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Silver Linings: International Election Monitoring
Call me an optimist, but if you look hard enough, there are some silver linings to be found these days.
Yes, U.S. prestige and influence at the moment are waning, thanks to the Trump presidency. Rex Tillerson, ally of the Kremlin and of big oil, continues to systematically decimate the State Department as the administration tramples international trade, defense and environmental accords.
On the other hand, America’s citizens—always our best ambassadors—are stepping up to represent the country in important ways. Below the radar of international political debate, the small gradual processes of citizen diplomacy continue.
One example comes from a Cold War diplomatic legacy: the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Fifty-seven countries in Europe and North America belong to the OSCE, which was set up in the closing years of the Cold War to foster security and human rights.
One of OSCE’s principal functions is to help ensure that elections are free and fair. For decades now, most major elections in member states are open to international observation, provided that the nation holding the elections agrees.
Last month, along with 35 other private American citizens, I had the privilege of representing the United States as an international elections observer of the local elections in Georgia. We were part of a group of nearly 200 international observers from 14 different OSCE states. After briefings in Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital, we spread out across those parts of Georgia where elections were to be held. (Owing to Russian occupation of two Georgian regions—South Ossetia and Abkhazia—no elections took place there. In the rest of Georgia, there were no Russian OSCE observers: Russia and Georgia do not have diplomatic relations.)
At a time when the voice of America’s citizens is finally being heard at home, we should ensure that citizens are able to represent our country abroad.
It was hard work, 15-to-20-hour days leading up to and including election day. Working with a volunteer from another OSCE country, plus a local translator and driver, you review lists of polling stations in one or more districts in the days leading up to the vote and then work out a logistical plan for visiting at least ten polling stations on election day. One follows a specific protocol governing what to look for, the kinds of questions to ask, and the facts and impressions to record. In the course of this work, you wind up spending hours with local poll workers, local observers and election officials. Working alongside international observers from other countries also acts as a check on biased or prejudicial observation.
All these notes and evaluations are flashed electronically to officials in the capital city—in this case, Tbilisi—where they are compiled to form a general assessment of the election process.
In a handout to American observers, organizers of the U.S. delegation remind you, “[observers] are seen the by host country holding the elections as representatives of their governments…As such, [they]… are required to conduct themselves as non-partisan representatives of the United States.”
I have been on half a dozen such observation missions since leaving the State Department’s Foreign Service, and I am proud to say that I have always seen a professional, dispassionate and yet plain-spoken commitment on the part of my countrymen and women.
Since the founding of the OSCE in the 1990s, hundreds of elections have been observed in OSCE countries by thousands of observers. Apart from the new and notorious phenomenon of outside meddling via hacking and social media, elections today are much better run in OSCE member states than when the Helsinki Final Act was signed in 1975. Western Europeans and Americans who have little occasion to visit the Caucasus or Central Asia gain insight into contemporary politics and society in countries on the geographic fringe of the OSCE. And the citizens of those countries see a tangible commitment of the international community in supporting democracy and human rights.
This helps to make up for the otherwise baleful trend in Trump foreign policy.
Last week, for example, the Trump Administration announced that U.S. citizens would no longer be able to travel to Cuba as individuals, rescinding a step taken by Barack Obama when he normalized relations with Cuba in 2014.
We should not let this happen. At a time when the voice of America’s citizens is finally being heard at home, we should ensure that citizens are able to represent our country abroad. Given the vacuum at the State Department, there is no more important time to do so.