Monday, September 29, 2008

Curious minds want to know…

Each time I announce that I’m leaving to volunteer on an election observation mission with the OSCE, I get a wide variety of interesting questions.

This time is no different, so I thought I would share some of the Q&A with everyone.

Why are you going half way around the world to help them run democratic elections when we can’t seem to manage to do a good job right here?

Actually, I have observed elections here at home. I first volunteered as an observer during the 2004 elections when I got politically involved in Gig Harbor, WA.

If you and other Americans are going all the way to Azerbaijan for their election, will they come over here for our election?

You Bet! That’s how the OSCE works: all of the member nations (the U.S., Canada, the European Union, and the former members of the Soviet Union) exchange observers for their elections.

Having outsiders come in helps shed light on the process, and helps each nation have a better understanding on the health of one another's political systems.

Speaking of “healthy political systems,” how do they think we’re doing?

Well, we have “issues” – especially when it comes to a transparent elections process.

It turns out that access for OSCE observers during the 2004 election was sometimes limited to specific counties or to specific polling stations within a particular county, contrary to our OSCE commitments.

We also have a Federal system that creates a patchwork of different election laws from state to state, and sometimes county to county – and some of those places don’t even have provisions for elections observers of any kind!

The OSCE did provide recommendations to improve provisional balloting, absentee voting, voter identification and voter challenges, electronic voting, training for polling place workers, and new minimum standards for how elections are run here.

All of this is available in their exhaustive OSCE/ODIHR Election Observation Mission Final Report

Is volunteering as an international election observer safe?

Yes, it is - they take our security very seriously. One of my friends had security forces surround her hotel when there was an election-day riot - they were very safe!

The OSCE doesn't send election observation missions to nations where there isn't an established government, or where there's open armed conflict.

That being said, the Republic of Georgia and Russia did fight a brief war just a few weeks after I was there in May – something that was actually simmering before I went and mentioned in my pre-mission posting “Georgia in the News.”

How much do you get paid?

Nothing - I'm a volunteer.

How much does this cost you?

Nothing - the U.S. State Department, through a contractor, provides my airline tickets and covers my expenses.

How do you know where to go and what to do?

The OSCE makes all of the logistical arrangements - local transportation, accommodations, etc.

What do you know about Azeri election law that qualifies you to do this?

Nothing yet, but I'm a faster study than Sarah Palin...

The first thing we'll do after arriving in Baku and getting settled in is to receive a crash-course in everything we need to know about their election process. It'll cover all of the logistical and security arrangements for the mission, the political situation, election law, and the process for us to make our observations and complete our reports for later analysis.

When did you learn to speak Azeri?

I haven't yet, but language ususally isn't an issue.

The working language of the OSCE is English, so the members of the mission can all get along even though dozens of different nations will be sending observers.

My partner and I will be assigned a local driver and translator once we deploy to the area where we'll be working, and they will be very important to our ability to do our work - not to mention our ability to find a bathroom...

Do you get to sight-see while you're there?

Some of the most interesting site-seeing I’ve ever done has been on my OSCE missions – but it isn’t because I’m a tourist.

It comes about naturally as we familiarize ourselves with the area where we’ll be working by having our driver and translator take us out to visit the polling places ahead of time, as well as to meet local elections officials and candidates. We end up seeing some of the local sights along the way - and we always have some off-time in the schedule to explore as well.

Who will you work with?

I'll be paired off with someone from another country as a partner. Each two-person team gets a local driver and translator - the driver is usually just some guy who happens to have a car for hire, and the translator is usually a student from a local university.

What exactly will you be doing?

Well, I’m an “observer” and not a “referee” – we’re there to monitor the election process to see how closely they are following their own laws, and we note our observations on some very complex forms that contribute to the “big picture” when they are combined with the observations of hundreds of other teams all over the country.

What do you do if you see something suspicious?

As observers, we’re not allowed to interfere in the election process. We limit our involvement to asking questions through our translators, noting our observations and reporting them.

What happens when you're done?

A long bus ride back to the capital, a group debriefing, and a reception and all-night party followed by a 4 a.m. flight out of the country.

What becomes of all the work you did?

The OSCE analyzes all the data gathered by observes at dozens or hundreds of sites all over the country on election day to see if there are any specific trends to show how well their election process works. They will issue a statement of preliminary findings and conclusions the day after the election, and a formal report about eight weeks later.

What if I want to know more?

Just post a question to the comment section, and I'll answer it!


Anonymous said...

How do you volunteer to become an election monitor? What is the name of the contractor the State Dept uses?

Steve Breaux said...

U.S. citizens who want to participate on an OSCE election observation mission are recruited by a contractor call PAE.

You can visit their website is

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