By Wendy Underhill
International election observers are in the United States, hoping to learn from, and possibly comment on, our elections. As noted in The Thicket on October 29, exactly where they observe is a function of state law. Statutes in several states expressly permit international observers; no state expressly forbids international observers.
And yet state law still governs who can be in a polling place on Election Day. At least two states this year—Texas and Iowa—have barred international election observers based on those laws, indicating that anyone who is not permitted (voters, poll workers, poll watchers) could be subject to arrest.
In Iowa earlier this week, secretary of state Matt Schultz released a statement saying:
As Secretary of State, I support the efforts of other nations to learn more about our election process and ways in which they might improve their own election systems … My office met with two delegation representatives last week to discuss Iowa’s election process and it was explained to them that they are not permitted at the polls. Iowa law is very specific about who is permitted at polling places, and there is no exception for members of this group."
In Texas, Attorney General Greg Abbott wrote to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the organization that is sponsoring the election observers, with these words last week:
The OSCE's representatives are not authorized by Texas law to enter a polling place. It may be a criminal offense for OSCE's representatives to maintain a presence within 100 feet of a polling place's entrance.
It's not the merits of international election observation efforts that are at issue. It is that every state can and does set its own election procedures. Even though the U.S. is a member of OSCE and as such is expected to permit election observers, state law reigns supreme on Election Day.
Doug Chapin explains some of the politics of this issue in "OSCE vs. Texas and Iowa: The Facts Behind the Fight."