As the U.S. points fingers, international guidelines expose American elections’ shortcomings

election trash canIn a statement delivered to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Human Dimension Implementation Meeting in Warsaw on Tuesday, Gavin Weise of the U.S. delegation expressed support for the OSCE’s election observation activities and criticized countries that seek to undermine those efforts.

Weise reminded participants that in 1990, OSCE countries pledged to hold free elections in a manner that would be considered fair. “To assist participating States in fulfilling their commitments, ODIHR and the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly have provided their invaluable expertise, including through their elections observation efforts,” he said.

However, OSCE election observation has been undermined by certain countries, according to the U.S. representative:

The United States regrets that some [OSCE] participating States continue to call into question and seek to weaken the OSCE’s independent election observation efforts, implying that they impose double standards and other biases.  Such positions disregard the strong monitoring capability that the OSCE has developed to assist participating States in implementing our commitments to hold free and fair elections.

Although he didn’t identify them by name, it was clear that he was likely referring to former Soviet countries such as Russia and Belarus, which have often cited double standards in the way that the OSCE assesses elections “east and west of Vienna.”

The irony of Weise’s statement is that the U.S. itself has been one of the most brazen violators of OSCE election-related commitments, repeatedly ignoring longstanding OSCE recommendations for improving the U.S. electoral system, and consistently undermining the ability of the organization to freely carry out its observation functions, to the point of threatening election observers with criminal prosecution.

Last year, in a jaw-dropping display of chauvinism and hostility, the Attorney General of Texas implicitly warned OSCE observers that they might find themselves in a Texas jail if they came within 100 feet of polling places during the Nov. 6 election, a move that not even authoritarian regimes such as Belarus have pulled in the past.

“It may be a criminal offense for OSCE’s representatives to maintain a presence within 100 feet of a polling place’s entrance,” 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. “Failure to comply with these requirements could subject the OSCE’s representatives to criminal prosecution for violating state law.”

ODIHR Director Janez Lenarcic responded by reminding Texas of the United States’ international obligation to welcome election observers of the OSCE and grant them access to polling places.

“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.”

Rather than apologize for those transgressions, Weise on Tuesday rather generically assured the OSCE of the U.S.’s willingness to cooperate with observers. “We welcome and encourage OSCE observation of elections in the United States,” he said.

The U.S. delegate then claimed that the United States is working in good faith to implement recommendations of the OSCE:

The United States continues to work to address issues raised by the OSCE, including discussing with state election authorities how to provide better access to OSCE observers.  The United States will continue to discuss such issues within the OSCE.  Various aspects of elections and in particular voting rights continue to the subject of headlines, editorials, court cases and robust public discourse within the United States; this as legitimate activity that strengthens our democracy.  We urge all other OSCE States to do the same.

Interestingly, these assurances were offered on the heels of a new publication issued by the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights which elaborated on the election-related obligations of OSCE participating States, including the U.S.

Entitled “ODIHR Guidelines for Reviewing a Legal Framework for Elections,” the document covers issues such as universal and equal suffrage, election administration, voter registration, equal treatment of political parties and their access to the media, and campaign finance. On many of these issues, the United States clearly falls far short of its commitments for holding elections that are genuinely free and fair, and it’s not clear what, if any, measures are being taken to improve the U.S. electoral system.

A close reading of the document makes clear that the United States is far from compliant with some of the most basic components of democratic elections. For example, the very fact that the U.S. has such a highly decentralized and unwieldy system of election administration in which electoral laws diverge wildly from state to state and even from county to county within individual states, is generally out of step with good electoral practice as identified by ODIHR.

As stated in the guidelines, “one electoral law regulating all elections is recommended, as this approach safeguards consistency in electoral administration and practices, and the unified implementation of the law in connection with all elections.”

In the U.S., rather than “one electoral law,” there are 51 (one for each state, plus the District of Columbia, which is denied representation in Congress in violation of international norms). Further, there is no central election commission in the U.S. to interpret laws, which are instead left to the local level, including partisan secretaries of state and county clerks.

This system of localized interpretation of national and state laws is out of step with another key recommendation of ODIHR:

Relationships between national and local authorities, as well as between election-administration bodies and other governmental bodies, should be clearly stated and defined. The areas of authority of election-administration bodies must be clearly stated and defined to prevent conflicts or overlap with the powers of other government bodies.

ODIHR also notes that “the structure of the election administration as established by the legal framework should usually include a central election-administration body,” which the U.S. lacks.

Further, national laws governing the registration of political parties, party and campaign finance, voter registration and criminal provisions related to electoral violations are of particular importance. Yet, the U.S. system is noteworthy for the absence of such laws.

This deficiency has led to significant problems in the U.S. voter registration system, among other issues. A report released last year by the Pew Center on the States found that the nation’s voter registration rolls are in disarray, with the potential to affect the outcomes of local, state and federal elections. One in eight active registrations is invalid or inaccurate, the report found, while one in four people who are eligible to vote are not registered.

These problems with basic election administration are not just embarrassing, they are also in violation of U.S. international obligations. As explained in the ODIHR guidelines,

The right to vote is only of full value if the legal framework makes it easy for a person to register to vote, ensures accuracy in voter registers, includes sufficient safeguards against fraudulent voting, and guarantees honest counting of votes and tabulation of results. One of the standards for voter registration and maintenance of registers is complete transparency.

In a section of the guidelines regarding the drawing of electoral constituencies, or districts, ODIHR offers tacit criticism of the U.S. system of redistricting and the election-rigging practice commonly known as “gerrymandering.”

“Electoral constituencies should be drawn in a manner that preserves equality among voters,” notes ODIHR, adding that “the manner in which constituencies are drawn should not circumvent the principle of equal suffrage.”

Yet, many U.S. states use an arcane and highly politicized system of drawing district boundaries based on past voting histories and racial composition in order to dilute the voting power of certain groups and virtually ensure preferred electoral outcomes. Following the 2010 census and redistricting process, the GOP gerrymandered congressional districts in such a way to guarantee Republican victories. In southern states, this largely meant re-segregating politics by isolating Democrats to urban districts represented by African-American legislators while leaving Republicans to divvy up the rest of the state.

This system of redistricting is how Republicans were able to keep control of the House of Representatives despite losing the popular vote nationwide by 1.4 million votes in 2012. Democratic House candidates earned 49.15 percent of the popular vote, while Republicans earned only 48.03 percent, meaning that the American people preferred a unified Democratic Congress over the divided Congress it actually got by more than a full percentage point.

But thanks to partisan gerrymandering, Republicans retained a solid House majority for the 113th Congress.

All of this is very much out of line with good electoral practices. As ODIHR states in its guidelines, “the legal framework should ensure that people or institutions establishing the boundaries are neutral, independent and impartial.” This is not the case in the United States.

There is also the matter of permanent felon disenfranchisement in many U.S. states, which contravenes the international obligation of the United States to ensure universal and equal suffrage to each citizen who has reached the age of majority.

Yet, in the U.S., an estimated 5.85 million Americans are denied the right to vote (or seek office) because of laws that disenfranchise people with felony convictions. Because of institutionalized racial disparities in the criminal justice system, these policies have resulted in one of every 13 African Americans unable to vote.

ODIHR has repeatedly expressed serious concerns over the disproportionate impact of felon disenfranchisement in the U.S.

As explained in its final report on Election 2012,

Minorities are disproportionately affected and it is estimated that 2.2 million African-Americans are disenfranchised. Prisoner and exprisoner voting rights are determined by state law and vary widely. Citizens from different states, who have committed the same crime, have their voting rights affected differently. Restrictions are often disproportionate to the crime committed and some states do not differentiate between types of crimes. Four states deprive all people with a criminal conviction of the right to vote, irrespective of the gravity of the crime or if the sentence has been served, unless pardoned by the state governor.

Another major problem in the United States is the discriminatory laws against independent, or “third,” parties. While the U.S. has long been considered a “two-party system,” the fact is, it is required to provide legal protections to all political parties to ensure that they are able to compete on a level playing field.

“The legal framework should ensure that all political parties and candidates are able to compete in elections on the basis of equal treatment before the law,” notes ODIHR.

This does not happen in the United States, where third parties are required to meet extraordinary challenges to even appear on the ballot, and even after they pass those hurdles, are excluded from televised debates and generally shut out of the media. This further violates U.S. election-related commitments, particularly the requirement for equal treatment and access to media.

This obligation is enshrined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which guarantees the right of voters “to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.”

ODIHR points out that the OSCE Copenhagen Document goes even further, by mandating that OSCE member states take proactive steps to provide political parties and organizations “with the necessary legal guarantees to enable to compete with each other on a basis of equal treatment before the law and by the authorities.”

For example, this would mean that the U.S. provides legal guarantees for independent parties and candidates to be included in televised debates and otherwise enjoy access to the media. This, of course, does not happen in the United States, so voters often go into the voting booth surprised to see other candidates listed on the ballot besides those nominated by the two dominant, quasi-official parties.

Campaign financing is another related matter of concern, with the potential for skewing the playing field and limiting real competition. As ODIHR states, “there is the risk of undue influence that can result from excessive or disproportionate contributions by a single contributor or group of contributors.”

This is particularly a concern in the United States following the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision which effectively nullified U.S. campaign finance laws, opening the floodgate for unregulated private money in federal elections.

Ignoring all these issues, the U.S. delegate to the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting this week chose instead to point the finger at other OSCE countries that have allegedly failed to live up to their election-related commitments.

“Last year,” Weise said, “the OSCE concluded that shortcomings in presidential elections in Armenia and Bulgaria were caused not by inexperience but by a lack of political will on the part of state institutions, leading to low levels of public trust in the electoral process.”

In Ukraine’s parliamentary elections, he added, “international observers cited the lack of a level playing field due in part to abuse of government resources to favor ruling party candidates, a lack of campaign and political party financing regulation, and lack of balanced media coverage.”

Of course, the same exact thing could be said about the United States, using the guidelines just published by the ODIHR, but relatively speaking, the U.S. tends to get a pass. While some mild criticisms make it into ODIHR’s reports on American elections, for the most part, it seems that different standards are applied, which is where the eastern bloc’s complaints of double standards arise.

Nevertheless, there are many areas in which the U.S. could obviously improve, some of which have been explicitly identified by OSCE observers.

Essentially, before pointing fingers at others, the U.S. would do well to get busy in seriously tackling electoral reform at home.


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About The Compliance Campaign

Campaigning for a United States in compliance with its international obligations. Follow on Twitter here: Facebook: Comments, article submissions or news leads are welcome at compliancecampaign [at]

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