The Historic OAS Electoral Observation Mission in the US

˙ Voces

On Tuesday, in a brief statement, the Organization of American States (OAS) announced that the United States would invite OAS election observers for the first time.  This observation mission, which will be active through the November 8th elections and headed by former President of Costa Rica (and Inter-American Dialogue board member) Laura Chinchilla, is an important step forward for the United States, the OAS, and the hemisphere.

Historically, the United States has not invited OAS observers. To some, this was an implicit argument that observers are a more useful tool for weaker or less-stable democracies. Moreover, no monitoring organization could thoroughly cover a country as large as the US, especially in absence of centralized election authorities. US elections are full of flaws and controversies, but most are of the sort—campaign finance, voter ID laws, decentralization, and inconsistent voting mechanisms and technology, for example—that OAS election observers will have little power to directly influence. Outright fraud is, of course, reassuringly rare—just as it is in most countries in the hemisphere.

In addition, the US already welcomes observers from the Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe (OSCE) and has done so since 2002, based on an agreement signed in 1990. And even these observers have not been without controversy. Some conservative activists and politicians have accused the OSCE of international meddling in US election affairs and at least two states, Texas and Iowa, have rejected them outright. In 2012, then-Secretary of State of Texas (and now Governor), Greg Abbott warned that any international observers approaching polling places could be subject to “criminal prosecution.” Even so, these observers have been largely effective—and already play a similar role to the OAS mission. According to President Chinchilla, who also led the OAS mission during the 2015 mid-term elections in Mexico, the OAS team of 20-30 representatives “will focus on the technical aspects of the electoral process.” This is similar to the OSCE observers.

“The invitation of the government of the United States… sends a powerful message to the international community, especially to countries in our hemisphere, that they participate in the mechanisms and processes they support to strengthen democracy around the world openly.”  – Laura Chinchilla

The key difference between OSCE and OAS observation, however, is that the former has an automatic invitation clause. In other words, accepting observers is a requirement of membership of the organization. The OAS, on the other hand, must be invited—making the decision to do so noteworthy and important. After all, the US State Department’s decision to not invite OAS observers before now was hardly unusual. A number of other countries with strong democracies, including Canada, Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina, and Chile, have also never extended an invitation.

But for so many important member states to treat OAS observers as optional was a striking missed opportunity, especially for the legitimacy and leverage of observation missions elsewhere. As President Chinchilla told me, this invitation “sends a powerful message to the international community, especially to countries in our Hemisphere, that [leaders in the United States] participate in the mechanisms and processes they support to strengthen democracy around the world openly.”

Twice in the past year the international community has strongly encouraged countries in Latin America to accept observers, and twice been rebuffed. In May, when Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega announced plans to bar any international observers, the US State Department urged “the Nicaraguan Government to issue a timely invitation to credible international observation missions” for the sake of “empower[ing] their citizens in determining the future of their country.” Similarly, the Venezuelan government rejected OAS observers in favor of an “electoral accompaniment mission” by the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) during last December’s legislative elections. Despite international criticism, the Venezuelan government refused to budge.

Hopefully, because of this mission, the State Department and the OAS will at least have a stronger rationale to encourage other countries in the hemisphere to rise to the same standard of transparency.  This could even be a step towards establishing a mandatory invitation clause for the OAS, although some argue that this would be financially unsustainable, practically unnecessary, and cause many countries to balk at perceived violations of sovereignty. Conversely, the OAS could work towards a system in which the Secretary General is empowered to dispatch a mission without invitation, as former OAS official Rubén Perina argued for in 2012. In either case, to build on this momentum, the US could now encourage Canada, Chile, Brazil, Uruguay, and Argentina to follow suit and also extend invitations.

Even if nothing else, this mission is an opportunity to further develop, strengthen, and publicize the role of the OAS, which has observed more than 200 elections in 27 countries since 1962. According to Francisco Guerrero, the OAS Secretary for Strengthening Democracy, beyond “issu[ing] recommendations in areas that could be improved,” this mission will also “gather good practices for other member states.”

In the meantime, it may also have some direct impact in the US. “We know that every democracy can be perfected,” argues Chinchilla. She’s right. After all, this is a campaign where one of the two main presidential candidates has warned that the election may be “rigged.” Another set of international observers to evaluate the process can’t hurt.