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electionlineWeekly — January 19, 2017

Table of Contents

I. In Focus This Week

Election observation provides opportunity to assess voting system
Roller coaster experience was ‘experience of a lifetime’ for observer

By David Levine
Special to electionlineWeekly

(Editor’s Note: This week, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE/ODIHR) released its Election Observation Mission Final Report from the November 8, 2016 election. The full report can be found here. Frequent electionline contributor David Levine served on the Mission. His observations are featured in this week’s electionlineWeekly.)

At the invitation of the U.S. Mission to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to observe the November 8, 2016 general elections, the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE/ODIHR) assessed the pre-election environment and preparations for the US 2016 General Election.

Most of those with whom OSCE/ODIHR spoke expressed confidence in the administration of the election, but they also welcomed OSCE/ODIHR election observation activity because they were concerned about matters such as:

1) the implementation of new state laws regarding voter registration and identification;
2) changes to alternative voting methods (such as early voting and vote by mail);
3) the reliability of voting technologies;
4) the effectiveness of campaign finance rules; and
5) the conduct of the campaign, particularly in the media.

In the end, OSCE/ODIHR recommended the deployment of an Election Observation Mission – a core team of analysts, a group of long-term observers to follow the electoral process countrywide, and a larger group of short-term observers to follow Election Day proceedings.

This was the first time OSCE/ODIHR has deployed an entire election observation mission to the United States for an election.

As is always the case, the Mission principals hailed from outside the U.S., mostly Europe. But they were supported by a staff that included U.S. election analysts whose job was to guide them through (and help them understand) our unique process.

Early in October I joined the Mission as the Senior Legal Analyst Assistant to the Legal Analyst. The job was to assist the Legal Analyst in assessing the U.S.’s compliance with its OSCE commitments and international standards for democratic elections and national legislation.

That was a daunting task because unlike most nations, the U.S. legal framework for general elections is highly decentralized and complex, with significant differences among states. I consider myself an election professional, in part because of the work I’ve done helping administer elections in Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C., but even in those jurisdictions the laws had changed, and I had never personally administered elections in the other 47+ states and territories.

For the next six weeks, life was a roller coaster ride as we attempted to stay abreast of election developments across the country.

One day, I would research the number of disenfranchised convicts and ex-convicts, including those facing trial, assessing the U.S.’s compliance with universal and equal suffrage, as provided in the OSCE commitments.

Another time I researched, analyzed and interpreted state voter identification rules, assessing their impact on the integrity of the vote and the disenfranchisement of eligible voters, and weighing the impact of lawsuits concerning those rules on voters and election officials.

In the end, the job was both rewarding and challenging. I took great comfort in the fact that the November 8, 2016 elections were well administered despite a campaign filled with harsh personal attacks, legal changes and decisions on technical aspects of the electoral process that burdened (and often confused) voters and administrators.

On the other hand, I saw an election system that still has room for improvement. About one in seven of the International Election Observation Mission (IEOM) observers throughout the United States reported voting equipment malfunctions, which can likely be attributed at least in part to the use of outdated equipment that hasn’t been replaced due to a lack of money.

Ten percent of the observers reported that voters had to wait in line thirty minutes or more due to inadequate polling place staffing and/or high voter turnout, especially in the morning and just before polls closed.

And contrary to the nation’s OSCE Commitments, the International Election Observation Mission (IEOM) to the United States was not able to freely observe early voting and Election Day in 17 states.

While citizen observers and party representatives were able to observe throughout the country, adding transparency and confidence to the election process, the failure to allow international observers not only violates our OSCE Commitments, but provides critics the false impression that those states are engaging in unbecoming behavior or have something to hide.

Serving as Senior Legal Analyst Assistant for this IEOM was the experience of a lifetime, and I would encourage anyone with a professional interest in elections to do it.

The analysts themselves are some of the foremost experts in their fields, which encompass media, political, legal, and security analysis in the election context. Many of the short and long-term observers help administer elections in their home countries, and getting their insights about the election process in a particular state or a jurisdiction was fascinating and will be helpful in the long run.

The only way to really understand how an election works is to help administer one. But to objectively assess how well an election is conducted there are few things better than serving as an international observer.

(David Levine is an Election Management Consultant who has administered county, state, federal and private sector elections; developed election policy for non-profit organizations; and monitored elections in other countries. His expertise includes voter registration, election administration, poll worker training, outreach, research design and evaluation, voting system standards, logic and accuracy testing, post-election audits, voting accessibility, evaluating proposals and voting technology.)