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Watchful eyes: FSOs promote democracy one selection at a time.

American citizens, including several FSOs, participate in the election-observation missions of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), helping support free and fair elections in OSCE participating states. When an OSCE state requests election observers, they're sent by the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR).

The observers may be from the United States or any of the other 56 OSCE participating states. For an election, the United States aims to provide the OSCE with 7 to 10 percent of the needed short-term observers. The government's contractor, Pacific Architects and Engineers (PAE), recruits most American election observers through online applications. Candidates who have worked in U.S. elections and have relevant language skills and experience in the region are particularly competitive.

Some Department employees have also participated. In the past year alone, State representatives have served in election monitoring missions to Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kazakhstan, Moldova and Ukraine, among other places.

"The OSCE's procedures are considered the gold standard when it comes to election observation methodology throughout the world," said the Department's OSCE desk officer, David Swalley. "This is largely due to ODIHR's long experience in deploying election observation missions coupled with rigorous preparation and attention to well-established principles and procedures of free and fair elections."


When a participating state requests an election observation mission, ODIHR initially sends an assessment team to lay the groundwork and determine how many long-term and short-term observers are necessary. Long-term observers, who typically spend four to six weeks in the country, examine many issues, including composition of a country's central election commission, implementation of its election law, political landscape, media environment and the extent of its civil society participation.

By contrast, short-term observers, while more numerous, deploy a few days before election day and stay a few days afterward. Their numbers in an election can range from 100 to 1,000. On election day, they are the "eyes and ears" of the international community, observing polling stations, witnessing voting tabulation and reporting results independently to the OSCE. Reporting from both types of observers provides the basis for conclusions and recommendations in ODIHR's final election report.

OSCE short-term observers are sometimes the only international presence at polling stations. "I ran into an election monitoring team from the U.S. embassy but no other international observers on election day," recalled NATO operations officer Rob Thompson, an election observer in Albania in June. In other cases, OSCE observers are joined by parliamentary observers, including those from the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), and other international and domestic election observers.

Short-term observers typically only physically observe a fraction of the polling stations in any election. Of the more than 200 polling stations on his list, Thompson said he and his partner made it to 11. On average, short-term observers make it to 10 polling stations on an election day, but together with hundreds of other observers throughout a country, these observations provide an accurate picture of the election's conduct.

Short-term observers acquire a unique hands-on view of elections. Yaro Kulchychyj, a short-term observer in Ukraine in October 2014, said, "The experience was fascinating and allowed me to experience it from the ground up for the first time. My previous experience with the Ukrainian electoral system was from the top down." Prior to joining the Department, Kulchychyj, former deputy director of the Ukraine-Russia coordination team in the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs, helped modernize election systems in post-Soviet Ukraine with the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), an NGO, and USAID.

Observing elections is not for the faint of heart. The OSCE sends short-term observers to all corners of a country in teams that must cover wide swaths of territory, often in rural areas with limited infrastructure and poor roads.

While in the field, short-term observers are exposed to regions and communities that they would otherwise not see. David Meyer, an FSO in the Bureau of Democracy, Rights, and Labor, visited a Roma community while working as a short-term observer in Moldova in November 2014. "It was valuable to dig into issues you are interested in, such as minority communities, while doing your work as an election observer," he said.

The hardest part of being an election observer may be the hours. On election days, observer teams must observe the opening of a polling station, visit 10 to 20 stations and be present for the closing of a station at the end of the day.

But their work is still not done. They then travel to the district election commissions where local officials collect the ballots from the district's polling stations, tabulate the results and report them to the central election commission in the capital. Tabulating the results can last all night and extend into the next day, or even the day after.


After the election, ODIHR publishes a final report, highlighting successes, identifying areas for improvement and offering recommendations for OSCE nations to use to improve electoral processes. These reports also inform assistance organizations, such as USAID, when they fund programs on electoral processes prior to the next elections. Since 1995, the OSCE has observed hundreds of elections and contributed to the gradual modernization of electoral processes in OSCE participating states and elsewhere.

And, when necessary, the OSCE has been quick to point out election irregularities. OSCE election observers are often the first to witness prestamped ballots, manipulated voters' logs or block voting, in which members of a group are pressured to vote one way based on their affiliation with the group. In some cases, observers may even experience intimidation when their presence is unwelcome.

Besides sending observation missions to OSCE participating states, the OSCE also conducts limited observation missions that are more restricted in scope. Past limited observation missions include one conducted in the United States in November 2012. For countries not in the OSCE, the organization can nonetheless deploy election support teams, when requested. For instance, the OSCE deployed such teams to Afghanistan five times between 2004 and 2014.

According to participants, being an observer can be incredibly rewarding. Michael Rosenthal of the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs, a short-term observer in Kazakhstan in April 2015, said, "It's a chance to contribute in person to the OSCE's mission of upholding commitments to human rights and fundamental freedoms. It's also a chance to learn about a new country and its election procedures and to work with colleagues from other countries. You are doing good and having fun."


By Colleen Traughber, political officer, Office of European Union and Regional Affairs (EUR/ERA), and short-term observer in the October 2014 parliamentary election in Ukraine
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Author:Traughber, Colleen
Publication:State Magazine
Date:Sep 1, 2015
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