- The Washington Times - Monday, November 1, 2004

About 60 mainly European election observers have taken up their posts in six states, including Florida and Ohio, saying they hope their presence will serve as a “preventative to the shenanigans” during voting tomorrow.

“We will tell the people of Ohio whether their election is free and fair,” said one of the observers, Hugo Coveliers, a Belgian senator who plans to monitor voting in Cleveland.

But many of the parliamentary observers sponsored by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) are here to learn about the American electoral experience as much as to monitor it.

Several sat up straight during a lecture late last week by former Republican National Committee Chairman Frank Fahrenkopf when he talked about wedge issues and how to concentrate resources where they will produce the most ballots.

“That’s not a bad idea,” whispered one Eastern European observer to a colleague. “This may be useful next year.”

The observers all are legislators who have volunteered to observe the U.S. elections at the request of the OSCE, a 55-member alliance founded in 1975 to foster East-West cooperation and monitor compliance with the Helsinki Accords.

This is not the first time the OSCE has sent monitors to the United States, but it is the largest and most controversial of its U.S. missions.

The Bush administration issued the invitation only reluctantly, and the presence of the Europeans has angered many Americans, who see it as an infringement of U.S. sovereignty.

The observers have already fanned out to Florida, New Mexico, Minnesota, Ohio, North Carolina and Virginia. After meeting with local officials and voters groups, the observers — whose home countries range from Belgium to Kazakhstan — will spend Election Day watching the polls.

The OSCE rules do not allow observers to do much more than make sure that local rules are followed. If they see someone burning ballots in the alley, they are not permitted to interfere. Nor are they supposed to criticize the army of lawyers, negative advertising or simplistic campaign speeches that many of them seem to find jarring.

Nevertheless, the observers hope their presence will serve as a “preventative to the shenanigans,” said Mr. Coveliers, the Belgian senator. “What [the voters] can be sure about is, if there are obvious shortcomings, an international organization of 55 countries will declare there are shortcomings.”

OSCE officials also see the exercise as an opportunity for the organization to demonstrate its own fairness.

Many Eastern European nations are frustrated by the OSCE’s focus on monitoring elections in emerging democracies, explained Andreas Nothelle, a German parliamentarian who is now an ambassador at the organization’s Vienna, Austria, headquarters.

“It is important to see the organization applying the same standards to everybody,” he said.

The program has not been easy to coordinate: The Greek delegation, which won the coveted Fort Lauderdale, Fla., slot, confounded the OSCE by refusing to stay in nonsmoking hotel rooms.

The Russians and Kazakhs must monitor elections within driving distance of Washington because their governments cannot afford to fly them around the United States, according to Vitaly Evseyev, a Russian official with the OSCE.

There are few concerns about voting plans in North Carolina and Virginia, he added, “but they really want to experience a U.S. election. They’re not here to look for trouble.”

During an intense two-day briefing on the American political system from federal election officials, technocrats, political experts and others, the Europeans received a crash course in U.S. political history and theory, as well as a primer on how complex and expensive the U.S. political process has become.

When Federal Election Commission information officer Greg Scott told them that candidates, their political parties and other groups will have spent more than $1 billion on the 2004 campaign, they nodded and frowned.

When they heard that the average U.S. congressional candidate raises about $1 million and a senator four times that, they gasped.

“It would be impossible to spend that much money in Switzerland,” marveled Cleveland observer Barbara Haering, a full-time environmental lawyer and member of Switzerland’s part-time parliament, “probably because we are not allowed to advertise on television.”

The delegates are from Greece, Belgium, Denmark, Cyprus, Sweden, Serbia-Montenegro, Kazakhstan, Romania, Switzerland, France, Malta, Albania, Romania, Norway, Finland, Italy, Russia, Monaco, Belarus, Estonia and Turkey.

• Jon Ward contributed to this article.

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