State officials in Texas and Iowa have succeeded in putting the United States in the company of countries like Iran and North Korea this week after pledging to block access of international observers with the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) to polling places — even going as far as threatening to arrest the monitors. The actions are in direct violation with our long-standing position vis-a-vis other nations. It is a shameful position that, again, makes our country look like a hypocrites in demanding such monitoring in other countries but not allowing it in our own.
Greg Abbott, the Texas attorney general, sent a letter to the 57-member observer mission, warning that “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.”
Thomas Rymer, a spokesman for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, has said that the group always abides by local election laws. He correctly notes however that the denial of access to polling areas suggested by these officials, and the threats of arrest, contradict our own obligations under international law. Both Texas and Iowa officials have threatened to arrest monitors from the OSCE who come within a certain distance to the polling places. In Texas, it is 100 feet. In Iowa it is an extraordinary 300 feet.
Iowa Secretary of State Matt Schultz insisted that “Iowa law is very specific about who is permitted at polling places, and there is no exception for members of this group.” In the 2008 election, international OSCE election observers were turned away from polling stations in Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Ohio and Texas as well has having problems in areas of Colorado, Louisiana, Pennsylvania and Virginia.
Admittedly, these monitors act under generally defined provisions but these states are undermining our ability to take such a position in the future in other countries.
Yet, lawyer and Fox News Anchor Greta Van Susteren has defended the threats against international monitors: “The election is none of their business. We ought to be able to police our own election.” Of course, that is precisely the same argument used in Iran, China, and other countries. It is another example of what is often referred to as “American Exceptionalism” that we are simply unique and above the rules that we apply to other nations.
Even though state law may be clear, it is up to the State Department to make known to the states any clear obligations under international agreements. Notably, these monitors have been in the United States after being invited in by George W. Bush — a correct and admirable decision.