One of the stranger stories to emerge from the pre-election “silly season” is the fight between state officials in Texas and Iowa and international observers from the Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), who are in the United States preparing for their sixth mission to observe the election process since 2002. Specifically, last week Texas’ Attorney General threatened to arrest observers from the OSCE/ODIHR team if they come within 100 feet of a Texas polling place on Election Day. Iowa’s Secretary of State issued the same warning earlier this week regarding any observers within 300 feet of an Iowa polling place.
The political roots of this dispute are depressingly familiar. In mid-October, a group of civil rights organizations issued a letter and press release calling on OSCE’s observers to target their efforts on states with voter ID laws and, in particular –
“to deploy its limited election monitors in those states where restrictions on voting have been most extensive–Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida, Texas and Wisconsin. Poll monitors should be particularly vigilant about requests for, and acceptance of, identification of those seeking to vote, particularly if certain groups, such as racial minorities and young voters, are being targeted.”
That request raised the ire of voter ID supporters like Texas’ Attorney General (who has been defending his state’s ID law in court) and – in classic “friend of my enemy” style has drawn the OSCE into the ever-widening, if not terribly illuminating, debate over voter ID. The threat to arrest observers has itself divided the country, with some editorial boards likening Texas’ AG to an old-Soviet-style autocrat and others hailing the resistance to outside influence on the American election system. [Remember, it’s silly season.]
But what exactly is the nature of the dispute?
The OSCE (actually Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, or ODIHR) observers are here as part of the United States’ signature to the Copenhagen Document in 1990. Paragraph 8 of that document says that
“The participating States consider that the presence of observers, both foreign and domestic, can enhance the electoral process for States in which elections are taking place. They therefore invite observers from any other CSCE participating States and any appropriate private institutions and organizations who may wish to do so to observe the course of their national election proceedings, to the extent permitted by law. They will also endeavour to facilitate similar access for election proceedings held below the national level. Such observers will undertake not to interfere in the electoral proceedings.”
Moreover, the Charter for European Security in 1999 says in Paragraph 25 that
“We reaffirm our obligation to conduct free and fair elections in accordance with OSCE commitments, in particular the Copenhagen Document 1990. We recognize the assistance the ODIHR can provide to participating States in developing and implementing electoral legislation. In line with these commitments, we will invite observers to our elections from other participating States, the ODIHR, the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly and appropriate institutions and organizations that wish to observe our election proceedings. We agree to follow up promptly the ODIHR’s election assessment and recommendations.”
Consistent with those commitments, ODIHR observers have been traveling to the United States for every major federal election beginning in 2002. In addition, American observers (short- and long-term) have a long history of participation in OSCE/ODIHR observations across Europe.