The U.S. presidential elections have become a great show for international observers. Diplomats and election monitors who came to Washington for this week's balloting expressed as much fascination with the process as American voters have manifested anxiety over the outcome.
The Argentine ambassador, Jose Octavio Bordon, hosted a gathering Monday night of international observers.
Bordon received about 150 international observers from 30 countries, invited by the International Federation of Electoral Systems, and offered a sumptuous spread to the accompaniment of live tango music. The Argentine Embassy has hosted such election events since 1992. One of the participants, Enrique Zuleta Puceiro of Argentina, described the U.S. election as a showcase of democracy and the electoral process. Puceiro, a professor of law and sociology at the National University of Buenos Aires, served as Argentina's deputy interior minister from 1987 to 1989 and was in charge of the country's elections in 1989.
"I came here privately in 2000," he said. "The presidential election here is really the election of the world. Even today, we see American democracy always changing. Some may look at this election as a cultural war, but to us it is a work in progress.
"Citizens have demands, they always raise questions and contest several aspects of the electoral process. Opposition senators and parliamentarians come from other countries to learn.
"What the interest demonstrates is not that this is a crisis of polarized opinions, but also a turning point," he said. "There are aspects of the kind of electronic equipment used, financing reform, hardware, software and even identification techniques. With all the technical infrastructure of the elections and its critique, the United States today is a laboratory of experience."
Another observer was T.S. Krishna Murthy, the chief election commissioner of India, who said he came to observe and exchange expertise. He said India gradually began introducing electronic voting machines in 1984. He said the equipment was designed by Indian engineers and now is used successfully in India's 800,000 polling stations.
"It is a simple two-unit machine connected by a long cable," Murthy said. "It allows for a quicker movement of voters and has saved us tons of paper. No ballots are printed. Results can be announced within six hours after counting begins."
India has signed a memorandum of understanding with the United Nations to provide training for other countries, he said. The machine, which costs about $250, is simple and effective, and its use was endorsed by India's Supreme Court two years ago, Murthy said. Complaints about the electronic equipment involve less than 1 percent of the machines, and problems have been blamed on human error, he said.
Richard W. Soudriette, president of the international electoral federation, hosted about 100 ambassadors at an early Election Day breakfast Tuesday morning. He led 65 of the diplomats on a four-stop bus tour of polling stations, where they met the station managers.
The federation, whose logo includes the words "democracy at large," declares in its mission statement that "even advanced and mature democracies cannot take the health of their political systems for granted."
The Washington-based federation was established in 1987 as a nongovernmental, nonpartisan and nonprofit organization. It has provided assistance to promote elections and good governance in more than 100 countries, including the United States. With offices in more than 20 countries, it specializes in training and serves as a resource center on election-related technology.
"This is the biggest program we have ever had, and the first year I have so many ambassadors on one bus," Soudriette said. "We were expecting 120 people and we got 150."
"They are in a great mood and peppering us with questions," noted the group's spokesman, Keenan Howell.
Speaking from one of the buses by cell phone, Soudriette said visitors were impressed by the long lines of voters: "They were amazed by the large numbers of people we saw, halfway down the block at Alexandria City Hall, and quite amazed at the machine being used there."
The group is also providing assistance to an officially accredited 60-member observer delegation from the parliamentary assembly of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The OSCE sent its first delegation of 20 people to the 2002 U.S. midterm elections.
The Finnish Embassy, meanwhile, sponsored a working party Tuesday night for 16 legislators from Finland, dozens of journalists and embassy staff to follow the proceedings. A spokeswoman, Kristina Helenius, said the Finnish participants in the electoral federation were members of parliament. "They do it out of intellectual curiosity. The system in Finland is fine, but this being such a closely watched election, it is very intriguing for members of certain parties," she said.