At the end of October, highly watchable Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott threatened to press charges against any "U.N. poll watchers" who might "interfere with Texas elections." Not to be outdone, state officials in Pennsylvania and Iowa also started threatening to arrest people.
Those "poll watchers" were in fact election observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, of which the United States is a member, and they came anyway, specifically teams from their Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR). According to ODIHR spokesperson Thomas Rhymer, there were two long-term election observers here in Texas. Neither of them was arrested on Election Day by Abbott, despite what we're sure were his best efforts.
Yesterday, the OSCE team released a preliminary report about just how elections in the United States work. It's like reading a travel guide to Earth, written by inquisitive, somewhat naive aliens.
In general, the OSCE found, the elections took place in a "pluralistic environment and were administered in a professional manner." However, it adds:
[D]ecisions 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. 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.
You'll no doubt be shocked to learn that U.S. elections are "characterized by a high level of campaign spending" and that spending by some independent groups isn't subject to very strict disclosure requirements. Also, third party candidates have trouble getting on the ballot in enough states to have any shot whatsoever at being elected.
The OSCE also notes that coverage by "leading cable news networks" is "highly partisan." In particular, they found:
Fox News dedicated 66 per cent of its coverage to Obama and 34 per cent to Romney. Coverage of Obama on Fox News was mostly negative in tone (72 per cent). MSNBC dedicated 34 per cent of its coverage to Obama and 66 per cent to Romney. Coverage of Romney on MSNBC was mostly negative in tone (87 percent).
The observers also seem confused by the fact that 50 million or so eligible citizens didn't actually vote. They don't attribute that to widespread voter apathy or getting involved in a really intense, can't-break-away Xbox session on Election Day. Instead, the lower voter turnout, they say, "bring[s] into question the effectiveness of existing measures to ensure that all persons entitled to vote are able to exercise that right."
The observers also called voter I.D. laws "politically polarized," adding, "While efforts to ensure the integrity of the vote are important, these should not lead to the disenfranchisement of eligible voters."
That does sound good. Have we tried that?
In general, the OSCE seems pretty all right the way U.S. elections are run, with one notable exception: the way their observers were treated.
"In several states OSCE/ODIHR observers were not provided full and unimpeded access to polling stations," they write. "In some cases, OSCE/ODIHR observers were publicly threatened with criminal sanctions if they entered polling stations. This is in contravention of paragraphs 8 and 10 of the 1990 OSCE Copenhagen Document."
The OSCE team will issue a comprehensive final report in about eight weeks, including recommendations for potential improvements. Abbott must be counting down the days.