"In the U.K. there'd be a riot"

The passion and patience of early voters impress international observers of the U.S. election.

By Oliver Burkeman
Published November 2, 2004 5:19PM (UTC)
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Justice Bekebeke is no stranger to long lines of voters at polling stations, angrily committed to making their vote count. He just never thought he would see it in Florida. "It is something phenomenal," the chief elections officer for South Africa's Northern Cape province said Monday, on a sweltering morning in downtown Miami, as the last of the early voters queued for up to three hours. "To see this passion is really something that could inspire the rest of the world."

To put it bluntly, an inspirational election in Florida would be a best-case scenario.


Bekebeke belongs to one of two delegations of international observers who were taking up their positions across America's swing states Monday to monitor the vote for evidence of long-rumored dirty tricks: harassment of voters at the polls, illegitimate challenges to people's voter registrations and ballot fraud. "Normally we say that the kids learn from the adults, but sometimes it's those wise adults who can learn from the kids," said Bekebeke, fresh from monitoring the Rwandan election last year. "That's the spirit in which I'm here in America."

Just over 100 foreign observers, mainly from Europe, are focusing their efforts on Florida, Ohio and a few other states in the face of increasingly fractious disputes, primarily over Republican plans to challenge the eligibility of newly registered voters.

The Bush campaign appeared to have suffered a defeat on that score Monday when two Ohio judges ruled that activists would not be allowed to challenge voters inside polling stations.


One of the two cases was brought by a black couple in Cincinnati who argued that the Republican plan was designed to suppress the African-American vote -- a viewpoint echoed by Jesse Jackson, who called it "Old South politics." Republicans called the decision "erroneous" and lodged an appeal. [Update: Early Tuesday a federal appeals court reversed the two lower courts' decisions, a blow to Democrats.]

The international monitors will not intervene should they witness harassment. "We do not interfere. That's a very important principle," said Urdur Gunnarsdottir, a spokeswoman for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which is sponsoring most of the observers. "What we will do is to issue a preliminary report on Thursday."

There have been certain tensions between the monitors and their host nation: Authorities in Miami-Dade County, scene of much of the recount drama in 2000, have refused to allow monitors to go within 50 feet of polling stations. Then there is the culture clash: the Greek OSCE delegation dispatched to Fort Lauderdale reportedly refused to stay in nonsmoking hotel rooms there.


But xenophobic hostility from voters themselves has been entirely absent, insisted Owen Thomas, a British monitor and chief executive of the election management firm Electoral Reform Services, brought to the U.S., like Bekebeke, by the human rights group Global Exchange. "It's quite the opposite -- they see us at the early voting sites and actively want to talk to us," said Thomas, who was struck by the patience and persistence of Florida voters. "They have to queue for hours," he said. "In the U.K. there'd be a riot."

So far, the Global Exchange monitors said, they had witnessed no improprieties. But the true test comes Tuesday. The fact that early voting sites have not been the scene of tense registration challenges between voters and party workers does not necessarily mean the election will be clean. It may be because there are so few sites open prior to the day itself: Their catchment areas are too big for activists to coordinate the information they need to challenge people successfully.


The U.S. Justice Department is dispatching more than 1,000 of its own observers around the country, including to Long Island, N.Y., as a result of a surge in Hispanic registrations there.

Oliver Burkeman

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