early voting
early voting

When voters go to polling places across the United States on November 8 hundreds of international observers will be watching the election of a new president and members of Congress unfold.

The observers represent two major organizations that have a long history of this kind of work, but are more prominently known for doing it in other parts of the world and not the U.S.

Who are they?

The U.S. government asked the 35-member Organization of American States – with its headquarters a few blocks from the White House -- to monitor an election for the first time this year.

“The United States Greatly values OAS’ important work promoting free and fair elections throughout the region,” said U.S. OAS representative Kevin Sullivan. “We welcome OAS observation as an opportunity to demonstrate the United States’ dedication and support for this important function of the institution.”

Former Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla is leading the effort involving 40 experts from 16 nations.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which observed the 2012 election and six others in the U.S., is returning for the 2016 vote.

Lisa Hubbard, a volunteer with the non-partisan El
FILE - Lisa Hubbard, a volunteer with the non-partisan Election Protection Coalition, attends an early voting celebration outside of Jackson Memorial Hospital, on the first day of early voting in Miami-Dade County for the general election in Miami, Oct. 24, 2016. OAS and OSCE observers will participate in the U.S. election.

The 57-member organization has a much larger team than OAS, with more than 600 observers in all. Most are focused on following the proceedings at polling places, while some are looking at the bigger picture of the electoral process at the state level.

What are they looking for?

The international teams will be working alongside poll watchers from political parties, a role that has gained prominence during the presidential campaign with Republican candidate Donald Trump raising concerns about vote fraud.

Numerous studies have found little evidence of fraudulent votes being cast in the United States. But the international observers are not looking for malfeasance, but rather looking on as more of a learning process for both other nations and to help the U.S. strengthen its own system.

That is a little different from elections in other countries where observers are often cited as either reporting a vote was free and fair or that there were some irregularities. A recent example is the August presidential election in Gabon, where European Union observers raised questions about the seemingly high turnout in the incumbent candidate’s home district.  
The OAS said in the United States it will be looking at issues involving electoral organization, technology, campaign finance and political participation, and produce a report highlighting best practices and potential improvements.

Idaho voters head to a new food truck-inspired vot
FILE - Idaho voters head to a new food truck-inspired voting unit in Boise, Idaho on Sept. 27, 2016.

The OSCE will also make recommendations in a report to the government and the public.

“No electoral system or process is perfect,” it said. “Past elections have shown that there are areas where improvements can be made.”

The organization has already issued a preliminary report of what observers have seen ahead of the vote.

It notes concerns about the reliability of new voting systems in some areas, lower voter registration rates among minorities, and the outsized influence that major political donors may have based on their role in financing campaigns.

The OSCE also said that while there has been extensive media coverage of the race between Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton, comparatively little coverage has been devoted to other issues and contests.  Those include the races for the Senate and the House of Representatives, in which a combined 469 of the 535 total seats are up for election.

Where are they?

The OAS says its election day observers will be in Washington, D.C., as well as in 11 states: California, Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Maryland, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, New York, Rhode Island and Wisconsin.

Chinchilla has also met with election officials in Georgia and Pennsylvania.

FILE - The head of the OSCE (Organization for Secu
FILE - The head of the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) mission, acting Chief Observer Paul Picard, center, speaks to the other members in Rostov-on-Don, Russia, July 29, 2014. OSCE observers will be participating in the U.S. election.

The OSCE said its observation effort planned to cover two-thirds of the 50 U.S. states. A spokesman said the states where observers will not be deployed include Indiana, Delaware, Maine, Missouri and New Jersey.

U.S. elections are overseen by state and local authorities, meaning certain rules such as who is allowed to observe and under what conditions vary from place to place. A majority of states welcome international observers either explicitly under law or in practice.

Those that do not allow the observers, according to a list from the National Conference of State Legislatures, include the traditionally key battleground states of Florida and Ohio.

The National Association of Secretaries of State has encouraged state and local officials to welcome international observers, saying they have “become an important part of the democracy-building process.”

After the 2012 election, the OSCE’s assessment cited “broad public confidence” in the vote, but identified some areas that persist in conversations about the U.S. electoral system.

“Further steps should be taken to improve the electoral process, in areas such as voting rights, the accuracy of voter lists, campaign finance transparency, recount procedures, and access of international election observers,"the OSCE report said.