Tuesday, May 01, 2007

What Am I Doing Again?

For many of my friends, this is a refresher course – but for some of you, this is the first time that you’ve lived vicariously through someone going to a far-off land to volunteer as an elections observer.

Here’s some background:

Although I've always kept up on politics, I didn't really get involved until fairly recently - shortly after moving to Gig Harbor, Washington a few years ago. Having become active in local politics, I was asked to participate as an observer during the manual-recount of the votes during our very close governor's election here last year. For those of you not in Washington think "Florida - 2000" but without all those "chads" in a governor's election that separated the winner by 129 votes out of nearly three million...

During that episode, I met some people who said "If you think looking over a vote counter's shoulders is fun here, you should try it overseas!”

And, after some encouragement and on-line research, I applied to volunteer as a Short Term Observer (STO) with the OSCE.

The OSCE is the Organization for Security & Cooperation in Europe - which is a group of 55 countries including the U.S., Canada, Europe, and the former Soviet republics. It is involved in a huge variety of projects - from arms control to border management to conflict prevention. Their website is

One of their very important programs is to assist the participating member states in building democratic institutions. This is done by their Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), which is active throughout the OSCE area in the fields of election observation, democratic development, human rights, tolerance and non-discrimination, and rule of law. They deploy volunteer elections observers to member states whenever those states request an OSCE presence to validate their elections as meeting international standards. Many Americans might be surprised that the OSCE-ODIHR deployed an Election Observation Mission to Ohio during the 2004 Presidential election (their final report on that election is less than encouraging).

OSCE missions are only deployed when there is a request by the host nation, and when there is a peaceful environment in which a democratic presence has been initially established. They are 100% safe.

Alright... 99% safe. It’s always advised to use bottled water, and whether you do or not it’s also a good idea to carry your own toilet paper. Election night on July 3, 2005 found me wandering the Albanian countryside at 2 a.m. with a flashlight in one hand and a roll of Charmin in the other...

So how did I end up on one of these "missions?"

To become a participant, I had to complete a very complicated application process with PAE-REACT, a corporation that recruits qualified individuals for placement in a database that is used by the State Department in selecting Americans to fill various OSCE positions.

I'll be participating as a STO on a typical ten-day mission to Armenia to watch them set up polling places, cast their ballots, and count the votes. To get some idea of what my trip may be like, visit the "Week in the Life of an Election Observer" webpage at http://www.pae-react.com/ by clicking on "Photo Gallery" and then use the drop-down menu to choose "A Week In the Life of an Election Observer."

On this particular mission, the United States is deploying about a dozen Americans as part of an international group of about 300 short-term observers to the May 12 parliamentary elections in Armenia. You can learn more about the OSCE involvement at http://www.osce.org/odihr-elections/item_12_23637.html

In 2005, I was one of 37 Americans to volunteer along with about 400 STOs from other nations in Albania for their Parliamentary election – details of which are below in the blog I originally started to chronicle that experience.

How can I afford to fly half-way around the world to do this?

Well, someone else is making all of the arrangements and paying for everything - all I have to do is the work! Each county covers the expenses of their volunteers, including their roundtrip airfare and providing them with a stipend to cover the costs of their accommodations, meals, in-country transportation and pay for their translator.

It may sound like a paid-vacation, but we’re actually roughing it. My outbound trip will last 22 hours, of which 17 hours will be in coach seats on three different flights across 11 time zones. Can you say “jet lag?”

And, once I get to my destination, I’ll be staying in the luxury of the best one-star accommodations to be found in all of Armenia...

But the people I’ll be meeting will offer great conversation on politics from all over the world, and I’ll be totally immersed in a week-long Armenian civics lesson. It’s a great adventure for a political geek like me, but it’s also a great opportunity to hopefully lay-over in Europe on my way back for a bit of vacation.

I’ve gotten much less notice for this mission than I did in 2005 – it’s less than a week to go, and my passport still hasn’t been sent back to me with my visa and airline tickets – so it looks like I’ll be cutting it close and adventuring with minimal time to plan ahead.

So – I’ll let you in on the specifics as soon as I know them...



paul said...

Have a good time! I'll be there a few months after you. Armenian politics have really heated up and this is its most important election in its history since independence, according to some! So have a good time and enjoy it!

Onnik Krikorian said...

Well, welcome. I'm a British photojournalist of Armenian descent based here in Yerevan and covering the election for EurasiaNet.

I also run a blog that's obviously been full of photos, commentary, and links to other news relating to the election of late.

It's at: http://oneworld.blogsome.com

Ever want a chat over a beer with myself and some other journalist friends, give me a shout through.



Onnik Krikorian said...

BTW: It's too late for you now, but it's possible for anyone to get a visa online or actually at the airport upon arrival. Anyway.

MikeAT said...

Have Fun...