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Since 2007, I’ve been an official election observer. It’s grueling work but strengthens trust in democracy and keeps a lid on electoral fraud.

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A rally of the Ata Meken party in Jalal-Abad province, southern Kyrgyzstan, in 2015 (photo by Julian Nundy)

It was shortly after 8 o’clock when the polling station chairman ushered us into a side room.

Inside was a table laden with food and drink, from sparkling water to wine and chilled vodka. A normal scene for Shakhtarsk, a mining town in the Donetsk province of eastern Ukraine where I was on an election observation mission, although even there not so normal in a working environment.

One problem was that it was not 8 pm, but 8 am, and our working day that hot Sunday in September 2007 had begun just an hour and a half earlier. My Russian diplomat partner tucked in and took a shot of vodka with his cold meat, sausage and potato salad. I had a more modest snack and demurely declined the booze.

We had been warned. At briefings in Kiev, the mission chiefs from the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) had told us to be on our guard for Ukraine’s “legendary hospitality.”

‘Election observers help keep leaders in check and build trust.’

I was hardly naïve since, nearly 40 years before, I had been a British Council exchange student for a year in Kiev, then capital of Soviet Ukraine, before being posted to Moscow by Reuters in 1971. So I was no stranger to local customs.

That 2007 election mission, where I was a short-term observer, was my first. I have now been a short-term observer on seven missions, six times in the former Soviet Union and once in the Balkans.

I have also been a long-term observer, spending between five weeks and three months on the ground, nine times. The long-term missions took me back to Ukraine as well as to Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan and Russia. My most recent long-term mission, for local elections in October 2020, was to eastern Ukraine, divided since 2014 after pro-Russian rebels took over parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces.

What is the purpose of observation?

For the OSCE and other observation bodies, monitoring ensures supervision of the technical processes and helps build local populations’ trust in new institutions as well as head off or expose fraud.

“Credible election observation is important for the transparency of democracy,” said Alexander Shlyk, a Belarus national who stepped down in January at the end of 10 years at the OSCE’s election department, which he headed from 2016.

“Observers’ reports help keep elected leaders in check, not only based on their deeds but also in terms of how they come to power. Recommendations made by observers also help improve future elections.”

Even a mature democracy such as the U.S. can need observers.

If election observation is largely perceived as aimed at countries where democracy is young or fragile, this is not always the case. The OSCE carries out an assessment whenever an OSCE state plans an election and then decides on the level of monitoring needed.

Since the troubled U.S. presidential election in 2000, pitting George W. Bush against Al Gore, American elections, including last year’s contest between Joe Biden and Donald Trump, have been covered by OSCE observers.

I first took an interest when I was a reporter covering Ukraine’s Orange Revolution in 2004. Crowds filled the streets after the second round of the presidential election — confounding all the polls — handed victory to the incumbent pro-Russian prime minister, Viktor Yanukovych, over Viktor Yushchenko, a former prime minister and central bank chief seen as a pro-Western reformer.

One element fueling public anger, driving thousands to set up a tent city in central Kiev, was the preliminary report on the elections from the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), concluding that there had been widespread electoral violations, intimidation, fraud and suspicions of fraud. The report was made public at a news conference the day after the vote.

The uproar led Ukraine’s Supreme Court to annul the results and order a new second round — which Yushchenko won comfortably — five weeks after the earlier vote.

I was there at the birth of the OSCE.

The OSCE grew out of a Soviet initiative, and I was one of the first to report on its beginnings. One summer evening in 1973, on duty in the Reuters Moscow bureau, I took a call from the Luxembourg embassy. Their foreign minister was in town and wanted to see someone from Reuters. Shortly after, with just one other guest, a colleague from Agence France-Presse, I was in the embassy garden with the minister, Gaston Thorn.

Thorn, who was later to become Luxembourg’s prime minister and then president of the European Commission in Brussels, recounted a conversation he had just had with Alexei Kosygin, the Soviet prime minister. Kosygin said the Soviet Union wanted a “conference on security and cooperation in Europe,” principally to enshrine the post-World War Two frontiers on the continent.

Preliminary talks were soon underway, and this led to the Helsinki Final Act of 1975. A new organization, the CSCE, was created, turning into the OSCE in the 1990s when its most high-profile role was to monitor and mediate during the violent breakup of the former Yugoslavia.

Today, the OSCE numbers 57 “Participating States,” including the 15 post-Soviet republics, all of Europe and North America. In its own words, the OSCE covers “Vancouver to Vladivostok.”

After the Soviet Union and communism collapsed in 1991, the OSCE turned its attention to helping new democracies in Eastern Europe draw up electoral codes and run elections.

It joined other bodies that were already providing election assistance and monitors: the European Union, which operates mainly in Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America; the Organization of American States, which concentrates on the Americas; and civil society groups such as the Carter Center in Atlanta founded by former President Jimmy Carter, particularly active in Myanmar and Africa.

The work is punishing.

On the ground, how is the actual observation carried out?

Long-term observers, or LTOs, are deployed to a specific region several weeks before a vote to make initial contacts with local authorities, particularly election officials — all districts have their own election commissions that report to the Central Election Commission in the capital — NGOs, political parties and candidates, as well as regional officials from the governor and chief of police down. They also have to make logistical arrangements for their team of short-term observers, or STOs, and decide where to deploy them and then brief and debrief them.

STOs arrive in the country a few days before election day, then do the actual rounds of 10-12 polling stations, staying a minimum of 30 minutes in each.

The work is punishing. After a day or two of familiarization with their area, STOs have to rise, especially early on election day, to start with the last-minute preparations and opening of a polling station. Election-day work ends with a closing and a vote count before accompanying the chair and other officials of the final station to the district commission to watch tabulation of the results for the whole constituency. The working day often lasts about 24 hours.

At each halt, the STOs fill out detailed questionnaires, covering all stages of the process, with special forms for any suspicious incidents. In the capital, members of what is called the Core Team, grouping analysts with various skills from election law or politics to statistics, start their assessment as the forms roll in.

Observers are now part of the process.

On my first mission in 2007, we took forms several times a day to a post office to fax them to Kiev. Now, we use an “electronic pen” on forms on special paper. We tick a box at the end of the form, and the contents are transmitted instantly to OSCE computers.

Every team, both short-term and long-term, consists of two observers, who must be of different nationalities and chosen by their home countries, often by their foreign ministries. They are assisted by a local interpreter/assistant, even when both observers speak the local language, and a driver with their own car.

Because the electoral process is recent in many emerging democracies, they have modern electoral codes based on an OSCE blueprint and often the latest technology.

In Central Asian Kyrgyzstan, at parliamentary elections in 2015, voters were for the first time identified by biometrics using a fingerprint — their photo flashed up on a screen in polling stations if they were correctly registered to vote there. If they were in the wrong station, they were redirected. One aim of this Japanese-funded procedure is to make it impossible for the same person to vote more than once.

South Korean-built ballot boxes included a scanner that counted votes as they were cast. At closing time on election day, the push of a button brought up preliminary results for each polling station, which were then confirmed by an old-fashioned hand count.

I am often asked how useful observation really is. I repeat the points about transparency and building trust. But I also remark that, wherever I have been, local officials and politicians have been almost invariably welcoming and helpful. They plainly now see observers as part of the process.

Election observers in Sumy, northeastern Ukraine, at the end of a mission for the spring 2014 presidential election. The author is second from right at the back.

Three questions to consider:

  1. What is the purpose of election observation?
  2. Can you give an example of modern technology being used in elections in an emerging democracy?
  3. Is there an example of observers being deployed for elections in an established democracy?
Alistair Lyon author news decoder-150x150

Julian Nundy joined Reuters in 1970 and was posted to Moscow, Paris, then Brussels, with stints in the Middle East reporting on the Lebanese civil war and the Iranian Islamic Revolution. As a staffer for Newsweek, the International Herald Tribune, The Independent and Bloomberg, he covered the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, the assassination of Egypt’s Anwar Sadat, conflict in Bosnia and the Ukrainian Orange Revolution.

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EyewitnessAs an election observer, I help build trust in democracy
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