Democracy & Civic Life

 

Ohio Valley states fall short of international elections standards in several key areas, according to an interim report from international elections observers the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. 

The OSCE conducts regular election observations in 57 nations including in the U.S. The group noted that Kentucky lacks a paper backup to its voting machines, and both Kentucky and Ohio have laws preventing international experts from observing the polls on Election Day, as is the global norm. 

“There is no perfect election,” said Katya Andrusz, a spokesperson for the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights. “We don’t go to any country to criticize it for not doing well enough, or we don’t compare it to other elections or other countries. The point is to go there with the same measuring stick that we have for every single country we go to have the commitments that the countries made long ago to uphold democratic standards for their elections.”

The report comes in the final days of a highly unusual election season, one in which expanded postal voting comes alongside voter disenfranchisement and unfounded claims of widespread voter fraud. 

Some Americans erroneously believe only new or fragile democracies need election observers, said Timothy Rich, an associate professor of political science and international affairs at Western Kentucky University. But, he continued, “You might want observers to see what works and what doesn’t, or see what a local might not realize is problematic that an observer, who doesn’t have skin in the game, doesn’t care who wins and who loses, might realize it is a problem.” 

Observers from the OSCE have deployed to the U.S. for eight previous elections since 2002. 

This year, beginning September 29, the OSCE deployed about a dozen election experts from all over the world, plus their staff, to Washington D.C. The OSCE also deployed 30 observers to 28 states across the country, some for short-term assignments and others for as long as a month. 

“We have campaign experts, political experts, and this time, we have an expert for new voting methodologies,” said Andrusz. “So he’s looking very hard at the way the postal vote is carried out, what machines are used and whether they’re workable, and whether anybody knows how to use them.” 

The Politics of Observing 

Kentucky and Ohio are among the states that expressly forbid international poll watchers on election day itself. But even in states that do allow groups like the OSCE to observe day-of, poll watchers can’t get a full picture.  

“Early voting, in-person voting, they can see that. Day of, they can observe that. They can see if there were long lines, or this machine was down, or the county commissioner wasn’t on the ballot for some reason,” said elections expert Rich. “But the process of, did you send the ballot on time? Did it come back from the right person? That part they really can’t see.”

Still, support for nonpartisan observers is high, according to a July survey of 1,000 people conducted by Rich and some of his students at WKU, with some 77 percent of Democrats and 60 percent of Republicans in favor. 

“Something that I wish we would have delved into, which we didn’t in the survey, is, are people only supporting this because they think the other side’s going to be fraudulent?” Rich added. 

For her part, Andrusz said the OSCE remains assiduously nonpartisan. “We’re not there to wade into the political debate. We’re there to see that the citizens of the country can make use of their right to vote, and that they are not hindered from doing that. And if they are, then we take note of it.”

How the Ohio Valley Measures Up

Some of the factors complicating the 2020 election are true everywhere. According to the OSCE, elections officials across the country complained about the extraordinary measures they had to take to combat misinformation. 

Voters will find it more confusing to cast their ballot this year amid ongoing lawsuits, last-minute changes to polling places, and the unfamiliar practice of voting by mail, which is newly available to all voters in several states. In some of them, including Kentucky and West Virginia, the change is temporary.

But the American elections system is diffuse, with some 10,500 jurisdictions conducting their own votes with differing equipment and under varying state laws, so many of the challenges are specific to states or even counties. 

Kentucky, along with other states including Indiana and Tennessee, uses electronic voting machines with no paper trail. The OSCE also noted Kentucky among states that had closed many of its polling locations due to coronavirus restrictions. 

The organization commended Kentucky for a 2019 executive order that allowed some people with past felony convictions to vote. Despite that change, an October 2020 report from criminal justice reform nonprofit The Sentencing Project found that 1 in 10 African Americans are disenfranchised in Kentucky, twice the national average. 

But it’s not all bad news. In general, elections officials had a high degree of confidence in the security of the elections, the OSCE found. That comes after a $425 million investment from Congress last December to enhance technology and security of elections.

“When one talks about election observation, it often gets very negative, because people are talking about the problem,” said OSCE’s Andrusz. “But it’s important to remember that elections are a celebration of a fundamental human right, of citizens’ civil and political rights, which is why we undertake the observation: To promote and protect those rights.”

Sydney Boles is the ReSource reporter covering the economic transition in the heart of Appalachia’s coal country.