- The Washington Times - Friday, October 22, 2004

International observers visited the Virginia State Board of Elections this week to discuss their plans for the presidential election, as final voter registration statistics rolled in around the region.

Former British Ambassador Stephen Nash and a Dutch electronic-voting specialist visited elections officials in Richmond on Thursday to determine whether they will observe the voting process there on Nov. 2.

Mr. Nash, deputy head of the observation team’s mission, resigned his post as British ambassador to Latvia in March, according to British Embassy officials. He and head of mission Rita Suessmuth, a former president of the German parliament, will have observation teams in about 10 U.S. states.

They have not yet finalized which states they will observe.

The mission is being conducted by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR). They will monitor electronic voting, watch for voter fraud and track whether the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) is being implemented.

HAVA was passed after the 2000 presidential election, in which the outcome was delayed for more than a month by the controversial recount in Florida. The legislation aims to give states funding to update voting equipment and centralize elections administration information and standards at the federal level.

“We are very interested in electoral reform in the U.S., and that is why we are here,” said ODIHR spokeswoman Urdur Gunnarsdottir. “We are not here to oversee anything, or here to interfere with anything, with how the election is run or the outcome. And we are here at the invitation of the U.S. authorities.”

The presence of international observers has prompted angry and anxious phone calls to elections workers, who have tried to reassure residents that the observers will not interfere with election results.

“I’ve had quite a few phone calls from people who are upset that we’ve got people coming in to observe this,” said Barbara Cockrell, assistant secretary for elections and training at the Virginia State Board of Elections. “[They are] afraid that there are people coming from other countries … to somehow interfere with our election, and they see this as an insult to our country and to our sovereignty.

“They’re not aware that we’ve had international observers here many times before. This is not something that most citizens would have reason to be aware of.”

Ms. Cockrell said she has seen unprecedented interest in “everything that touches this election. … On all sides of all issues, people see this as a vital election. They see the stakes as being very high.”

Elections officials said voter registration has been unusually brisk.

Virginia received 130,566 new voter registrations between Sept. 2 and Oct. 4, bringing the total number of state voters to 4.5 million. In the last month of registration in 2000, Virginia registered 77,011 new voters.

“It’s a tremendous difference,” Ms. Cockrell said.

Maryland’s final numbers are still being counted, but unofficial statistics from the Maryland State Board of Elections show 2.9 million total voters at the end of last month. The state registered 71,235 new voters last month. In the last month of registration in 2000, Maryland registered 42,743 new voters.

According to the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics, 30,000 more voters had registered by the end of last month than had done so at the same point in 2000. The city has 368,719 registered voters.

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