Amid dubious claims of fraud, three questions with a US election observer

President Donald Trump has made repeated unsubstantiated claims of electoral fraud ever since the US began counting votes on Tuesday. But a mission from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), which monitors major elections in all of its member countries including the United States, said they saw no evidence of fraud. Who are these international monitors and what do they do?

An observer takes notes as they watch Gwinnett County workers continue to process absentee and provisional ballots at the Gwinnett Voter Registrations and Elections office on November 6, 2020 in Lawrenceville, Georgia, USA.
An observer takes notes as they watch Gwinnett County workers continue to process absentee and provisional ballots at the Gwinnett Voter Registrations and Elections office on November 6, 2020 in Lawrenceville, Georgia, USA. © Jessica McGowan, Getty/AFP

In a report published a day after the vote, the Vienna-based OSCE described the US election as “"competitive and well managed” but said it had been "tarnished" by legal uncertainty following Trump’s “unprecedented attempts to undermine public trust”. Head of mission Michael Georg Link went so far as to call Trump’s claims "baseless” and his calls to halt the vote counting in certain states “a gross abuse of office”.

FRANCE 24 spoke with Katya Andrusz, an OSCE election observer and spokesperson for its Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), as she returned from an observer mission in Washington, D.C.. She said that election monitors saw an unprecedented level of engagement among US voters and a renewed sense of appreciation from election workers.  

FRANCE 24: The work of the OSCE spans the globe, encompassing three continents – North America, Europe and Asia – and more than a billion people. What did your mission to the United States involve?  

Andrusz: An election is a snapshot of how a democracy is working – or not, as the case may be. We observe in 57 countries in what we call the ‘global north’ – it doesn't include Africa or South America, for example. The ODIHR is one branch of the organisation and, for this US election day, we teamed up with our colleagues from the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly to observe how the American election progressed. Altogether, the OSCE had around 100 people on the ground on November 3.

The fact that, this time, the election process itself has become part of the political debate has made our work much more visible. This is the ninth time that our organisation has been observing in the US – we have been officially involved in their system since 2002. But now the process itself has become such a hot topic that the value of neutral election observation is higher than ever. And it was already high to begin with. But we can really see people appreciating the necessity this time around that they may not have even realised before.

The election system in the US is very special. This is not my first election, but it was very heartwarming to see how we were received this time. There was an awareness and an appreciation of why we were there, election officials were happy to show us all the voting machines and how they functioned.

People were so much more engaged this time. And that was combined with a lot of voter education at a grassroots level. Ahead of the election, people were really trying to make sure that their fellow voters would be able to find their way around this sometimes very complicated process, particularly if they were voting by post, alone, from their own homes.

I came away with a genuine sense of positivity about how this election was conducted. There was so much participation, so much real honest civic engagement by people who really want to make democracy work.

F24: What have you been observing during this election?

Andrusz: I spent the election in Washington, D.C., where we had a core team of experts in all kinds of election-related issues, such as campaign finances and legal expertise. This time we also had an expert in new voting technologies. He was scrutinising not just what was going on with the postal voting but also the efficiency of the apparatus itself. I observed the election there with the ODIHR head of missions, and we also have 30 non-permanent observers who are spread out across the country. They are covering 28 states altogether, including swing states like Texas, Pennsylvania, Georgia [and] Michigan.

One of the most important things we have learnt is that an election is, of course, much more than just the Election Day. We didn't arrive right before the ballots opened last Tuesday; we have had team members on the ground since September 29 –that's when we opened this election observation mission. And then our long-term observers arrived in the country a week after that – they've been in America since the beginning of October. 

It's very important to look at the specific pre-election environment in each country, the campaign atmosphere and rhetoric. And that was particularly important in this case. But we also need to look at things like the legal framework, the media coverage, any new voting methods being used. So our long-term observers travelled across the country to speak to election officials and partisan groups from both parties to get as full a picture as possible of how things were working in a more general way.

We had to be ‘all hands on deck’ for Election Day itself, but it doesn't end there. Our team will remain in the country and will be following the process even if it goes on for a long time. We need to observe right up until the very end of all legal disputes.

F24: How did you react to Trump's claims of electoral fraud?

Andrusz: Firstly, it is important to emphasise that every candidate has the right to go to court if they believe there have been any errors in the process – they have the right to due process. And it is up to the court to decide in each and every one of these cases.

Secondly, as observers, we have no role to play in this legal process – we need to just keep watching all of the steps. 

There was an unprecedented amount of litigation ahead of this election – there were around 400 cases that we had to analyse before the voting started. And cases from before and after the election will be very important when we are making our final report a few months after the election. We need to see what happens to them, not just when they go to court but also in terms of complaints and appeals – whatever system is in place, whether it is through litigation or other forms, that they are actually implemented. This is a key part of democracy: the process must go all the way to the end.

In terms of these claims of fraud that are being made (by Trump), we have been on the ground since the end of September and, from our observation, allegations of widespread deficiencies are groundless. We have seen no evidence of anything systematic – and that is an important word in this scenario. There are always errors and irregularities in every election, but – from our observation – they have been incidental in this election and there has been nothing ‘systematic’ about them.  

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