The Peach State prepares for a political frenzy as a pair of January runoffs determine the balance of the Senate—and the shape of the presidency
International observers who began monitoring the U.S. election in September issued a preliminary report Wednesday, praising state and local officials for “orderly and peaceful” voting despite pandemic restrictions. But the observer mission criticized President Donald Trump for calling for a halt to counting ballots.
“Nobody—no politician, no elected official—should limit the people’s right to vote. Coming after such a highly dynamic campaign, making sure that every vote is counted is a fundamental obligation for all branches of government,” said Michael Georg Link, a parliamentarian who headed the short-term observer mission from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).
The mission largely includes elected officials from some of the 57 OSCE member states in Europe, North America, and Asia. Link is a member of the German Bundestag who served as minister of state for Europe and NATO, and once headed the OSCE’s office of democratic institutions.
Link told reporters at a Wednesday afternoon briefing, “Baseless allegations of systematic deficiencies, notably by the incumbent president, including on election night, harm public trust in democratic institutions.”
Poland’s ambassador to the United States, Urszula Gacek, echoed Link. She has served as head of the overall observation mission since early this year. “What stands out in the 2020 U.S. general election is the enormous effort made by election workers supported by many engaged citizens who ensured voters could cast their votes,” she said, “This was despite a pandemic, many legal and technical challenges, and deliberate attempts by the incumbent president to weaken confidence in the election process.”
The role of outside observers has gained attention with the 2020 elections, as pandemic restrictions and legal challenges have mounted, and partisanship on both sides has deepened. The delegation heads took particular notice of Trump’s wee-hours appearance in the East Room of the White House Wednesday to declare victory, even as vote-counting continued.
Flanked by Vice President Mike Pence and the first lady, Trump thanked supporters and said he had already beaten his Democratic challenger, former Vice President Joe Biden.
“We did win this election,” he said, listing victories in states where vote-counting was continuing, including Georgia, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania. He called the ongoing tabulations “a fraud on the American public” and said, “we’ll be going to the U.S. Supreme Court. We want all voting to stop. … We will win this, and as far as I’m concerned we already have won it.”
During the campaign, the president called into question states’ tabulations of mail-in ballots and early voting procedures. A record number of Americans took advantage of those procedures to avoid Election Day crowds as cases of the coronavirus spiked across the country.
Even before polls opened on Election Day, several states had gone to court over how and when they could count mail-in ballots. The Trump campaign late Wednesday filed suits to halt the ballot counts in Michigan and Pennsylvania, petitioning for increased access to observe vote-counting. The campaign also filed suit against Georgia over absentee ballots an observer says were wrongly added to a stack of other ballots. Trump voters in Arizona also claimed counting irregularities there Wednesday.
The OSCE delegation’s preliminary findings said the COVID-19 pandemic “was an enormous challenge” for American voters, but “Election Day itself was peaceful and took place without unrest or intimidation.”
The mission flagged perennial concerns over U.S. elections—that voter ID requirements in some areas “create an undue hurdle” and disproportionately affect certain groups, and that an estimated 5.2 million citizens are prohibited from voting due to criminal convictions, though half have served their sentences. “These voting restrictions contravene the principle of universal suffrage,” observers found.
The OSCE supervises observer missions under the Paris Charter signed in 1990, and the 2020 Election is its ninth observer mission to the United States. Under terms of the charter, the U.S. State Department invited delegates on March 4 this year, said Link. A long-term delegation began its work in late September, while parliamentary observers arrived later to focus on Election Day polling. Due to the pandemic, the OSCE team was smaller than usual, yet observers covered early voting and Election Day activities in 30 states. They also visited U.S. postal facilities to inspect handling of mail-in ballots.
With each state determining its own voting procedures, observing U.S. elections is complex. Eighteen states do not allow observers in polling places, Gacek said, including battleground states Pennsylvania and North Carolina. In those cases observers meet with election officials and party leaders.
Election observation is considered key to ensuring the integrity of the process. But observers don’t interfere in that process—they record problems and issue reports, sometimes meeting with officials to discuss ways to improve the process.
Link said the observer mission will remain on the job in the United States as long as vote-counting continues, and it will issue a final report in coming months.
Free elections are “not in fashion” in parts of the OSCE, Link acknowledged in his remarks Wednesday, and the results of the 2020 election are important not only for U.S. voters but for the world: “This fascinating country has the strength to show that nobody is perfect, and that every democracy … can enjoy opening up and profit from it.”