Election monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) have repeatedly irked Russian officials in recent years with their criticism of the country’s voting process.
With two weeks remaining until the US presidential election, the OSCE seems to have found trouble in the state of Texas as well.
In a diplomatic kerfuffle that has landed on the desk of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Texas state attorney general Greg Abbott has warned the OSCE’s foreign election observers to steer clear of Texas polling stations during the Nov. 6 election or risk criminal prosecution.
“It may be a criminal offense for OSCE’s representatives to maintain a presence within 100 feet of a polling place’s entrance,” Abbott wrote in a letter to the organization this week. “Failure to comply with these requirements could subject the OSCE’s representatives to criminal prosecution.”
The warning came as a “bit of a surprise” given OSCE observers’ experience monitoring US elections since 2002, said Thomas Rymer, a spokesman for the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), the OSCE’s election-monitoring branch.
“We were in Texas in 2008, and in San Antonio our observers were inside a polling station,” Rymer said in a telephone interview, adding that the threat of criminal prosecution is “a serious cause for concern.”
ODIHR director Janez Lenarčič said in a statement that he had relayed his “grave concern” over the threat to Clinton.
The State Department told the OSCE that “this is an issue they are definitely looking into,” Rymer said.
“We’ve had excellent cooperation with the State Department,” Rymer said. “They got back to us quickly, and we are hopeful we’ll be able to work through this.”
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland confirmed at a news briefing Thursday that Clinton had been made aware of the OSCE’s concerns.
The OSCE is a regional security organization made up of 56 UN member nations across North America, Europe and Central Asia. Its election-monitoring arm regularly sends observers to elections in member states, including the United States and Russia.
In his letter to the OSCE, Abbott noted that the organization’s observers had been in contact with liberal US activist groups, such as Project Vote, “that have filed lawsuits challenging election integrity laws enacted by the Texas Legislature,” including voter ID laws.
“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 to Dutch diplomat Daan Everts, head of the organization’s 57-person observation mission for the US election.
In August, a federal court in Texas struck down a state law requiring voters to present photo identification in order to cast their ballots, saying the law would negatively impact poor and minority voters.
Abbott announced after the ruling that he would appeal to the US Supreme Court in the case.
In a letter to Clinton on Thursday, Abbott said Project Vote is affiliated with the now defunct community-organizing group ACORN, which was the focus of several voter-registration fraud cases.
The OSCE’s affiliation with Project Vote “necessarily undermines its credibility and the independence of its election monitors,” Abbott wrote in the letter.
Abbott also chastised the OSCE for its appeal to Clinton for assistance in the matter.
“It appears that OSCE is under the misimpression that the State Department can somehow help its representatives circumvent the Texas Election Code,” he wrote.
Rymer, the spokesman for the OSCE’s election-monitoring arm, said the monitors meet with representatives of groups across the political spectrum and that they are interested only in the election process—not results.
He also noted that election-day poll observation is just one part of the monitoring process. Others aspects include examining election laws, media campaigns, and appeals after the votes have been counted.
“The methodology we’re following here in the United States is the same we follow in any participating states,” Rymer said, adding the organization had monitored more than 250 elections in OSCE member countries.
Top Russian officials in recent years have criticized OSCE election monitors, who have regularly questioned the fairness of Russian elections.
In a February 2008 news conference with foreign journalists, Russian President Vladimir Putin lampooned ODIHR’s comically clunky Russian acronym - “BDIPCh” in the transliteration from Cyrillic - as “jarring to the Russian ear.”
In the same news conference, Putin proposed an overhaul of the organization and said its election monitors would be better off teaching “their wives how to make cabbage soup” than teaching Russia about democracy.