Impartial observers help build confidence in the quality and integrity of elections. By providing assessments and recommendations to election authorities on all aspects of the process, independent observers help ensure that electoral practices protect voters’ civil and political rights.
In the U.S., we generally accept election results and, with some exceptions, trust the electoral process. But no election is perfect. Feedback from observers — especially from nonpartisan groups that have no stake in the outcome — can foster improvements in both law and practice. In turn, such changes can enhance the voter experience and strengthen American democratic processes.
In 1990, the U.S. signed the CSCE/OSCE Copenhagen Document, thereby accepting a series of commitments to respect and advance democratic rights and freedoms and to allow observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to observe U.S. elections. However, because U.S. elections are administered at the state, county, and municipal levels rather than by a single national entity, election administration laws — including regulations for election observers— vary widely across the 50 states.
The Carter Center, in collaboration with the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), has launched a project to examine the laws that govern observers in U.S. elections. The objectives are to verify which regulations apply to election observation across all the states in the U.S., to better understand the degree to which independent observers have access to the electoral process, and to explore how impartial observation might help improve U.S. elections.
The Carter Center has extensive experience with nonpartisan election observation and building consensus on election standards. In 2005, the Center helped draft the Declaration of Principles for International Observation, which establishes professional guidelines for credible nonpartisan observation.
A central purpose of election observation and assessment is to increase transparency and help identify both good practices as well as areas where there is room for change. Observers can provide data-driven analysis to help identify useful improvements. Though the Center does not observe U.S. elections — choosing instead to focus our efforts on emerging democracies and post-conflict countries — we believe nonpartisan groups have an important role to play here in the U.S.
Our project seeks to answer these key questions:
- How do existing laws and regulations about election observers vary by state?
- Who can be an election observer? In addition to political parties or candidate representatives, can citizen groups, academics, and international groups observe elections?
- What is the process for accrediting election observers, and who is responsible for it?
- Do election observers have access to the entire election process – from pre-election tests to Election Day polling, to post-election tabulating and canvass procedures?
- How have states used observer reports and analysis from academic or nonpartisan groups to improve election processes in the past?
When we have some answers — including what laws are currently on the books — we’ll report out. In the meantime, if you have a story to tell that relates to being a poll watcher or a poll worker, we want to hear it!