US Elections: “They Should Send Observers Over Here”

As a frequent observer of foreign elections, I’m an even more frequent recipient of quips to the effect that “They should send observers over here.” It started in earnest following Florida’s 2000 presidential election hanging chad fiasco and has never really let up. And each time I explain to the quipster that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) — a group in which the U.S. plays a leading role, despite its name — does actually send observers to our elections. It’s just that no one here pays much attention to what they say (not, mind you, that I feel certain that greater attention is paid elsewhere either). To be fair, though, contributing to the relative obscurity of the group’s observations and recommendations is the fact that it is a deliberative body and its 2020 report did not appear until three months after the election, when the news cycle had long since moved on to other things.

Domestic election critics will not be surprised that the report’s most fundamental critique was that “The Electoral College system is not in accordance with international good practice as it does not fulfil the principle of equality of the vote, in that electoral college votes do not correspond equitably to the population size of some states and so have a disproportionate impact on the outcome of the presidential election.”

On the other hand, while we Americans tend to shrug it off as just the way things have always been, foreigner observers are often shocked, and foreign readers may be surprised to learn that “More than 4.5 million citizens residing in the District of Columbia, and U.S. territories, of whom 90 per cent are ethnic and racial minorities, lack full representation in Congress. Furthermore, citizens residing in the U.S. territories do not have the right to vote for the president.” To put this relatively seldom commented upon fact in perspective, combined with that of DC, the population of the territories unrepresented in Congress — Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, the Northern Mariana Islands, American Samoa, and — by far the largest — Puerto Rico (there will be a quiz on this) is nearly equal to that of the six least populous states. And as we all know, those six — Delaware, South Dakota, North Dakota, Alaska, Vermont and Wyoming — control 12 percent of the U.S. Senate.

The report also raises the more widely noted fact that “5.2 million citizens are effectively disenfranchised due to a criminal conviction” — more than the population of the above mentioned states — a situation OSCE found to blatantly “contravene principles of universal suffrage and the principle of proportionality in the restriction of rights, as provided for by OSCE commitments and other international standards.”

A mission of about 100 observers could witness only a tiny portion of campaign and electoral events under the best of circumstances, but as the report notes it was not able to operate under the best of circumstances, in that “at least eighteen states do not permit international observers inside polling premises … legal restrictions … not in line with OSCE commitments.”

In addition to proposing that foreign observers of U.S. elections be allowed access to the process equal to that afforded to U.S. observers elsewhere in the organization, the group had 34 further recommendations. Number one on the list, again unsurprisingly, was a review of our Electoral College system. The second suggestion, on the other hand — consideration of independent Congressional redistricting commissions for each state — is one that’s not exactly showing much Twitter action lately. But it’s the number three proposal that, so far as currency in American political thinking goes, might as well be from Mars: “ratifying the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) as a means to further protect and promote the electoral rights of women and persons with disabilities.” It’s not by any means that the underlying issues are not discussed here, but so far as ratifying international conventions go, the range of thought pretty much runs from, on the right, “We don’t need any stinking international conventions,” to, on the left, “Yes, of course signing them would be a good idea, but the Senate will never ratify these sorts of things, so there’s little point in pursuing them.”

In all, if you’d like some reassurance that you’re not alone in thinking that the American political system is fundamentally off — in many ways this would be a good read. The report’s executive summary concludes with a declaration that the organization “stands ready to assist the authorities to further improve the electoral process and to address the recommendations contained in this and previous reports.” Any bets on when that offer is taken up?

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