When European election observers assessed the 2016 election merely on technical points — how competently polls were run and the absence of major technical breakdowns — they found the process adequate. But the observers had far more criticisms of the systemic flaws in our election system that keeps nearly 50 million citizens from participating in their democracy.
More than 300 European election experts from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s (OSCE) Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights were in the US to observe the 2016 presidential election. They released their interim assessment Nov. 9 at the National Press Club in Washington, DC.
Christine Muttonen, who led the OSCE’s short-term observer mission, termed the 2016 general elections “highly competitive” with a “demonstrated commitment” to freedoms of expression, assembly, and association. Nevertheless, Muttonen said the presidential campaign was “characterized by harsh personal attacks, as well as intolerant rhetoric, particularly by one candidate.”
However, Muttonen added, talk of a “rigged” election, “turned out to be just that — talk.”
The observer team, which had been invited by the State Department, also praised a “dynamic and vivid presidential campaign” but noted that “minimum attention” was given to third parties.
The European team included 13 experts in Washington, DC, and 26 long-term observers throughout the country, who began their work in early October. On Election Day, they were assisted by 298 observers from 44 countries. They monitored voting in 932 polling stations, and vote counting in 77 polling places.
But observers noted that not all states permitted them to observe, and even when they were allowed, elections officials did not always respond to their requests for information or to see the entire election process. In addition, at half the polling places they observed, some voters were ineligible to vote because their names did not appear on voter registration lists.
Nevertheless, they said they found few instances of clear-cut voter intimidation and no major problems, although they did observe long lines at some polling places, and some malfunctioning equipment.
Ambassador Audrey Glover, who headed the election mission for the OSCE’s Democratic Institutions office, said the US elections were administered by “competent and committed staff.” The campaign was conducted openly, and offered “a level playing field” for the two major-party candidates to compete.
But the overriding systemic character of the US election system did raise their concerns. The observers found “serious shortcomings” in how the US conducts its elections, she said.
Those shortcomings included laws that excluded millions of citizens from full voting rights. The observers noted that 35 million citizens were not registered to vote. They cited the 4 million voters in US territories without the right to vote for President, and the 600,000 District of Columbia residents who have no congressional representation. They took note of the roughly six million accused and convicted citizens — both those who have been released from prison and those awaiting trial — who remain disenfranchised.
The preliminary report issued November 9 by the International Election Observation Mission called state voter identification rules, many enacted after a weakening of the Voting Rights Act by the Supreme Court in 2013, “politically divisive,” with 32 states now requiring photo IDs. Because of the many lawsuits filed to block these laws, both voters and election officials remained confused about how to apply them.
Glover also faulted the fact that “different rules in thousands of jurisdictions” often have a “partisan flavor” and help block access to the vote. In particular, she said, African-Americans, Native Americans and low-income Americans have been harmed by recent state laws concerning voter identification. She feared that such laws could lead some citizens to “disengage” altogether in democracy.
While the “voter’s voice” ought to be central to elections, Glover said, in the US, millions are not heard. “More needs to be done,” to include more citizens in the process, she urged.
“All citizens should have equal opportunities to vote,” Glover said. She added that her delegation would stay in the US to “observe developments” post-election and to complete its final report with recommendations in early December.