The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Russia wants to observe U.S. voters on Election Day. Three states said no.

Sealed ballot boxes in a county warehouse in Texas, as officials are preparing for the election. (Jason Hoekema/Brownsville Herald via AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

Russian authorities have asked local U.S. officials if they can observe polling locations in at least three American states on Election Day, but they were rejected amid intense scrutiny of that country’s actions regarding the upcoming elections.

Foreign observers have come to the United States to monitor elections before, so such visits are not rare, but Russia’s requests came as American officials are examining efforts by the Kremlin to interfere with the 2016 race. Earlier this month, the U.S. government formally accused Russia of trying to interfere with the electoral process.

Officials in Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana all said they received requests from Russian authorities in August. All three states turned down these requests last month.

The states received identically-worded letters from Alexander K. Kazharov, Russia’s consul general in Houston. In these letters, Kazharov asked them to let an officer of the Consulate General of the Russian Federation in Houston “be present (for a short period of time, when convenient)” at a voting station “with the goal of studying the US experience in organization of voting process” during the presidential election.

Oklahoma and Texas officials rejected the requests, citing state laws, while their counterpart in Louisiana said he would have been open to the request during any other year.

U.S. investigating potential covert Russian plan to disrupt November elections

“While it would be our honor to offer the opportunity to observe our voting process, it is prohibited under state law to allow anyone except election officials and voters in or around the area where the voting takes place,” Oklahoma Secretary of State Chris Benge wrote back.

Texas Secretary of State Carlos H. Cascos responded late last month that Russian observers were not allowed in his state because it is a misdemeanor there for unauthorized people to go inside polling places.

Cascos added that his office could help set up a meeting for Russian representatives to speak with local election officials in Harris County, home to Houston.

Louisiana Secretary of State Tom Schedler also denied the request, though he said he would have been glad to oblige during a different year, something his state has done in the past.

Schedler explained that election officials were still reeling from the impact of the historic flooding that devastated a swath of Louisiana in August. In his letter, Schedler said a third of his employees were affected by the flooding and that his short-staffed office was still working to deal with changing precinct locations stemming from the floods.

“Had this flood event not occurred, we certainly would have been open to such a visit, but I cannot meet such a request with the situation I currently have in front of me,” he wrote. Schedler asked Kazharov to contact him again in 2020 if he is still interested in such a visit.

Foreign election observers to cast their eyes on the U.S. presidential vote

All of the letters sent by Kazharov are dated Sept. 24, according to copies each state provided to The Washington Post, though officials all say they received the letters in late August.

Donald Trump, the Republican presidential nominee, has come under fire for his stances on Russia and the cyberattacks. Among other things, he has praised Russian President Vladimir Putin and refused to acknowledge expert consensus that Russia was behind the hacks.

He has also repeatedly claimed without evidence that the upcoming election will be “rigged” and called on his supporters to gather at polling places in “certain areas” to watch for fraud, which voting-rights advocates have worried could lead to voter intimidation.

Still, the repeated reports of Russian attempts to meddle with the election have sparked anxiety about the security of the voting system.

The FBI has warned state officials to watch for intrusions into election systems, and officials said they believed Russians were behind an assault on Arizona’s election system. The Department of Homeland Security has offered state and local election officials help in preventing or responding to Election Day cybersecurity disruptions.

The Russian consulate general in Houston did not respond to a request for comment from The Post on Friday, nor did the Russian Embassy in Washington. [UPDATE: The Russian Embassy posted a statement online saying they were “baffled" by the federal government’s response and said “in this case our American colleagues are lacking transparency."]

report published Thursday by Russia Today, a state-owned news agency, quoted a Russian election official who said that “Americans obstruct Russia’s attempts to monitor their elections because they see them as a threat.”

This report said that the requests to send election observers was rebuffed by federal and state authorities. According to Russian officials cited in the story, the United States rejected Russia’s bid to send observers and “even threatened to bring criminal charges against any that appear at ballot stations.”

The State Department said Friday that individual states, not the federal government, can decide whether or not to allow observers.

During a briefing, State Department spokesman John Kirby said that despite the U.S. government’s belief that Russia is trying to impact the election, he didn’t believe his department had discouraged any states from accepting Russian observers.

“We’re very confident in the stability, the security, and the strength of our electoral process,” Kirby said. “There’s no reason to hide from that.”

There are 12 states that prohibit international observers, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In 2012, officials in two of those states — Texas and Iowa — had threatened to arrest international observers if they came too close to polling places.

State Department spokesperson Mark Toner said in a statement that Russia could have joined a contingent of election observers sent by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which has dispatched groups to U.S. elections since 2002, noting that American officials joined such a group last month to observe the Russian parliamentary elections.

“The fact that they have chosen not to join the OSCE mission makes clear this issue and the story are nothing more than a PR stunt,” Toner said, remarks that were echoed by Kirby.

The Post's Ellen Nakashima goes over the events, and discusses the two hacker groups responsible. (Video: Jhaan Elker/The Washington Post)

On Friday, the White House press secretary Josh Earnest said that it was not clear why Russia had made this request, but he said it made sense to question their intentions.

“I think it’s appropriate that people might be suspicious of their motives, or at least their motives might be different than what they have publicly stated, given the nefarious activities that they’ve engaged in in cyberspace,” Earnest said during the daily White House briefing.

The U.S. intelligence community had been looking into what officials called an “ambitious” Russian campaign aimed at the upcoming American election and U.S. influence worldwide.

Donald Trump has repeatedly rejected the suggestion that Russia was involved in hacking the Democratic National Committee, despite being given this assessment during a private intelligence briefing.

His comments on Russia have drawn considerable criticism during the campaign, as in addition to praising Putin, he also suggested that the United States should work with Russians to fight the Islamic State. Trump’s comments on Russia and Putin have been sharply criticized by Hillary Clinton, his Democratic opponent, as well as many Republicans.

Further reading:

As Russia reasserts itself, U.S. intelligence agencies focus anew on the Kremlin

Russian hackers targeted Arizona election system

This story, first published at 3:20 p.m., has been updated with comments from the White House and State Department briefings.