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THE 2004 ELECTION

Foreign Voting Monitors Fell Like Outsiders

Obstacles are blamed on the decentralized U.S. electoral system. In Florida, European observers may not get close to the ballot box.

October 31, 2004|John-Thor Dahlburg | Times Staff Writer

MIAMI — If they can get in the door, observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe will be keeping an outsider's eye on the U.S. voting process Tuesday

For the first time, machinery created at the prompting of the U.S. government to foster democratic elections throughout the former Soviet bloc will help assess how freely and fairly America chooses its own chief executive. At least 75 election monitors from the OSCE, an intergovernmental organization founded to help bridge the East-West divide during the Cold War, will be stationed in precincts from coast to coast to observe and deliver an independent evaluation of how America votes.

Under its commitments as an OSCE member, the United States is required to invite the scrutiny. What observers will be able to see, though, is unclear.

Konrad Olszewski has flown to Florida as part of the international team, but the election advisor from Poland said Saturday that he might not be able to get very close to the ballot box.

Olszewski and a Canadian observer were courteously received the previous day by Florida Secretary of State Glenda E. Hood, a Republican, but told that under the laws of the state, poll watchers must be registered voters in the county where they wish to observe the voting and must submit written applications in advance, said Alia Faraj, Hood's spokeswoman.

Olszewski said he came to his meeting with Hood in Tallahassee bearing documents from the U.S. State Department attesting to his status, but that made no difference as far as Florida law and state officials were concerned.

"The secretary of state welcomed us but said she really had no authority to give us access [to the polls] on election day," said Olszewski, a former journalist with the Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza.

As of Saturday afternoon, Olszewski was in Miami, meeting with Miami-Dade County election officials and becoming increasingly resigned to not being able to enter polling places Tuesday.

"I'm not very optimistic at the moment," he said. He was being allowed to observe early voting and the opening of mail-in absentee ballots in Miami. He had also been told that he could be present for the tallying of results.

Urdur Gunnarsdottir, a spokeswoman for the OSCE mission, said problems similar to what Olszewski encountered had cropped up in numerous locales because the United States, unlike many countries, has a decentralized electoral system.

"It's taking us a lot of time to get access to polling stations because we have to go to each and every county," Gunnarsdottir said in Washington. "I do not exclude that there will be polling places where we can't enter. But I don't believe we've exhausted all our means yet. We're still talking to people and getting great help from the Federal Election Commission, the State Department."

Andrew Bruce, 34, a Briton who has been observing elections for the OSCE for four years, said he was planning to be in Ohio on Tuesday, but he didn't know whether he'd be allowed to watch people vote. During a trip to Pennsylvania last week, Bruce said, he and a colleague from Russia had tried to meet with Pennsylvania's secretary of state and director of elections in Harrisburg, but had to settle for a telephone conversation with the secretary's chief of staff.

"There is so little awareness of the OSCE here," Bruce said. "People in the Balkans know a lot more about us." In former Soviet republics where the organization has sent election observers -- such as Armenia and Azerbaijan -- they've been received by the prime minister, Bruce said.

Since 1991, the year the Soviet Union broke up, the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, based in Warsaw, has been responsible for observing elections in the 55 member countries.

Originally, the office focused on the often tortured transition from single-party to democratic rule in the former Soviet republics and satellite nations of Eastern Europe. About 2000, however, the office also began sending observers to watch and rate elections in established Western democracies, including France, Great Britain, Spain and the United States.

This year, the OSCE has dispatched observation and assessment teams to view balloting in Russia, Ukraine, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kazakhstan and Belarus, among other nations.

The idea of outside observers at a U.S. election doesn't sit well with every American politician.

"It strikes me as somewhat presumptuous that someone from a foreign land who is unfamiliar with our institutions and traditions would come in here and act as judge and jury on our elections," said U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, a Texas Republican. "And it is setting a precedent. What is it going to be like in 15-20 years? Could the United Nations then be running American elections?"

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