There will be far fewer international election observers than planned at this year’s fraught US presidential vote because of a combination of health concerns during the pandemic and the lack of an invitation from the state department for Latin American observers.
The electoral arm of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has had to scale down its ambitions because of Covid-related precautions and travel restrictions. It is sending 30 observers, instead of the 500 that had been recommended in view of the scale of concern about the US election.
The Organization of American States (OAS) has yet to receive an invitation to send observers to the 3 November vote, which is threatening to be the most contentious in modern US history as Donald Trump himself repeatedly claims it will be rigged and refuses to say whether he will leave the White House if defeated at the polls.
The OSCE’s election monitoring body, the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), had intended to send 100 long-term and 400 short-term observers, after its assessment mission warned the election “will be the most challenging in recent decades”.
But a cautious response from the OSCE member states who have the responsibility for recruiting and funding the trained observers meant the plans had to be drastically downsized.
The organisation is now sending just 30 long-term observers in a limited mission. The long-term observers, who arrive this week, will make assessments of the overall environment for the vote and are supported by a dozen core staff led by the head of mission, Urszula Gacek, a former centrist Polish politician and diplomat.
The short-term observers would have fanned out to polling stations around the country, particularly in battleground states, to give live assessments on the conduct of the vote. This year, they will not be coming.
“The safety concerns as well as continuing travel restrictions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic are creating challenges for all our election activities and particularly for the deployment of long- and short-term observers, who are sent directly by OSCE countries,” Katya Andrusz, the ODIHR spokeswoman, said.
“In this case, we ended up with a huge shortfall of long-term observers compared to the number we’d originally requested. In the end, we judged that it would simply be infeasible to deploy enough short-term observers to allow a meaningful observation of election day, and therefore changed the format of the observation activity to what we call a limited election observation mission.”
The OAS was invited to send an observation mission in 2016 and dispatched 41 observers from around Latin America, led by the former Costa Rican president Laura Chinchilla.
The state department did not respond to an inquiry on whether an invitation for 2020 would be sent at all.
Amid threats from Trump that he might not respect the result, and his repeated claims that postal ballots will be rigged, in absence of any historical evidence that they are vulnerable, the November vote threatens to be like no other.
US intelligence has warned that Russia is repeating the election interference campaign it unleashed in 2016, largely based on disinformation. There is also widespread evidence of voter suppression, most of it targeted at Black Americans.
In view of the dangers and the high stakes, the Carter Center, which observes elections around the world, announced it would launch a campaign in the US for the first time. It will involve supplying public information about the election and encouraging election officials to maintain transparency and access for observers, but it will not be deploying observers.
The political parties and non-government organisations will be deploying observers but Susan Hyde, political science professor at the University of California, Berkeley, said international observers could provide a useful international benchmark of whether an election is free or fair in a hyper-partisan atmosphere.
“The thing that seems clear from many other countries is that what international observers can do is be a clear outside actor which is interested more in democracy than in who wins and have expertise in the quality of the electoral process,” Hyde said.