Voting rights activists are bracing for the world to see American democracy at its worst.
A slew of so-called electoral reforms at the state level, ranging from restrictions on early voting to new ID requirements, combined with ongoing legal disputes over voter access amid what’s expected to be a razor-close election could result in turmoil in the wake of the November 6 vote.
But unlike the electoral debacle of almost a decade ago, the disputed outcome of Bush v. Gore, this time the world is watching—from the inside.
MORE: A Supreme Question: Will the Court Gut the Voting Rights Act?
Several civil rights groups, including the National Council of La Raza, the NAACP and the ACLU have invited officials from the Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe (OSCE) to monitor polling places in 40 states on Election Day. Officials from the 56-member international organization, which bills itself as a “multilateral forum for dialogue and negotiation between East and West,” are already on the ground in the U.S. and preparing to issue a preliminary report.
“Any group that is tied to a political party would cause concerns. It’s good to have a non-partisan, global perspective.”
After the election, the 44 observers will confer with a support staff of about 80 to issue a final report on the 2012 election.
“The final report could be very helpful to us,” Hilary Shelton, the NAACP’s senior vice president for advocacy, tells TakePart. The NAACP has petitioned the U.N. Human Rights Council panel to investigate the disenfranchisement of U.S. citizens through bans on former inmates voting. The organization remains concerned about election law changes around the country.
While the OSCE, of which the United States is a member, has no influence over U.S. policy makers, it could be considered an impartial referee, according to Shelton.
“Any group that is tied to a political party would cause concerns,” he adds. “It’s good to have a non-partisan, global perspective.”
The OSCE has sent observers to the U.S. since 2002. Having them on the ground isn’t out of the ordinary. What’s different in this election, though, is the number of changes to states’ election laws that have been implemented ahead of an intensely competitive presidential campaign cycle. Moreover, the Justice Department has been waging a running battle against states covered by the Voting Rights Act (VRA).
Since 2009, challenges to the VRA have come from Texas, South Carolina and Florida, among others.
Having international monitors present during an American election “is a sign we still have challenges within our electoral process,” says Shelton.
Following the 2000 election fiasco, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act (HAVA). As a result of HAVA, the Election Assistance Commission was established to test and accredit voting equipment (nobody wanted a repeat of “hanging chads”) and to provide a clearinghouse for states to find resources on best practices.
Critics say the EAC has been neglected and has little authority, except to maintain the national mail voter registration form.
“It is a system that we have not seen fully implemented,” says Shelton. “That Election Assistance Commission is needed now more than ever.”
A spokesman for the EAC said it wouldn’t receive the final report by the OSCE monitors and notes that “all federal elections are administered by the states and not the federal government.” For activists like Shelton, state administration is just the problem they’re concerned with.
In 2000, there was a push to withhold certification of the election results because the contest between then-Vice President Al Gore and Texas Governor George W. Bush had been marred by irregularities, mainly in Florida.
If a similar problem emerges after the votes are counted for President Obama and GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, Shelton says activists are better prepared, in part, because the findings of the international observers could help determine whether the vote was conducted fairly.
“I could very well see if we have that kind of debacle, you’d see a very similar response” as in 2000, he says. “We're excited about the scope of the actual observation. It could be a very, very helpful checklist.”
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Sean J. Miller is a Los Angeles-based writer. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, Back Stage, The Christian Science Monitor and The Hill.