Ursula Gacek, head of the election observer mission to the United States from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, cheerfully refers to November 3, the U.S. presidential election, as “E-day.”
Gacek spoke to VOA by phone after the release last week of a report by the elections arm of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe on the conditions leading up to election day.
She says 2020 is different than the previous nine elections that OSCE has observed. The United States, a member of the OSCE, invited the European observers after the 2000 presidential election, when the decision about who had won the presidential race went all the way to the Supreme Court before it was decided for George W. Bush over former vice president Al Gore. At the invitation of the U.S. government, OSCE has sent observation teams for every U.S. presidential and midterm election since then.
There’s more than one reason that this year is different. The most obvious, Gacek said, is the coronavirus pandemic, which has forced the OSCE’s Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights to vastly scale down the number of observers sent to the U.S. Pre-pandemic, the office had planned to send 500. But after the pandemic hit, they scaled back to just 30.
COVID-19, Gacek said, “has made life difficult for everybody.” It has affected the way campaigns are conducted, the administration of the vote, and the amount of work election administrators must deal with. For voters, it has meant deciding whether to show up on election day, vote in person early, or send a ballot through the mail.
Gacek noted that this year is different in an additional way, in the attention focused on the mechanics of the election — how people cast their ballots and when the ballots will be counted. “Suddenly,” Gacek said, “people are asking, ‘will my vote count?’”
“I think the pressure is on everybody,” Gacek said. “It’s on the hardworking and really very decent election administration people. I have an awful lot of respect for them.”
Gacek’s team arrived in the United States in early October and fanned out across the nation in pairs. Their mission was to talk to election administrators, evaluate media coverage, examine voting technology, and get a sense of the local political atmosphere in the places where their presence is welcomed.
Eighteen U.S. states routinely deny access to OSCE observers. Gacek, who is not connected to the group of lawmakers who were turned away in North Carolina, said observers do not try to go to places where their presence is against the law.
After a month of phone calls, virtual meetings, and in-person visits, Gacek’s team issued what they call an interim report, focused on conditions ahead of the election.
The October 22 report noted the complexities of administering a national election taking place in 50 states that each have different rules and voting equipment. In all, voting administration is handled by some 10,500 jurisdictions across the country. That’s complicated in a regular year — but this year, COVID-19 has also changed the options people have for voting. The voting workarounds devised this year have met no small amount of resistance.
The report notes that more than 365 lawsuits have been filed in 44 states and the District of Columbia over how people can vote and when their votes can be counted.
Complicating things further, the pandemic has resulted in shortages of both funding and personnel. Congress awarded emergency funding to the states in March to help pay for the extraordinary measures being implemented to give people a safe way to vote — but those funds, in the words of the report, “are largely regarded to be insufficient.” Moreover, there is a shortage of experienced poll workers, as many of those who have the most experience also are high-risk because of their age. Many of them are sitting this election out.
Other problems are ongoing.
There are differences among the jurisdictions in voting technologies. Of particular concern are a handful of jurisdictions that use voting machines that do not leave a paper trail, which can cause problems if there’s a need for a recount. There are differences between states in whether people who have been convicted of a crime should be allowed to vote. The observers concluded that some 5.2 million citizens are disenfranchised due to criminal convictions. The report notes that such restrictions disproportionally affect racial minorities.
The ODIHR report says “many” of the observers have voiced serious concern that the legitimacy of the election will be in question because of U.S. President Donald Trump’s “repeated allegations of a fraudulent election process,” particularly as it regards mail-in voting. The president has repeatedly claimed, without evidence, that widespread use of mail-in ballots will lead to voter fraud. He has also claimed that the U.S. Postal Service can’t handle the increased burden of mail-in ballots.
The U.S. Postal Service has not supported that statement. However, it did warn voters to request their ballots and return them early, to make sure they arrive in time to be counted.
Election financing also is in question. Gacek’s observers noted that the Federal Election Commission, which regulates campaign spending, cannot make decisions or issue advisory opinions at present because, since July, it has lacked a quorum — meaning at least four out of six available positions filled — to carry out its operations.
After several years of understaffing, the commission has a backlog of hundreds of cases to investigate.
Trump nominated Allen Dickerson last month and Sean Cooksey and Shana Broussard on Wednesday to fill the empty slots, but the three have yet to be confirmed by the Senate — leaving the FEC toothless for Tuesday’s presidential election.
Finally, the report notes that the media landscape is polarized, both in traditional media and on social networks. Despite actions by social network administrators to guard against disinformation, many of the observers said they were still concerned about untruths proliferating online.
With the interim report published, Gacek’s team — along with the rest of the United States — is braced for “E-day.” Gacek’s team will evaluate the vote that day and remain in the United States for about a week longer to observe whatever happens next. Then, from Europe, they will spend the next two months assembling a final report to be released sometime in January —possibly, as Gacek noted, right around the time the U.S. inaugurates the winner of the presidential election.
Whatever the outcome, says Warsaw-based ODIHR spokeswoman Katya Andrusz, the observers’ reporting is meant to be helpful, not critical for the sake of criticism.
“I sometimes get the feeling that people have this image of the observers as . . . going into elections, wagging a finger up and down and saying, you’re not doing it well,” she said in a phone conversation recently, “but that is not the point.”
She said the observation teams always offer to follow up their reporting with a visit back to the country to present the recommendations and help, if requested, with their implementation.
The goal, she said, is to improve the election process for the next time around.
“There is no perfect election,” she said. “We are not there to criticize but to help the countries and the authorities to improve their election processes for the benefit of their citizens.”