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The Role of Election Observers

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Election monitors now accompany most every election held around the world. They come from a variety of countries and are usually representing a non-governmental organization.

Denise Dauphinais is a deputy director at I.F.E.S., a global democracy assistance organization. She says the Vienna-based Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe or O.S.C.E, is one of the main groups that provide monitoring.

Ms. Dauphinais notes, "They take people from all around the world, put them in a delegation, provide them with briefing and information about the election process and the legal frame work and the social conditions and the political environment in the countries that they're going to be observing in."

Ms. Dauphinais says election observers are usually volunteers who are provided with transportation and hotel costs and some expenses. But they don't normally receive a salary. She also says there is a slight difference between election monitors and election observers.

"An observer is normally someone who is there for a limited period of time, usually a fairly short-term observer," contends Dauphinais. "So you're probably talking a period to be there a period several days before the election, during the election and a few days after the election."

Ms. Dauphinais  says election monitors stay in the country much longer because they are observing all parts of the process from beginning to end. Those components include studying election laws, assessing the openness of candidates' campaigns and analyzing media influence.

"Are state owned media allocating time to the various parties that are contesting the elections," says Ms. Dauphinais. "Is the media being fair to the various parties or, in some instances, is the media actually serving to incite problems."

David Pottie manages election observation and democracy projects for the Carter Center in Atlanta, Georgia, an organization founded by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter. Mr. Pottie says election monitoring organizations are usually invited to observe proceedings by a host country.

"Sometimes it rests with the office of the president sometimes it rests with the electoral commission or whatever regulatory body is responsible for the conduct of elections in a particular country," says Mr. Pottie. "So receiving an invitation is certainly an important first step.

Mr. Pottie says most monitoring organizations become involved only when it is clear that they will be well received by a country's major political forces.

"A number-one priority is to respect the sovereignty of the country in question," states Mr. Pottie. "The Carter Center and most other major international election observer organizations do not try to impose themselves on any particular country. We can only work in a country if we are invited guests."

Mr. Pottie says safety is a big concern.

"Election observers in the Carter Center's practice are first and foremost volunteers," says Mr. Pottie. "So one is asking people to place themselves at considerable risk."

Tamara Gallo Olexy organized observers for the recent elections in Ukraine. She says international monitors were very important.

"The Ukrainian Congress Committee of America had over 2,400 international election observers that we specifically coordinated throughout Ukraine," notes Ms Olexy. "Getting a feeling back from all of the observers, they did feel as if they made some sort of impact."

She says impartial observers strengthened the electoral process in Ukraine by providing an independent view.

Ms. Olexy says, "They were able to assist the election observers from both candidates. And they were able to take notice if any violations were occurring and to comment on them to the local election commissions. For the most part, the local election commissions did heed their notice."

Elections are critical times when international participants can have a major influence. Their presence can increase confidence that votes will be counted fairly and that elections will have validity -- which is the essence of democracy. The Iraqi elections, however, may be an exception as very few international monitors will be in the country to observe balloting due to safety concerns. Our next Focus will examine the challenge involved in monitoring this historic election.

 

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