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International observers find fault with 2006 United States election and call for Congressional reform

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The Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, based in Warsaw, Poland, is the election monitoring unit of international Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.  The world's foremost election observation group sent a 18-member mission to the United States to assess the November 2006 election which has now filed its report.  This was the third U.S. election observed by OSCE.


Although no systematic observation of polling and counting procedures were conducted compliance with the Help America Vote Act [HAVA] was a central concern of the mission based on media criticism over the implementation of new voting technologies. The observers also noted that negative advertising was predominant throughout the campaign.


Campaign finance was also a focus of the review with the monitors commenting that alternative funding schemes have circumvented legal spending limits.


The ODIHR report highlighted a lack of public confidence in new HAVA funded voting equipment.  "Further transparency measures, such as access to software codes, independent testing, provision of voter verified paper train (VVPAT) or multiple audit mechanisms would enhance public confidence in the integrity of the new voting technologies."


One potential shortcoming of the new HAVA equipment drew a cautionary comment.  "In specific relation to the introduction of new voting technologies, however, the sharing of responsibilities between election officials, certification agencies and vendors could, at times, create difficulties in the effective management of the electoral process."


Restrictions on the right to vote drew specific attention.  "Only citizens of a state may elect members to Congress.  This results in the denial of suffrage for full congressional representation to some citizens residing in U.S. territories and Washington, D.C.  Furthermore, there is a broad range of practices with regard to enfranchisement of citizens who have been convicted of a felony.  While in two states prisoners are allowed to vote, in most states incarcerated felons cannot vote and in some states ex-felons are barred for life."


The practice of gerrymandering congressional districts was criticized.  "With a view to ensuring genuine electoral competition in congressional districts, consideration could be given to introduce procedures for drawing district boundaries that will be based on information other than voter's voting histories and perceived future voting intentions."


Commenting on the lack of uniform nomination requirements for Congress because of varying state laws the monitors suggest the states adopt model legislation.  "Consideration should be given to decrease the number of required signatures for nomination of candidates to up to one per cent of the number of registered voters in a given electoral district, in line with existing best practices."


The report also cites the "challenging aspect" of petition deadlines for new political parties in various states and says any deadline more than 75 days before an election are excessive and may be unconstitutional.  Uneven "write-in" requirements were also noted.


The number of unopposed candidates for Congress that didn't even have to worry about their name on the ballot got attention.  "The election laws of several states allow for an unopposed candidate to be elected as a member of Congress without having the candidate's name placed on the ballot.  With regard to the 7 November mid-term elections, it was reported that 34 unopposed candidates in 15 states became members of the U.S. House of Representatives by default.  Six of those were in Florida which is approximately a quarter of Florida's representation in the House."


Campaign funding had its own section in the report. "The high level of campaign expenditure is a striking feature of U.S. elections, with spending essentially unlimited by law, as freedom to spend on campaigning is equated with freedom of speech."


"The FEC's [Federal Election Commission] complaint process could be strengthened so that cases are completed more expeditiously and prior to the next elections for federal office.  Further, consideration could be given to enhancing federal legislation, by empowering the FEC to regulate such organizations["527"], should existing legislation be perceived as needing more clarity, and by applying federal campaign limits regardless of tax status."


The OSCE monitors want to open up primary elections.  "A review of the requirements of political party declaration for voter registration could be undertaken with a view to identifying other possibilities to facilitate voting in primaries and avoid registrants being asked to disclose their political affiliation."


Although the report supports a nationwide voter registration database it warns of problems posed by technology.  "Future implementation would benefit from developing common standards with regard to testing, certification, data usage and protection, and proprietary ownership of voter registration data and equipment."


The observers noted the partisan nature of the voter ID controversy and made some recommendations.  "Although there are no indications of impersonation or voter fraud occurring in anything other an isolated cases over recent years, it is a concern of some stakeholders….Voter identification requirements should be established well in advance of election day so that voters are correctly informed and polling staff fully trained….Establishment of uniform voter identification requirements could be considered.  If voters are required to produce identification documents, such documents should be readily available without any administrative or considerable financial burden to the voter."


Voting restrictions on ex-felons was highlighted for attention in the report.  "Restriction of voting rights for felons and ex-felons should be reviewed to ensure that any restriction is proportionate to the crime committed.  Restriction should be for a limited period and voting rights should be restored automatically after the expiration of an established period of time.  Financial debt or administrative barriers should not be obstacles to voter registration."

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Michael Richardson is a freelance writer living in Belize. Richardson writes about Taiwan foreign policy, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Black Panther Party. Richardson was Ralph Nader's ballot access manager during the 2004 and (more...)

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