Close eye on a closer race

Monitors - foreign and domestic - flock to US to check fairness of vote

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

From an armored car crawling the streets of Algeria to an election commissioner's seat in East Timor, Horacio Boneo has overseen the voting process in more than 60 nations. Now, he has a new challenge: evaluating the fairness of America's elections.

"In this country, you have a number of things that make it a democracy, but your electoral system is not one of the things that you should be proud of," says Mr. Boneo, an Argentinian recruited to probe Ohio's voting system. "You have a democracy in spite of the electoral system," though it's a democracy that he admires.

Ever since George W. Bush won Florida by a mere 537 votes in the presidential election four years ago, individuals and groups have increasingly voiced doubt about the voting process in the United States. As a result, an unprecedented number of observers are joining efforts to assess and ensure the fairness of this year's vote.

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Besides the poll-watchers perennially recruited by Republican and Democratic state committees, this year's monitors will run the gamut from liberals to conservatives, citizen volunteers to foreign experts.

Election Protection is one of the largest umbrella organizations mobilizing concerned individuals, with nearly 10,000 trained volunteers who will monitor polls in 35 states.

"The goal of this program is to restore our faith in the democratic process and to make that process work," says Elliot Mincberg, vice president and legal director of People for the American Way, one of more than 55 groups comprising the Election Protection coalition.

The coalition, which also includes the AFL-CIO, the NAACP, and Working Assets, was formed in 2001 with the intention of dealing with election disputes on voting day, rather than in lawsuits after the fact, as happened in 2000, says Mr. Mincberg. Though the coalition claims to be nonpartisan, its main purpose is to ensure that minority voters are not disenfranchised - a traditional Democratic concern.

"I think both [parties] are equally concerned, but they have different things they're concerned about," says Sean Greene, research director for electionline.org, a website dedicated to election-reform issues. Republicans are principally worried about voter fraud, such as fraudulent registration forms and absentee ballots, while Democrats are mainly focused on increasing access and want less restrictive voter registration rules, he says.

Democratic lawmakers petitioned the United Nations in early July to monitor the presidential elections. Though this effort failed, the State Department did invite the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to send election observers.

The invitation was part of America's political commitment as a member of OSCE, says Urdur Gunnarsdottir, the OSCE's spokeswoman. Despite similar invitations in 1996 and 2000, this will be the first US presidential election monitored by the OSCE, which recently observed votes in Kazakhstan and Belarus. The group is sending 100 observers from its Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights and about 60 from its parliamentary assembly. The presence of observers reassures voters, Ms. Gunnarsdottir says. Since observers are briefed on election guidelines, they can handle questions or irregularities on the spot.

One of the unusual challenges of US elections is that their oversight is so decentralized. While significant election reforms have been enacted since 2000, such as the Help America Vote Act, implementation of these reforms is largely dependent on state and local officials.

"At that level, you have someone who is either a political appointee or was elected on a partisan basis" making decisions such as the criteria for accepting provisional ballots, says Mr. Boneo, one of 34 international observers recruited by Fair Elections 2004 to monitor the Nov. 2 vote. This departs from the direction in which international standards and practices are moving: independent, impartial electoral conditions.

The primary goal of Fair Elections 2004, a project of the human rights organization Global Exchange, is to bring transparency to the US electoral process through the independent input of international observers.

But the monitoring efforts are also attracting thousands of citizens, too. "You don't really have a place to stand to say, 'I don't agree with the policies,' or 'I don't agree with the candidate,' if you're not involved in the process," says Anna Phelan, an Election Protection volunteer from Somerville, Mass. "And everyone has an opportunity to be involved in the process."

A raft of election watchers

Several groups are keeping a close eye on this year's US presidential election. Some of the most prominent:

Election Protection: Coalition of 60 organizations recruiting poll-watching volunteers. www.electionprotection.org

electionline.org: A nonpartisan, nonadvocacy website with news and analysis on election reform. www.electiononline.org

Fair Elections 2004: A project of Global Exchange, a human rights group in San Francisco, to recruit international monitors to evaluate US voting. www.fairelection.us

Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe: Regional security organization of 55 nations, including the US, which is sending monitors for Nov. 2. www.osce.org

Verifiedvoting.org: Initiated a project to recruit experts to monitor accuracy of new voting technologies. www.verifiedvoting.org/techwatch

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