A Banana Republic, If You Can Keep It

The OSCE in Vienna monitors elections around the world. Its report on the US midterms found the elections to be just as fair as those in the ex-Soviet Republic of Georgia

It may seem arrogant for an organization operating out of little Austria to be monitoring the US midterm elections. Is Austria, an absolutist monarchy until 1918 and a fascist state a generation later, now sitting in judgment over the world’s oldest and second largest functioning democracy?

Well, not quite: It is the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), working out of modest offices tucked in between the Café Central and the fashionista stores in Vienna’s 1st district and fulfilling a broad international brief of conflict prevention and judicial reform. And the monitoring of elections.


Despite its name, the OSCE has 57 member countries (including Russia and the USA) and a remit well beyond Europe. The American midterms were covered with 36 observers deployed across the country on October 10, with a preliminary report released November 8, the day after America voted.

The report is a measured, “Yes, but …” The electoral system is sound but flawed in local pockets, information availability was broad but the tonality vicious. So far, nothing we don’t already know.

The report’s cool, clear language combines praise for procedure and the professionalism of those at the polling stations – with criticism of fundamental faults in the overall fairness of the system. Although the observers found no major irregularities or evidence of partisan misconduct, they also determined that “the fundamental right to suffrage was undermined in places by the disenfranchisement of some groups and the lack of full representation in Congress.” Altogether, about 11 million voters were disenfranchised.

In most European countries voter registration is virtually automatic: Just turn up with your ID at the allocated polling station and make your mark.

Not so in the US of A. Most voters must make a special effort to register to vote. There are few binding federal rules; sometimes it is state law, sometimes county, with 10,500 local jurisdictions, ample terrain for manipulation. Journalist Flora Mory of the Austrian daily Der Standard dug a little deeper: There were plenty of minor incidents, ranging from mechanical snafus to mild incompetence – but curiously enough, usually at polling stations in electoral districts with a strong concentration of African-Americans or Hispanics. Who would have thought it?

Nonetheless overall turnout at about 49.3% was high by American midterm standards, even if it looks low beside European averages of 70% to 80% (Germany and Austria). Interestingly enough, black American voter turnout is historically not a lot lower than white – 60% to 65%. It is eligible Asian and Hispanics who don’t vote (only about 32%). Their share of the population is over 20% and growing fast, so watch this space.

The report also focused on the medial warfare leading up to the election. Of course the First Amendment not only protects freedom of speech but encourages a robust exchange of views. This can be abused: “There was an overall respect for fundamental freedoms,” the OSCE commented, but “campaign rhetoric was often intensely negative and, at times, intolerant, including on social networks….[including] statements with xenophobic and anti-Semitic connotations.” Observers were also troubled by “a lack of transparency” in campaign financing and online advertising and with “disinformation from both domestic and foreign sources.”


Just days earlier, by coincidence, the OSCE had also published its report on the October presidential election in Georgia. Many of the comments were eerily similar:

“While public broadcasters provided all candidates a platform… [the campaign] was dominated by controversial topics polarizing public opinion, negative campaigning and harsh rhetoric.” And on transparency: “The State Audit Office (SAO), mandated to exercise party and campaign finance oversight and respond to violations has insufficient human resources to effectively monitor campaign finances.”

However, in one respect the wild mountain country of Georgia could not compete with forthright American political debate. The OSCE reported that “Verbal attacks on journalists [in the US campaign] and news media by senior officials raised concerns over their safety and undermined the essential role of media in a democratic society.” There was no mention of threats to journalists in the Georgian election.

While the OSCE had come at the invitation of the US Department of State, individual states can see things differently. In fact, twelve states have laws on their books specifically prohibiting international observers from entering the polling stations – and not only the usual (Southern) suspects, even squeaky clean liberal Connecticut. In Ohio, the secretary of state informed the organization it was not welcome. Understood?

The official report was, of course, suitably diplomatic. OSCE president George Tsereteli summed up: “While the rhetoric we heard … was often divisive, Americans came together to vote in professionally run elections.” Well, perhaps. Christian Caryl of The Washington Post came to quite a different conclusion: “Now I know what it feels like to live in a banana republic.”

The American republic is over 300 years old, but it took a long time to enfranchise groups like women, blacks and indigenous Americans. Even so, just between 35% (midterms) and 60% (presidential elections) of the voting eligible population (VEP) usually bothers to turn out on Election Day – or actually gets the chance to.


Leave a Comment