The world will be watching from close-up when the United States chooses a president next month, as foreign election observers fan out to polling places across the country.
For the first time, the Organization of American States (OAS) will dispatch 30 to 40 observers and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which has been sending small groups of observers to U.S. elections since 2002, hopes to boost its contingent dramatically, fielding hundreds of poll watchers.
Even Russia, where 63 U.S. observers traveled for parliamentary elections last month, is considering sending people to watch Americans vote, according to Yury Melnik, a spokesman for the Russian Embassy in Washington.
The plethora of poll watchers — some of whom are veteran monitors of elections in countries where voter fraud is rampant — is another sign that the 2016 contest is unlike any other.
Usually, the United States sends observers to countries where the vote is in some manner suspect. This year, America is on the receiving end of the scrutiny.
One reason is concern over new voter registration and identification laws passed by the states as well as diminished Justice Department oversight since parts of the 1965 Voting Rights Act were struck down by the Supreme Court.
Adding to the spike in interest is the allegation by Republican nominee Donald Trump that the election could be “rigged.” He has called on his supporters to go to polling places to act as a deterrent to potential fraud.
[Donald Trump recruits poll watchers, warns of election ‘cheating’]
Some of the foreign observers take pains to stress they are no more than what their name implies. They insist they will not intervene on Election Day but will instead publish their observations in postelection reports and make suggestions to improve any practices they find wanting.
“We are not policemen,” said Audrey Glover, a British Dame with the rank of ambassador who will head the OSCE mission here. “We would not interfere. We would not intervene. We would observe, and record if we see anything untoward happening.”
The OAS mission will be led by another woman, former Costa Rican president Laura Chinchilla. The OAS is now soliciting contributions for U.S. observation from the 34 democratic states in the Western Hemisphere that are members, so the size of the mission is uncertain. The country being monitored is not allowed to pay under OAS rules, so the bill is footed by other members.
Francisco Javier Guerrero, the OAS secretary for the strengthening of democracy, said Washington’s willingness to open its electoral system to outside scrutiny sends a powerful message that offsets a perception that the United States is paternalistic toward Latin America.
“The United States has never done it before,” he said. “But of course, this is a unique election.”
Accepting election observers is a requirement of the OSCE, and the United States is a member of the organization.
Mark Toner, a deputy spokesman for the State Department, said the presence of election monitors is a way of promoting free and fair elections in the region.
“We welcome OAS observation as an opportunity to demonstrate the United States’ dedication and support for this important function of the institution,” he said.
Michael Shifter, president of Inter-American Dialogue, said it may help when Washington argues other countries should do the same. Some, like Venezuela, have refused.
[Venezuela accuses OAS and United States of fostering a coup]
“I don’t think it’s because of this particular election,” he said. “But it happens to coincide with a very bizarre process where we have one candidate who’s raised the question of the election being rigged. That makes it particularly important and timely to do this.”
Riordan Roett, director of Latin American Studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, called it a “positive, symbolic gesture.”
“But I can’t believe the delegation from Latin America will really understand the intricacies of the U.S. electoral system,” he said. “Hopefully they will be able to talk to people, observe them coming and going and see if there are any challenges.”
One challenge is getting permission to observe polling places.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 12 states prohibit international observers. Among them are Texas and Iowa, where in 2012 state officials threatened to arrest OSCE monitors if they set foot in any polling place. Tennessee has a law forbidding observers from the United Nations, which has a partnership arrangement with the OSCE.
Some argue that more outside eyes are needed this year. That’s why the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a coalition of groups, asked the OSCE to expand its observer mission from the 44 who came in 2012.
Limits on the federal observer program run by the Justice Department mean there will be far fewer official U.S. observers, said Scott Simpson, a spokesman for the group.
“On top of that, you have a presidential campaign run with racial and religious animus as primary hinges, and a candidate actively encouraging people to go to polls to challenge voters,” he said. “This is dangerous confluence of events that make a perfect storm for voting discrimination in 2016.”
An OSCE needs assessment this spring asked for a mission of 500 people. It cited concerns with U.S. campaign financing, new voting technology, polarized views over voter identification laws, restrictions on felons voting and no voting representation in Congress for residents of D.C.
The OAS is eager to weigh in, too. Among the issues Guerrero said it will assess are political participation by minorities, campaign financing, identification cards and whether long lines impede voting. The OAS, too, will produce a report and suggest areas for improvement.
“We’re eager to contribute to the United States,” he said. “We feel we can give a different point of view.”
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