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Swiss to head team of US election observers

Barbara Haering will lead a delegation of OSCE observers at next month's US presidential elections Keystone

A Swiss parliamentarian is to lead an international team of Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) observers at next month's United States presidential election.

Barbara Haering told swissinfo that the delegation’s presence would give more credibility to both the US electoral process and the OSCE.

The OSCE delegation will be monitoring the elections at the invitation of the US government.

The move comes after the 2000 presidential elections ended in a controversial recount in Florida to determine the winner. Republican George Bush eventually emerged victorious after taking the state by just 537 votes – a result that the Democrats have always contested.

Haering, a centre-left Social Democrat and member of the House of Representatives, plans to scrutinise the election campaign and media coverage as well as voter registration and voting technology.

swissinfo: Usually, the OSCE focuses on elections in countries such as Georgia or Afghanistan. Why look at the United States, which is considered to be a free and democratic nation?

Barbara Haering: This is not first time that the OSCE will have observed an election somewhere west of its headquarters in Vienna. Britain and Spain have invited observers in the past. This time is no different since we received an invitation from the US government.

swissinfo: Does the US suffer from a lack of credibility following the last presidential elections?

B.H.: I believe that the effects of observing this election will be felt at different levels. It will give the United States’ political activities within the OSCE more credibility.

But it will also give the OSCE extra credibility – countries east of Vienna often complain that the OSCE has double standards and that we should be checking what goes on in western nations too.

Thirdly, our presence should give American voters more confidence in their electoral system, and, therefore, in the state.

swissinfo: Do you think your delegation will be greeted with open arms or with protests?

B.H.: Officially, our presence is welcomed and is considered very positive. All the institutions we have been in touch with support our work.

But we realise that, in such a hotly contested election, our presence could become a political football for politicians and the media, so we understand that there might be some attacks against our work.

swissinfo: Compared with other western election systems, can the US system be easily manipulated?

B.H.: As I understand it, it is not unlike Switzerland, where voting is carried out in different ways. The cantons are responsible for organising votes in Switzerland. In the US, it’s the states that do this.

The introduction of new voting technology, especially electronic voting systems, always raises a lot of questions and issues.

swissinfo: During your visit to prepare the mission, did you notice any irregular practices?

B.H.: I will not communicate any of the observations we’ve made so far. We will hand over our report after the election, possibly on November 4. Before then, we will not give any evaluation of the process.

swissinfo: What will you actually be doing on November 2?

B.H.: Our mission is not just restricted to the election day. We will also be analysing the campaign, candidates’ media access, voter registration and voting systems.

On the election day we will be observing proceedings in polling stations in ten states. I will be going to Ohio with a small team, and we will write down our observations on special forms so we can compile the results easily.

swissinfo: As an OSCE observer on election day, can you directly report any irregularities?

B.H.: No, we aren’t there to police the election. The OSCE only submits a report with its observations, highlighting any irregularities and making recommendations and suggestions on improving the process.

Any implementation of recommendations would only take place during the next elections and would be the responsibility of the states.

swissinfo: In Florida, voting has already begun two weeks before election day and the first problems have already appeared. Is that a bad omen?

B.H.: I don’t wish to give my position on that issue. But we are registering any indications and information that we have received in the past weeks via e-mail, the media and the internet.

swissinfo: Are you paying special attention to Florida?

B.H.: Our mission is to build up a complete and balanced picture of the election. So our delegation won’t just be looking at Florida and Ohio, but also at other states.

swissinfo: There will be more electronic voting machines used this time than in 2000. Is this a step in the right direction?

B.H.: It is a step, but it also raises a number of issues, such as how to verify the results of the electronic voting system both at hardware and software level. The states must check all of this very carefully.

swissinfo: There are major differences in how the vote is carried out in different states. In a number of cases, the controversial punch-card system is still in use. Do these different systems constitute a problem?

B.H.: It’s true that there are different systems, from the traditional voting form to punch cards, from mechanical push-button machines to electronic systems. But the variety of voting systems is not a problem in itself.

swissinfo: There will only be a few dozen OSCE observers in a huge country. What can you hope to achieve?

B.H.: First of all, we can only carry out random checks, as we did in Russia’s presidential election. We will never have enough staff to cover an entire country.

So the choice of the polling stations must be carried out very carefully. Also, we find that – compared to other countries – in the United States there is too much information at our disposal rather than too little.

But we know that if there is a problem, there will always be at least one journalist and a representative of a non-governmental organisation on site to report it.

swissinfo: Can you imagine the OSCE ever observing a Swiss election one day?

B.H.: I’m sure it will happen if the Swiss authorities ask the OSCE to do it. It is always a positive signal when countries west of Vienna make it clear that not only do they believe in the values and principles of the organisation, but that they are also prepared to submit themselves to checks.

swissinfo-interview: Gaby Ochsenbein

Barbara Haering has represented Zurich’s Social Democrats in the House of Representatives since 1990.
The 51-year-old scientist is considered to be a specialist in security-related issues.
She is also the vice-president of the OSCE’s parliamentary assembly.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR