For the first time since its founding in 1948, the Organization of American States – an international organization that aims to foster regional solidarity and cooperation in the Americas – kept a close eye on the U.S. presidential election in hopes of standardizing a democratic culture among member states.
The organization’s mission for the election was to investigate new voter registration and identification laws, which several states passed shortly after the Supreme Court struck down Section 4 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. These laws required literacy tests, and were aimed at disenfranchising the black community.
OAS Director of the Department of Electoral Cooperation and Observation Gerardo de Icaza Hernandez is in charge of leading this mission, and navigating the sea of conflicting arguments on the issue of campaign funding.
“If an international organization recommends a neutral way of hearing both sides of the [financial] argument, one saying money has to do with freedom of speech, the other saying there is unregulated spending in politics, we can [study the specific] national issues and the international standards [to] make the recommendation that will best suit the country,” de Icaza Hernadez said.
Laura Chinchilla, former president of Costa Rica and a spring 2016 fellow at Georgetown’s Institute of Politics and Public Service, led the 243rd OAS mission, which has observed elections in 27 of its 34 member states – all American states aside from Cuba – with the U.S. being the newest addition to the organization.
Before 1989, OAS observers were deployed only occasionally and in small numbers to witness elections and tended to arrive only on Election Day. Nowadays, missions have evolved into extremely sophisticated exercises that employ both standardized methodology and high-end technology, the latter being capable of monitoring everything from the announcement of an election to the actual vote. Among the OAS’s central areas of concern are voter registration, campaign finance, political participation and voting systems technology.
“We observe the pre electoral, electoral and post electoral phases of elections, we look at many aspects of the process,” Chinchilla said. “We mainly focus on political inclusion, which encompasses gender equality, participation of indigenous peoples and afro descendants.”
The OAS deployed 41 experts and observers to 11 states and the District of Columbia. For Melene Glynn, a political analyst from Trinidad and Tobago, the pre-election preparation was just as tense as Election Day.
“I was allocated to observe Iowa, and, two weeks before deployment, I was already familiar with the systems and the electoral processors. [Having already set] up meetings, when I got there I could actually have interviews with key people, especially the state officials, the Deputy Secretary of State who handles elections, political parties in Iowa [and] civil society,” Glynn said.
Glynn added that speaking with people directly involved in managing the elections allowed her to understand how the electoral process unfolded at both the state and the national levels.
“I was on the road the whole day, since we tried to be at the polling station before the opening [to] see what the procedures were and [at the closing of the polls] to ensure that anyone waiting in line was able to exercise their franchise,” Glynn said.
The U.S. posed a very specific challenge to observers, who were not used to monitoring a decentralized election in such a large territory. Each observer needed to be very knowledgeable about their designated state. The differences between states were ultimately included in the OAS observations in order to determine whether such specificities affected the overall system and election process in terms of reported final counts.
“It was impossible for us to have a presence in all 50 states, so we decided on a system that would allow us to have a plural view of the US territory,” de Icaza Hernandez said.
De Icaza Hernandez also commented on the organization’s goal of analyzing different kinds of voting systems at play: Written ballots, punch cards, mail ballots, machines and optical scanners.
“We were in states that had a strict voter ID rule and states that didn’t, and we evaluated if there were significant differences between them. We visited states with early voting and absentee voting, as well as states with voter registration on the same day,” de Icaza Hernandez said.
The United States’ role in facilitating the observations extends beyond the election, helping to create a culture of transparency among member states.
“This vote of confidence from the American government certainly goes beyond the general inter-American dynamic. All OAS members are governed by the same international obligations, and transparency is something every member can benefit from,” said Luis Almagro, Secretary General of the OAS.
Chinchilla further recognized what such a reliance of the U.S. on the OAS entails.
“The invitation to observe these elections means that [the] United States is open to receiving our observations and recommendations to contribute to the improvement of its electoral system,” Chinchilla said. “These missions make valuable contributions even in well-established democracies. All electoral processes can be perfected.”
Democratic culture has increasingly expanded over the American continent, with several established electoral and constitutional states not only in North America but also in South and Central America, as well as in the Caribbean.
“This was a historic mission for the OAS, but also for the US, as well as a bit of a reality check,” said de Icaza Hernandez. “The U.S. [has contributed to the Inter-American socio-cultural landscape] in a dual way: not only on the giving and promoting end by donating money for electoral observer missions, but also on the receiving end [by] being part of the mechanism and reaping its benefits.”
Electoral observation is intended for both fledgling and well-established democracies. This historical observation also accounted for characteristics unique to the U.S. electoral process with respect to those conditions prevailing in the rest of the continent — especially state management and the differences in technology, procedures and established voting rules it ensures.
After monitoring elections in multiple countries over the years, OAS has considerably refined its observational mechanisms during the course of this observation.
“It’s just the cherry on top. The organization is based here, our headquarters are here, so having been able to finally observe in the U.S. finally is incredibly positive,” Glynn said
The OAS Electoral Observation has a dual function.
“It was a learning experience in which the US was able to share with other OAS member-states its best practices, while receiving recommendations on areas of improvement issued by an impartial, objective and neutral actor based on international standards,” Chinchilla said.
The OAS preliminary report was presented on Nov. 9. Later on, the organization will present a comprehensive report which will include the general observations and highlight positive practices and official recommendations, to the OAS Permanent Council.
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