Grand Forks Herald (USA)
29 May 2011
By Neil Simon
COPENHAGEN, Denmark -- North Dakota recently became one of only four states in the country to enact a law guaranteeing its elections are open to international observers.
To most people who follow the action in Bismarck, the one-page election observation act authored by state Sen. Ray Holmberg, R-Grand Forks, and signed into law by Gov. Jack Dalrymple barely was noticed as just another noncontroversial bill.
But by ensuring election observers uniform and nondiscriminatory access to all stages of the election process, North Dakota has achieved a quiet diplomatic coup.
When this law takes effect Aug. 1, the U.S. will be one state more compliant with its international commitments to allow foreign observation of elections as the government agreed in the landmark accords -- the 1990 Copenhagen Document.
Thousands of Americans travel abroad every year to observe elections -- often in volatile regions, sometimes in nascent democracies, other times in blatant dictatorships. In just about every country, there is a central election commission to handle these observers; but when our Canadian or European colleagues observe here, the process is much different.
In the election-observing business, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe is considered the gold standard. Our parliamentarians were in Moscow in 1993 for the first elections in Russia following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and we continue to be the leading government human rights watchdog in the 56-country region.
Following the disputed U.S. election of 2000, the OSCE decided that it was important to observe U.S. elections -- both to ensure the U.S. was upholding its democratic commitments, and to show we apply the same standards to established democracies as we do to countries in transition.
But across the U.S., our observers have experienced uneven access to polling places -- allowed in one county and sometimes denied in the next. Inconsistent laws governing observation from state to state and a lack of communication to the local level often make it hard to uniformly observe a national election.
That's why laws such as North Dakota's are so important.
State laws are the only way the U.S. can achieve some uniformity on this topic. Before this year, only South Dakota and Missouri had laws affirmatively allowing observers. This year, North Dakota and New Mexico joined them, and similar legislation was introduced in South Carolina.
The North Dakota case is a textbook example of information sharing, legislative networking and follow-through. I met Holmberg in December when I was presenting about international election observation laws to the National Conference of State Legislators. As vice chairman of the conferences elections and redistricting committee, Holmberg showed a keen interest in wanting to expand the number of states who welcome observers.
The strength of the conference goes beyond its relationships thanks to lawmakers such as Holmberg. He didn't just talk to his colleagues about upgrading election laws; he went home and did it.
"The interplay of international agreements, state election laws and local officials tasked with carrying out the elections was a great civics lesson for everyone involved," Holmberg told me after the conference.
As a border state, it makes sense for North Dakota to be a global leader on election observation.
I hope North Dakota Secretary of State Al Jaeger now will use the new law to raise awareness with county clerks about international observation. The National Association of Secretaries of State, of which he is a leading member, twice has approved an election observation protocol calling for observers to be welcomed "where state laws allow."
That language means legislative action still is needed in 46 other state capitals.
The unfettered access provided in this law should help instill greater confidence in the electoral process, and the voters of North Dakota should appreciate that the information gleaned -- at no taxpayer expense -- from observation reports can be as worthwhile as high-priced consultation.
By clarifying state laws in a non-election year, Bismarck has shown national leadership and given local election officials the time and clarity needed about observers to avoid confusion during the next campaign season.
Simon is communications director for the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.