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OSCE Concerned About US Voting Procedures - 2004-09-29

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which monitors elections around the world, is expressing concern about some voting procedures in the United States, which it says could affect the integrity of the U.S. presidential election in November.

After a visit to Washington early this month, an advance team of experts from the OSCE is expressing concern about new high technology voting procedures in some areas of the United States, and low technology procedures in others.

OSCE spokeswoman, Urdur Gunnarsdottir, says a just-published report on the visit concludes that new electronic voting equipment could cause more disputes than the old mechanical machines or punch cards.

"It hasn't been fully available for independent scrutiny but perhaps the main problem is in some states the equipment doesn't provide a written record], doesn't provide a manual audit and so it can't be recounted," said Ms. Gunnarsdottir. "There's no written [printout], you cannot receive a piece of paper once you've voted electronically, you cannot receive a piece of paper confirming that you have voted."

Ms. Gunnarsdottir says this could be important in states where the result is close, as it was in several states in the last U.S. presidential election four years ago.

The report is also critical of the software installed on new touch-screen computers that will be used for voting in some areas. The OSCE team says the machines are not secure from unauthorized interference.

The U.S. mission to the OSCE in Vienna declined to comment on the organization's advance report. The association of companies that make electronic voting machines acknowledge there are concerns about their security and reliability. But the association says such machines have several memory systems to keep track of the votes, and provide removable memory storage systems that can be used in recounts, if necessary.

The OSCE does not endorse specific voting procedures, but it says whatever system is used should be reliable and secure, and should provide a record that can be reviewed after the voting is done. OSCE officials say voting machines in some U.S. states meet those criteria, but others do not.

The U.S. law called the Help America Vote Act, passed in 2002, called for reforms and new machines to avoid the complications caused by old methods like the punch cards that caused such problems in Florida four years ago. But the OSCE says mechanical and punch-card machines will still be in use in almost half of the states this year.

The OSCE also criticizes the absentee ballot system in the United States, which allows voters to fax their ballot papers. The Organization says this is not consistent with the principle of the secrecy of votes, as laid down in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The OSCE is sending about 100 observers to the United States at the beginning of next month to observe the final weeks of the campaign, election day and counting procedures. The organization was invited by the U.S. State Department, as is customary among OSCE member states. The organization recently observed elections in Kazakhstan and currently has election observers in Ukraine.

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