- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 7, 2004

NEW YORK — A 55-nation body charged with overseeing fair elections and human rights in its member states expects to send as many as 100 monitors to observe the U.S. elections on Nov. 2, saying numerous “weaknesses and vulnerabilities” might delay the outcome or even compromise the results.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) explained its decision to send teams of professional foreign observers to the United States to watch the voting, saying irregularities with voting machines and procedures could jeopardize public confidence.

Although the State Department formally invited the OSCE to observe, its decision has touched a raw nerve within the Bush administration and in some congressional offices.

“Maybe they need a Florida vacation,” sneered one senior administration official, who said the State Department had no choice but to invite the OSCE monitors after it received complaints from a dozen Democratic lawmakers.

The Vienna, Austria-based OSCE last week issued a list of concerns about the Nov. 2 elections, including the possibility of voter intimidation, incorrectly purged voter rolls, irregularities in voting machines and a complex web of voting procedures that vary within and among states.

Specifically, the commission noted that funds and safeguards authorized in the 2002 Help America Vote Act (HAVA) have been delayed, and that its impact on the upcoming vote “may fall short of expectations.”

A logistical advance team will arrive from Austria as soon as next week to clear the way for the roughly 100 foreign monitors expected to fan out at the end of October.

Rep. Christopher H. Smith, New Jersey Republican and chairman of the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also called the Helsinki Commission, said he had no problems with foreign election observers.

“I welcome them,” he said last week. “We have nothing to hide, and if we have a flaw, we want to fix it.” He said the experience could be “like a classroom” for monitors from other nations.

But Mr. Smith added, “Given the resources they have, I hope that resources are not misspent.”

He said he was concerned that the OSCE could be squandering resources that would be spent more fruitfully on elections in Afghanistan on Saturday, Belarus on Oct. 17, Ukraine on Oct. 31 and other countries.

The cost of the observer mission is not borne directly by the OSCE, but by the home governments of the individual observers, who volunteer for the mission, so the United States will not be asked to contribute to the Nov. 2 mission.

OSCE spokeswoman Urdur Gunnarsdottir said yesterday that the commission had put out a request for observers for the U.S. election, but it was too soon to know which nations would contribute or how many observers would be deployed.

“It’s not dangerous, but it is a very expensive undertaking,” Ms. Gunnarsdottir said of the airfare and expenses related to a U.S. mission.

The OSCE, founded in 1975, comprises 55 Central Asian, European and North American nations. Members have signed on to the Copenhagen Document, which obliges them to abide by agreed standards regarding human rights, electoral fairness and transparency.

Countries whose voting practices were monitored by the OSCE this year include established democracies such as Greece, Canada, Spain, Iceland and France, as well as several developing democracies.

In each case, the sitting government invited OSCE monitors, and the chairman, Bulgarian Foreign Minister Solomon Passy, accepted.

The mission for the Nov. 2 U.S. elections will be led by OSCE Vice President Barbara Haering of Switzerland.

About 100 monitors from OSCE member states will fan out to state capitals and polling places where complaints have been lodged. That list is not final, according to OSCE.

Specific concerns mentioned in the commission’s 12-page report, based on a mid-September visit, included:

• Delays in distributing $3.8 billion authorized by HAVA in 2002 mean that few of its reforms have been implemented.

• Many states have invested in voting machines that do not allow for audit or manual recount.

• The risk of coercion of absentee voters and unauthorized proxy voting “cannot be excluded.”

• Some states allow absentee ballots to be faxed, which violates OSCE standards about secrecy.

• Voting methods vary among and within states.

• The purging of ex-felons from voting rolls also might de-register some people with no criminal record.

• An “enhanced police presence” at polls might intimidate minorities.

Such shortcomings “may cause post-election disputes and litigation, potentially delaying the announcement of final results,” said the report, which noted that Democratic legislators interviewed were far more concerned than their Republican counterparts.

This is not the first time that the OSCE has monitored U.S. elections. Observers were deployed to Florida and other states for the 2002 midterm elections and to California for last year’s gubernatorial recall. But those efforts generated little stir.

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