WASHINGTON -- International election observers on Wednesday criticized the unlimited campaign spending seen during the U.S. presidential election, saying it raises questions of transparency about the U.S. political process.
Ambassador Daan Everts of the Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe (OSCE) called the lack of campaign spending limits and disclosure by corporations and unions something that, while rooted in the U.S. tradition of free speech, is a concern for voters.
"Free speech is something you shouldn't touch, not in the states and not elsewhere," Everts said during a news conference to announce his organization's findings. "But having money spent is a political purpose and not having to disclose the origin of the funding, that seems to raise questions and has raised questions of transparency."
The OSCE's presence at U.S. polling sites across the country caused something of an uproar in recent weeks amid misleading reports that they were poll monitors from the United Nations. While the U.N. considers the group a "partner", it had nothing to do with the OSCE's election observation activity.
"I want to dismiss the notion that we are bunch of U.N. invaders from another planet," Everts said. "We are very technical, professional, nonpartisan election specialists...doing the job that we have been doing for many, many years now in the countries of the northern hemisphere."
As one of the organization's founding participating states, the U.S. government has been inviting the OSCE to observe elections since 2002. This year, it deployed 44 observers to polling locations in 33 states but was blocked from doing so in eight others: Alabama, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Mississippi, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Texas, deputy mission head Charles Lasham said. In Alaska and Tennessee OSCE officials were offered "controlled access" to voting sites, which they did not accept."
Lasham said the decisions by states to block OSCE monitors happened at the local level, not by individual secretaries of state.
Everts blamed "misinformed news articles," that gave state attorney generals "the misperception that we would be there to interfere, that we would act as challengers." Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott in particular threatened to prosecute any observers who went near any polling location.
"It was a matter of quickly setting the record straight…we are not intervening, we are nonpartisan, we are professional and we always comply with [state] regulation," Everts said.
As election observers, Everts said the OSCE's mission is to make recommendations and hope they will be transformed into legislation. He noted the difficulty in generalizing about U.S. elections because everything is handled at the state and local level, though he offered praise for the U.S. electoral process on the whole.
"What we have seen is a general election taking place in a very open, very competitive environment and being well-administered," Everts said. "Generally speaking, our firm impression is the electoral process seems to enjoy broad public confidence."
Specific concerns noted, in addition to campaign finance, were voter list accuracy; lack of recount procedures in place; and voting rights.
Everts specifically mentioned the differing laws among states about restoring the voting rights of convicted felons.
"The international norm suggests that those who have served a sentence should be restored in all their civil rights, however in some states here the voting rights is permanently denied," he said. "From a human rights point of view, that [is something that could hopefully change] before next election."
While noting the controversy over voter identification laws, Everts didn't offer a specific judgement on whether they were the right or wrong course to take, noting only the equal importance of integrity in the voting system and access to it.
"We consider that both are important, of course elections should be as fraud-proof, on the other hand it's also very important to make it possible for people or even easy for people to cast their vote," he said.