In violation of U.S. international commitments, the Attorney General of Texas has threatened international election observers from the Organization for Security for Security and Cooperation in Europe with criminal prosecution if they come within 100 feet of a polling place in Texas.
“If OSCE members want to learn more about our election processes so they can improve their own democratic systems, we welcome the opportunity to discuss the measures Texas has implemented to protect the integrity of elections,” wrote Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott to Ambassador Daan Everts of the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) in an open letter yesterday. “However, groups and individuals from outside the United States are not allowed to influence or interfere with the election process in Texas.”
The letter ominously warns that OSCE election observers are not authorized by Texas law to enter a polling place. “It may be a criminal offense for OSCE’s representatives to maintain a presence within 100 feet of a polling place’s entrance,” wrote the attorney general. “Failure to comply with these requirements could subject the OSCE’s representatives to criminal prosecution for violating state law.”
ODIHR Director Janez Lenarcic responded with a strongly worded statement today expressing grave concern over the threat and reminding the state of Texas of the United States’ international obligations on welcoming election observers of the OSCE. The attorney general’s threat is at odds with the established good cooperation between OSCE observers and state authorities across the United States, Lenarcic said, adding that it is also contrary to the country’s obligations as an OSCE member state.
The ODIHR director shared his concerns directly with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
“The threat of criminal sanctions against OSCE/ODIHR observers is unacceptable,” he said. “The United States, like all countries in the OSCE, has an obligation to invite ODIHR observers to observe its elections.”
Lenarcic also pointed out that Abbott’s concerns over election observers attempting to “influence or interfere with the election process” were baseless. He underlined that OSCE election observers adhere to all national laws and regulations, as well as a strict code of conduct.
“Our observers are required to remain strictly impartial and not to intervene in the voting process in any way,” Lenarcic said. “They are in the United States to observe these elections, not to interfere in them.” These are the sixth United States elections the OSCE has observed, without incident, since 2002.
Much of the controversy this year appears to stem from an article posted at The Hill website which has spurred thousands of angry comments from right-wing readers. The article was filled with several inaccuracies and inflammatory language that largely obscured the fact that the OSCE’s election observation activities in the United States have been routinely taking place without incident for a decade.
“United Nations-affiliated election monitors from Europe and central Asia will be at polling places around the U.S. looking for voter suppression activities by conservative groups, a concern raised by civil rights groups during a meeting this week,” The Hill article stated. “The intervention has drawn criticism from a prominent conservative-leaning group combating election fraud.”
The Hill cited an appeal from voting rights organizations calling on the OSCE to focus its limited resources on conducting election observation in key states likely to be most affected by ongoing voter suppression activities. “Liberal-leaning civil rights groups met with representatives from the OSCE this week to raise their fears about what they say are systematic efforts to suppress minority voters likely to vote for President Obama,” The Hill reported.
At particular issue is an open letter the organizations issued to the OSCE, suggesting that observation in certain states would be most useful.
“Election observation is an important function of our democratic process and serves as an additional means of protecting the rights of those who are most likely to be disenfranchised and least able to advocate for their right to vote,” the letter reads. “To that end, we believe it is particularly important that safeguards, including election monitoring, are in place in key areas around the country, and believe your presence would be particularly critical in districts in Colorado, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida, Texas, Virginia and Wisconsin.”
The groups expressed their pleasure that the OSCE would be observing the 2012 election in the United States, as it has done in the past.
The valuable work of an impartial body like the OSCE in validating the reliability and fairness of our nation’s election systems has proven indispensable over the years. In particular, the OSCE’s recommendations outlined in the 2008 Election Observation Mission final report have been an important resource as our respective non-governmental organizations seek to reform our election system through voter registration modernization, automatic restoration of voting rights for formerly incarcerated persons, and integration of voluntary voting system guidelines as adopted by the Election Assistance Commission into state regulations.
This innocuous letter set off a firestorm on right-wing blogs and media outlets. In a report on Fox News full of misinformation, the anchorwoman incredulously asked a representative from a right-wing organization called True the Vote whether it is legally permissible for international election observers to monitor U.S. elections.
Despite the right-wing shrieks over UN monitors coming to interfere with U.S. elections, in fact, the OSCE is not part of the United Nations, but is recognized under the UN Charter as a regional organization – a group of 56 countries in North America, Europe, and Central Asia, of which the United States is a founding member. With a history rooted in the détente era of the 1970s, the organization took on a democratization and confidence-building role following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Election observation, along with conflict resolution, is one of its core activities.
As a signatory to the 1990 OSCE Copenhagen Document, the United States is obliged to accept monitors from other OSCE countries to observe its elections. The U.S. has taken part in dozens of observer missions over the years, and in line with its international commitments, has routinely issued invitations to the OSCE to observe its elections.
By fulfilling its obligations in allowing observers into the country, the United States is preventing setting a precedent for other, less democratic states, to ban these monitors. The Texas attorney general’s threat to arrest OSCE observers is therefore a fairly serious breach of U.S. international obligations, one that could put the future of OSCE election observation in jeopardy if other countries decide to follow suit.
In the past not even authoritarian dictatorships such as Belarus or Uzbekistan have dared to make these sorts of threats against the OSCE. In fact, the Belarusian government welcomed observers from the OSCE just last month. With the U.S. now setting this dangerous precedent however, it’s hard to say how it will play out in the future.
In an attempt to quell the controversy, Joao Soares a member of the Portuguese parliament who has been appointed to lead the observation mission, explained the general purpose of the observation mission.
“We are not coming to judge a result but to report about the process,” Soares said. “In a country so well known for its diverse citizenry, we will observe how inclusive the election process is in line with the country’s own laws and international election commitments.”
Soares has led the previous two OSCE election observation missions to the United States, in 2008 and 2010.
The U.S. State Department has also weighed in on the issue, with spokesperson Victoria Nuland pointing out in the daily press briefing yesterday that the U.S. welcomes OSCE observers in line with its international obligations.
The United States is “an open book and we want to continue to improve our society, and we don’t have any concern about being open to the world for observation, et cetera,” Nuland said. “The OSCE, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, as they always do at election time here and in other member states, has fielded a delegation to come and observe the U.S. elections, and we welcome that.”
With debate season in the United States now in full swing, the U.S. electoral system is continuing to demonstrate its institutional hostility to the candidacies of independent or so-called “third parties,” in violation of international commitments related to holding democratic elections.
In the presidential debate last week and the vice-presidential debate Thursday night, voters were only permitted to hear the perspectives of the two leading parties, while smaller, independent parties were prohibited from participating. This is likely a violation of U.S. election commitments as spelled out in the OSCE Copenhagen Document, which the United States signed in 1990.
This agreement requires OSCE member states to hold “free elections that will be held at reasonable intervals by secret ballot or by equivalent free voting procedure, under conditions which ensure in practice the free expression of the opinion of the electors in the choice of their representatives.” Further, OSCE countries must
respect the right of citizens to seek political or public office, individually or as representatives of political parties or organizations, without discrimination;
respect the right of individuals and groups to establish, in full freedom, their own political parties or other political organizations and provide such political parties and organizations with the necessary legal guarantees to enable them to compete with each other on a basis of equal treatment before the law and by the authorities;
Although the dominance of the Republican and Democratic parties has long been established in American politics as a general fact of life, the international obligations of the United States require the authorities to strive to treat individuals and groups seeking office equally in order compete on something like a level playing field. In addition to enormous financial disadvantages and other institutional biases that third parties face, their exclusion from televised debates represent perhaps one of the most insurmountable challenges to independent candidates.
Without access to the media and denied the opportunity to present their views to the public, not only are the candidates denied their rights to compete “on a basis of equal treatment,” but voters are denied “the free expression of the opinion of the electors in the choice of their representatives.”
The body that sets the rules of these events, the Commission on Presidential Debates, “sounds like a government agency,” Farah pointed out. “It sounds like a nonpartisan entity, which is by design.” But in reality, says Farah, “it’s a private corporation, financed primarily by Anheuser-Busch and other major companies, that was created by the Republican and Democratic parties to seize control of the presidential debates from the League of Women Voters in 1987.”
Every four years, the commission permits the major-party campaigns to meet behind closed doors and draft a secret contract that dictates the terms of the debates, which provides for the exclusion of third parties. As Farah points out,
Third-party candidates face extraordinary structural barriers—discriminatory ballot access, scant media coverage, loyalties of the political—in the voting public, enormous campaign finance disparities. So, if they manage to convince a majority of Americans that they ought to be included in the presidential debates, it’s outrageous that a private corporation backed by Anheuser-Busch, controlled by the two parties, is telling them no. It absolutely is a catch-22.
These exclusionary policies have consistently drawn the attention of international observers of U.S. elections.
Following the 2008 presidential election, for example, the election observation mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe – which has been monitoring U.S. elections since the disputed Bush-Gore election in 2000 – noted that “reporting on third party and independent presidential candidates was marginal.”
“The four television debates between the candidates” in 2008 “were the highlight of extensive media coverage with an estimated total of around 70 million viewers,” the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly noted. “The two leading presidential candidates were the main focus of journalistic reporting and contestants extensively used paid advertising, leading to a very limited visibility of other political parties and candidates.”
The OSCE’s post-election report on the 2010 midterms pointed out “that the media tended to organize debates only between candidates of the two strongest parties, thus limiting access of third-party contestants.”
With the tightly controlled and exclusionary debate system run by the partisan Commission on Presidential Debates, the American people are denied true debates on substantive issues. In last week’s debate between Barack and Mitt Romney, for example, the two presidential candidates agreed with each other on far more issues than they disagreed on.
“When it comes to our tax code, Governor Romney and I both agree that our corporate tax rate is too high,” President Obama stated at one point, following up with: “On energy, Governor Romney and I, we both agree that we’ve got to boost American energy production, and oil and natural gas production are higher than they’ve been in years.”
Romney later reiterated their agreement on taxes, pointing out that on “taxation, we agree, we ought to bring the tax rates down.”
In all, the two candidates expressed agreement with each other on policy issues at least half a dozen times, while the word “disagree” showed up during the debate a total of zero times. And of course, this doesn’t even factor in issues that weren’t asked about during the debate because there is such a commonly understood bipartisan consensus, for example on the drug war, crime and punishment, and gun laws.
As the candidates prepare for further debates in the coming weeks, voters should at least be reminded that these are not real debates at all, but rather choreographed joint press conferences between the two dominant candidates. And the U.S. political class should bear in mind that this approach to debating and to elections in general – an approach that denies candidates the ability to compete and voters the ability to choose among a variety of viewpoints – is in violation of U.S. commitments on democratic elections.
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