Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott channeled his inner Vladimir Putin on Tuesday when he fired off a letter to a group of international election observers informing them they would not be welcome within 100 feet of polling places in Texas.
Abbott criticized the Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe (a international body that counts the U.S. and 55 other countries as members) for its plans to deploy election monitors to Texas to observe the November 6 elections. (The OSCE observers were invited by the State Department and will also be stationed in some forty other states.)
Here’s an excerpt from Abbott’s letter, in which he informs the OSCE that the group lacks jurisdiction over Texas’s elections:
While it remains unclear exactly what your monitoring is intended to achieve, or precisely what tactics you will use to achieve the proposed monitoring, OSCE has stated publicly that it will visit polling stations on Election Day as part of its monitoring plan. …
If OSCE members want to learn more about our election processes so they can improve their own democratic systems, we welcome the opportunity to discuss the measures Texas has implemented to protect the integrity of elections. However, groups and individuals from outside the United States are not allowed to influence or interfere with the election process in Texas. This state has robust election laws that were carefully crafted to protect the integrity of our election system. All persons—including persons connected with OSCE—are required to comply with these laws. …
The OSCE’s representatives are not authorized by Texas law to enter a polling place. It may be a criminal offense for OSCE’s representatives to maintain a presence within 100 feet of a polling place’s entrance. Failure to comply with these requirements could subject the OSCE’s representatives to criminal prosecution for violating state law.
Abbott notes that Project Vote, an left-leaning organization that has filed lawsuits objecting to Texas’s voter registration and voter ID laws, appealed to the OSCE to send observers to the state. “The OSCE may be entitled to its opinions about Voter ID laws, but your opinion is legally irrelevant in the United States, where the Supreme Court has already determined that Voter ID laws are constitutional,” Abbott wrote, pointing out that a federal court upheld Texas’s voter registration laws in September but failing to note that Texas’s own voter ID law is currently hung up in court.
Ambassador Janez Lenarčič, the Director of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), expressed “grave concern” over Abbott’s letter on Wednesday.
“The threat of criminal sanctions against OSCE/ODIHR observers is unacceptable,” Lenarčič said in a press release. “This threat, contained in an open letter from the Attorney General of Texas, is at odds with the established good co-operation between OSCE/ODIHR observers and state authorities across the United States, including in Texas,” the release continued.
Lenarčič stressed that OSCE observers are just that—observers—and will comply with local laws and will not “influence or intervene” in the election process in any way.
This is hardly the OSCE’s first foray into monitoring an American election. At ThinkProgress, Hayes Brown noted that the presence of OSCE observers is “neither an unprecedented event nor particularly worrisome” as the organization has “had monitors present to observe every national U.S. election for the past decade.”
Observers from the organization first observed a U.S. presidential election in 2004, at the invitation of the Bush administration. And, according to a 2011 article in the Wall Street Journal, “[t]he OSCE’s monitoring body … is widely regarded in the West as the most authoritative assessor of electoral fairness.”
Secretary of State Hope Andrade, for her part, acknowledged this history in a letter Tuesday that asked the OSCE to “clarify its mission.” “We have had a long and productive relationship with OSCE and election process observers,” Andrade wrote. “The exchange of information establishing best practices has been important and insightful and, up to now, completely devoid of any partisanship.”
Many decrying the presence of these election monitors have mischaracterized them as “U.N. observers.” But before Lubbock Judge Tom Head begins congratulating himself for being right about his prediction that the U.N. would invade Lubbock, it is worth noting that the OSCE is not, in fact, part of the U.N. but is a “body created by U.N. charter.” Brown provides some background on the organization in his post at ThinkProgress:
The Organization for Security and Cooperation (OSCE) is a group of over fifty countries in North America, Europe, and Central Asia committed to security and strengthening democracy. Counter to many of the exclamatory statements by the right-wing, the OSCE is not a part of the United Nations, but instead is loosely affiliated with the global organization.
According to the 1990 Copenhagen Document, which the U.S. has signed, all member states of the OSCE are called upon to accept monitors to observe their elections. As a founding member, the U.S. has taken part in dozens of observer missions over the years. In allowing observers into the country, the United States is preventing setting a precedent for other, less democratic states, to ban these monitors.
One of the main voices leading the outcry against the OSCE monitors is Catherine Engelbrecht, founder of True the Vote, a Houston-based tea party group that has trained thousands of its own poll-watchers to, the group maintains, crack down on voter fraud and “restore truth, faith, and integrity to our elections.” But liberal critics see True the Vote as a voter suppression effort. (For more about True the Vote, see Abby Rapoport’s two-part series on the group at the American Prospect and Jane Mayer’s October 29 piece in the New Yorker.)
“These activist groups sought assistance not from American sources, but from the United Nations,” Engelbrecht told the Hill’s Alexander Bolton in a statement. “The United Nations has no jurisdiction over American elections.”
Engelbrecht appeared on Fox News for six minutes Monday to discuss the “U.N. election observers” with Megyn Kelly, who asked her, “Now we’re going to have U.N. observers come in, from countries like, we’re told, Ukraine and Kazakhstan, and they’re going to show up at the polls in Texas and they are going to try to tell the Texas voters that they have to do it the way it is done according to some official from the Ukraine?”
On Twitter, Governor Rick Perry also chimed in, referring to the observers as U.N. monitors:
No UN monitors/inspectors will be part of any TX election process; I commend @txsecofstate for swift action to clarify issue.
— Rick Perry (@GovernorPerry) October 23, 2012