here in the United States.” Regarding the massive amounts of money spent by corporations to influence the election, he claimed that it did not create unfair disadvantages for any candidate.
“These were the most expensive elections in U.S. history, and although this cash flow did not create an uneven playing field, it could have a negative effect on the factual independence of elected politicians,” he said.
The claim that the spending did not create an uneven playing field seemed to refer specifically to the race between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, not to the congressional races, the primaries, or to third-party candidacies. As the OSCE PA’s full post-election statement made clear, the spending “did not yet create an uneven playing field between the two major presidential candidates.” (No mention was made of other candidates.)
The OSCE PA’s largely positive assessment of the elections – particularly its description of voting day procedures – was challenged at the press conference by Sergei Chumaryov, a senior counselor at the Russian embassy in Washington
“I had the opportunity to also monitor the elections in Florida – two main, key counties where OSCE observers, Parliamentary Assembly or the organization as such, were not present: Miami-Dade County and Palm Beach County,” he said. “And I would tell you that I have a completely different story. Are you here to monitor or to visit Potemkin polling stations?” Chumaryov claimed the observers only visited polling stations “where you were allowed to visit.”
The OSCE PA’s team was deployed to Pennsylvania, Maryland, Washington DC, Virginia and North Carolina, but not to swing state Florida – the site of many problems with early voting and election day procedures. They also declined to visit Ohio, which had its share of problems.
In defense of the OSCE PA’s limited observation, Soares said, “We [chose] freely the polling stations we wanted to visit” and noted that they were not obstructed by the authorities in any way.
The Russian challenge to the OSCE’s findings comes after Russian election chief Vladimir Churov last week described the U.S. electoral system as “the worst in the world.”
A report commissioned by Russia’s Central Election Commission claimed that the U.S. electoral system is neither free nor fair. In contrast to the OSCE’s findings, which largely ignored the existence of third parties in the United States, the Russian report questioned the fairness of an election that systematically excludes the participation of independent parties such as the Libertarians and the Greens.
“Candidates were not granted equal access to the media, particularly to television debates, which were held exclusively between two candidates,” said Aleksandr Ignatov, one of the report’s authors. “And we all know there were six candidates. The principle of open elections was not respected since there are no guarantees for international observers.”
Participants in yesterday’s OSCE PA press conference largely dismissed this report. Senator Benjamin Cardin (D-Maryland), the co-chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, was at the press conference. He called the Russian report “regrettable.”
Nevertheless, the Russians’ focus on the fairness of the election for third parties is an area that the OSCE seems to have neglected. This is despite the fact that the obstacles that third parties face, such as ballot access laws and exclusion from the media and televised debates, are clear violations of the U.S.’s OSCE commitments as spelled out in the 1990 Copenhagen Document.