Despite concerns that this year's especially rancorous campaign might lead to clashes at polling stations, and that voter suppression might hamper turnout, the officials were mostly concerned by long lines, particularly during the morning hours in Maryland (they visited polling stations in Greenbelt and Chevy Chase). Long lines, although discouraging to some voters, generally indicate a healthy turnout.
“There was a very high turnout in Maryland, but there was only one machine at the first place we stopped,” said Emad Alsaiah, chairman of Libya's High National Election Commission. This is the first presidential election he has witnessed in the United States, and he was impressed. “We don't have these kinds of technology there. We still use paper, and indelible ink.”
Asked when he thought he might see a presidential election in his home country, which is in the midst of a protracted civil war and has lost some of its territory to the Islamic State, Alsaiah said with a grimace, “Probably not in 2017.”
The tour of polling stations was organized by the International Federation for Electoral Systems, which has been hosting foreign election officials since 1992. The organization's president and chief executive, Bill Sweeney, said he had been a bit worried that, given this year's election climate, some precinct officials and voters might be reluctant to interact with foreign observers.
“The idea that the election is being observed by foreigners is a, well, a different phenomenon, you could say, for many people,” Sweeney said. “But really the only trouble we've had so far is some voters thought the observers were cutting them in line.”
The U.S. government has also invited hundreds of foreign election observers from two major international institutions, the Organization of American States and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The former is sending about 40 people, while the latter has more than 600 at its disposal.
They will be present at polling booths in most of the country's states, and are mostly tasked with bringing lessons home to their countries rather than spotting fraud, which is exceedingly rare. An OSCE spokesman told Voice of America that Indiana, Delaware, Maine, Missouri and New Jersey were states where the group's observers would not be deployed.
Sweeney did say that this year's observers had more questions for him about the possibility of election results being hacked than in previous years. A common question he fields is about how results are transported from the polling station to wherever they get counted.
“In other countries, I've been in jeeps with soldiers carrying 50-caliber machine guns,” he said. “At one of the stations we just visited in Maryland, the precinct coordinator simply puts the ballots in his car and drives them himself.”
Donald Trump, the Republican candidate for president, has repeatedly asserted that he believes the current election to be rigged, and polls have shown that a majority of his supporters think a win could be stolen from him.
The international observers touring the polls certainly did not think that was possible. Many of them come from countries where votes are stolen, and sometime brazenly. In Gabon this summer, the son of a longtime autocrat won a second term in an election widely considered a sham. His home region registered 99.3 percent voter turnout, while the national average was 59.6 percent. Those numbers gave him enough to win by a measly 6,000 votes. Gabon's independent election commission sent a representative to the United States to observe procedures here.
“American elections have integrity,” said Vuma Mashinini, chairman of South Africa's Electoral Commission. “In Africa, we are familiar with mischievous perceptions that are propagated by politicians to undermine the integrity of an election. They will tell you that it is rigged. And there, maybe it can be so. But in America you have checks and balances, and transparency, and an increasingly automated process, and therefore enhanced integrity.”