Foreign delegates visit Montco to observe election process

The Times-Herald

7 November 2010

When luminaries from the European Parliament travel to the U.S. to witness the American election process firsthand, what do they see?

Officially, the OSCE PA (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Parliamentary Assembly) delegation in Pennsylvania, which observed Election Day polls in Philadelphia and Delaware, noted a well-organized and "calm" procedure that embellishes an American commitment to democracy.

But the visiting delegates were also mindful of a lack of privacy and secrecy at polling stations, with voting booths and electronic machines crowding each other out.

They also perceived an "intense and dirty" campaign fueled by big bucks springing from unknown origins, which ultimately created an uneven playing field between candidates.

"This is a very different system than most European countries, which provide more public funding for campaigning, and where turnout tends to range between 70 and 90 percent," noted Nat Parry, OSCE's Research and Publications Officer.

Parry stated that the European observers' fascination with American culture seemed to equal their interest in politics in some ways.

"I think they were very interested to learn, in particular, about the distinct ethnic communities that define so much of Philadelphia's character," he added. "Arjen Westerhoff, from the Netherlands, remarked that he always thought that these distinctions were a thing of the past, so he was fascinated to learn that people still so strongly identify as Irish-Americans, Italian-Americans, Polish-Americans."

Although the delegation's members never made it to Montgomery County as planned, their would-be host Bruce Castor got a chance to spend some time with the group in the city.

"I was at the right place at the right time," Castor noted in his office at Blue Bell-based law firm Elliot Greenleaf. "In Montgomery County, I or the other two commissioners would have been the right person for them to talk to, but by happenstance, (Washington) contacted our law firm and I was the guy picked.

"I was very honored and felt like it was more of an opportunity to talk with educated political thinkers who don't have firsthand knowledge of how local elections run," he added. "It's not like you're talking to school children, who also don't know how elections are run. You're talking about sophisticated political operatives who simply don't know the setup."

With their visit kicking off with a day-long seminar, it didn't take long for the delegation to become hip to the American setup, Castor recalled.

"It only takes a bit of an explanation and the next thing you know, all these complex questions come out.

"Like, they'd want to know, if there are 67 counties in Pennsylvania, how can we possibly have 67 different boards interpreting what the election law says? ... which leaves you scratching your head, thinking ‘Yeah, that is kind of weird," he added, laughing. "Since elections in this state are run by the counties - even federal elections - you can see the nuances from county to county."

Castor remembered a conversation with one official who was "absolutely flabbergasted that we don't require photo identification to vote. He thought it was mind-blowing that people can just walk into the polls and don't have to demonstrate who they are to vote. It was an interesting exchange of views going on."

The Philadelphia area was chosen by OSCE as a metropolitan paradigm of sorts for the U.S., which Castor deemed to be an honor in itself.

"I think it's really neat that we're in the middle of all this, and I never heard of anything like this going on in our area before," he said. "Also, I thought we had an obligation that goes with sharing the knowledge of how elections and democracy (work), specifically, a Republican democracy - we don't really live in a democracy, we live in a Republic, and in a Republic the people elect representatives who make the decisions - and also a responsibility to speak with them candidly, so that if there are things they can improve on in their countries, they can do it."

In addition to Pennsylvania and Delaware, OSCE members were deployed to Virginia, Maryland, Colorado and Illinois, plus the District of Columbia.

The mission included 56 observers, of whom 42 were parliamentarians from 21 countries.

At a dinner held the night before elections, Castor got to break bread with Roberto Battelli, the OSCE delegate from Slovenia (population: 2 million), who was elected Treasurer of the Assembly last year. Since becoming a member of the Parliament in 1992, Battelli has surfaced as one of its keenest observers of elections throughout the world. Earlier this fall, he was on hand to monitor elections in the fledgling democracies of Croatia and Serbia.

Regretting that a visit to Montgomery County polling stations was unavoidably scratched from the OSCE agenda due to a time crunch, Battelli recalled a favorable welcome in Washington D.C. and Philadelphia, where the group was introduced to Mayor Nutter.

"Our group was very well received," he said by phone the day after the elections. "It was a wonderful experience and I'd like to thank everyone for their kindness and hospitality, and the support that we could count on at any moment."

He noted an "extremely positive" experience at each polling station he visited.

"We were grandly accepted at polling stations, with the people in charge and the voters. And we saw that procedures were followed properly, as far as what to do and how to do it."

Having been apprised of the typically poor turnout at polls in the U.S., Battelli noted that voting in his own country can frequently top out around 85 percent of citizens heading to the polls.

"Sometimes it can reach that height, but the general difference that exists between Europe and the United States is that, while it's true we are not used to the American way of doing things and a low turnout of 15 or 20 percent, we know that if we don't vote someone else always wins."

The importance of voting is regularly emphasized to Slovenia's youthful population, Battelli added.

He mused that the calendar may also play a role in the disparities.

"In Europe we vote on Sunday, so maybe that is also one of the reasons for poorer turnout in America.

"On a particular Tuesday perhaps people are working or have family (issues) and can not get to the polls."

The collective opinion of the Parliamentary Assembly, released in a statement on Wednesday, is that the U.S. electoral system continues to be decentralized and highly diverse, with a lack of uniform country-wide standards, which creates vulnerabilities in the system.

OSCE PA called for further debate to develop more uniform standards within the U.S selection system.

According to its website,, OSCE is the world's largest security-oriented intergovernmental organization, with mandates ranging from arms control, human rights, freedom of the press and fair elections issues.



Nat Parry

Head of Communications and Press

Office: +45 33 37 80 55
Mobile: +45 60 10 81 77
Email: [email protected]

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