Title

OSCE Election Observation

After OSCE nations pledged in 1990 to hold free and fair elections, election observation – one of the most transparent and methodical ways to encourage commitment to democratic standards – became a core element of the OSCE’s efforts to promote human rights, democracy, and the rule of law.What is the OSCE?

As part of its OSCE commitments, each OSCE country is expected to invite foreign observers to observe its elections.

In 2019 alone, the OSCE was invited to observe elections in more than two dozen OSCE participating States (Albania, Andorra, Austria, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Belgium, Canada, Croatia, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Kazakhstan, Lithuania, Moldova, North Macedonia, Poland, Portugal, Romania, San Marino, Serbia, Slovakia, Spain, Switzerland, Ukraine, the United Kingdom, and Uzbekistan).*

History of OSCE Election Observation

In 1990, all OSCE countries voluntarily committed to holding democratic elections that meet the same basic standards: universal access, equality, fairness, freedom, transparency, accountability, and privacy in voter submission. Because violations of these commitments can endanger stability in the OSCE region, as well as within an individual country, OSCE nations also agreed to open their elections to observers from other participating countries. To encourage compliance and confidence in the results of the observation missions, countries agreed to observe elections together under the OSCE umbrella.

Since the 1990s, OSCE election observers have been present at more than 300 elections throughout the OSCE region. While some OSCE countries benefit from foreign observation more than others – especially those that formerly had one-party communist systems and little experience with democracy – the OSCE also observes elections in more established and stable democracies, such as the United States, Canada, Germany, and the United Kingdom.

As one of the original 35 members of the OSCE, the United States has participated actively in OSCE election observation missions, both by providing observers for foreign elections as well as by inviting the OSCE to observe every general and midterm election since 2002.

Election Observation in Practice

By analyzing election-related laws and systems, as well as the effectiveness of their implementation, election observation missions help ensure that elections in OSCE countries are free and fair for voters and candidates alike.

OSCE election observation missions often are undertaken jointly by the OSCE Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) and the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA). The missions, which combine strong technical expertise and sound political judgement, include ODIHR officials, professional analysts, parliamentarians, and others on loan from OSCE member countries. To ensure that no single country’s point of view is overrepresented, the OSCE limits the number of observers from any one country.

No matter where they are from, observers must commit themselves to an election observation code of conduct, which limits their role to observing and reporting. Observers have no authority to instruct, assist, or interfere in the voting, counting, tabulation, or other aspects of the electoral process.

Ahead of the elections, observers receive briefings from the host government, political parties, civil society, and media representatives. Long-term observers also follow pre-election activities including candidate and voter registration, political campaigns, and media coverage.

On Election Day, two-person teams of short-term observers fan out across the country to observe the conduct of the election, including opening of polling stations; checking whether ballot boxes are empty and properly sealed; the counting of ballots; the handling of spoiled or unused ballots; and the transmission of polling station results. Observers monitor how voters are processed, the accuracy of voter registries, and whether voters are able to vote in secret and in an environment that is free from intimidation. After the elections, long-term observers note how electoral complaints and appeals are handled.

The OSCE election observation mission publishes preliminary findings immediately after the elections, with a final comprehensive report issued a few weeks later. The final report includes in-depth analysis of the election’s political context and  legislative framework;  election  administration;  voter  and  candidate  registration; the election campaign; the media; participation of women and national minorities; and the voting, counting, and tabulation processes.

The OSCE methodology represents the global standard for quality election observation. Its expertise has been shared with other regional organizations, and the OSCE has contributed to observation efforts outside the OSCE region.

The Helsinki Commission Contribution

The U.S. Helsinki Commission was the first to propose concrete commitments regarding free and fair elections more than a year before they were adopted by the OSCE in June 1990. By that time, Commissioners and staff had already observed the conduct of the first multi-party elections in seven East and Central European countries transitioning from one-party communist states to functioning democracies.

As the OSCE developed its institutional capacities in the mid-1990s, the Commission joined the efforts of an increasing number of observer teams from across the OSCE region, which evolved into the well-planned, professional election observation missions of today. 

Commissioners and staff have observed well over 100 elections since 1990. The Commission continues to support OSCE observation efforts, focusing on countries where resistance to democratic change remains the strongest.

Learn More


* Following Needs Assessment Missions designed to assess the situation and determine the scale of a potential observation activity in a particular country, election observation was deemed unnecessary in some cases.
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  • First Person: #UkraineElections2019

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We joined approximately 100,000 domestic observers to inspect the nearly 30,000 electoral precincts across the country—excluding parts of the Donbas and Crimea, due to the ongoing war and Russia’s illegal occupation, respectively. All of the domestic observers that we encountered were observing on behalf of an individual candidate, usually for Yuriy Boyko, Petro Poroshenko, or Yulia Tymoshenko. We did not encounter any of the foreign and domestic NGOs also observing the election. Throughout the day, we traveled to numerous polling stations, spending almost an hour at each, to watch for irregularities or violations of election law. Most electoral commissioners went out of their way to proudly display what was an organized and transparent electoral system. All afforded us full access to every part of the voting process. A few commissioners even seemed flattered to host foreign observers from the OSCE, an acronym well known in Ukraine for the prominent role the OSCE has played in assessing previous elections, including those that led to the Orange Revolution in 2004 and that served to ratify the dramatic change of government in 2014. In any election observation, the most critical part of election day is the counting of ballots after the polls have closed and unused ballots have been checked against the total numbers of ballots issued and votes cast. With these procedures scrupulously followed, the chairwoman at the precinct where we were assigned gave the okay to open the ballot boxes and tally the votes. By that time, the sun had set and the flickering fluorescent lighting in the school hallway where the voting took place was so dim and distracting that everyone—commissioners, observers, and the school’s custodial staff—moved tables, chairs, and the sealed ballot boxes to a better lit atrium so a proper count could proceed. One by one, a grinning commissioner (we later discovered he was candidate Volodymyr Zelenskiy ’s representative on the commission) cut the plastic seals on each box and, with pomp, dumped their contents onto a table surrounded by other commissioners eager to see who won and to finish the work they had begun before sunrise, some 18 hours earlier. First, the control sheet deposited in each box before the polls opened was located and set aside. Then, the chairwoman divided the candidates among commissioners so they could begin to stack ballots as they were unfolded and inspected. On a few occasions, a voter’s selection was unclear and so the ballot was presented to the entire commission for scrutiny, followed by a vote on how and whether to record the ambiguous ballot. Many of the 39 candidates on the ballot received no votes and there was often a wisecrack and laughter when any of these candidates received a vote, or even two! Despite the daunting fullness of the ballot boxes, due in part to the physical size of the ballot, the count proceeded apace with only a couple instances of needing to recount a candidate’s stack of votes to reconcile the final numbers needed for the formal protocol. This document would soon be posted outside the precinct for public inspection and sent up the chain to be included in the national tally. Security throughout the count was so strict that an ailing observer was nearly prohibited from leaving the precinct while the count was underway. After seeking the approval of the commission chairwoman, police finally unlocked the doors and allowed the observer to depart. These rules, as explained to us, were in place to prohibit any ballots from being brought into or out of the precinct. Based on the increasing grumblings of commissioners as night turned to early morning, this prohibition on leaving seemed to motivate commissioners to stay focused on their duties lest they risk witnessing another sunrise at their polling station. The OSCE’s post-election preliminary statement corresponded to our observation of a smooth, even festive in some cases, electoral process that complied with Ukraine’s domestic laws and fulfilled the country’s international commitments. Given the frequent opportunities Ukraine has had to exercise its democratic muscle in recent years, few on the international observation mission led by the OSCE expected anything but the free and fair process we witnessed. As the gold standard of international election observation, the OSCE’s recommendations over many electoral cycles have helped Ukrainian officials to improve the conduct of their elections. Further, praise from the OSCE following election day is powerful validation of the process in the eyes of Ukraine’s voters and gives other states a democratic model to emulate. No sooner had the election ended than the hundreds of thousands of electoral commissioners overseeing Ukraine’s nearly 30,000 local electoral precincts started to prepare for the presidential runoff election on April 21—this time with just two names on the ballot and a decisive outcome. These commissioners are the unsung heroes of a maturing democracy that is simultaneously at war in the East and on an irreversible path to the West. At least they will get a proper break before having to, once again, regroup and oversee Ukraine’s parliamentary elections expected to take place in the fall of this year.

  • Climate Disruption

    By Cade Stone, Max Kampelman Fellow The OSCE was founded on a commitment to cross-border cooperation in the face of indiscriminate regional threats, in pursuit of comprehensive security, and in mutual acknowledgement of the need for sovereignty and stability. Today, as the earth’s climate continues to change, global environmental issues are increasingly tangible security concerns. Climate change stands to magnify both the internal challenges faced by OSCE participating States and the external pressure of mass migration out of critically unstable regions—a redoubled “migrant crisis” in the mold of 2015. “Climate change is having far-reaching effects on agricultural productivity and food security,” warned UN Migration Director General William Lacy Swing on World Food Day 2017. “It is among the main reasons for the record numbers of people compelled to migrate from rural areas to towns and cities around the world.” The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that a large share of migrants come from rural areas where more than 75 percent of the world’s poor and food insecure depend on agriculture and natural resource-based livelihoods. As agricultural yields dwindle, water supplies shrink, and threatened regions become less habitable, poor populations will suffer most immediately and most critically. As atmospheric and oceanic temperatures rise, mounting evidence suggests that natural disasters will become increasingly catastrophic. Displacement rates in disaster-prone areas will increase, along with the costs of crippled infrastructure and lost productivity.   In 2015, according to the FAO, there were already 244 million international migrants, 40 percent more than in 2000. Nineteen million people were internally displaced because of natural disasters. An average of 26 million were displaced annually by climate or weather-related disasters between 2008 and 2015. In a changing global climate showing no signs of reversal, these trends stand only to worsen. It is at this intersection of climate change and migration that the OSCE region may be most immediately threatened. During the 2015 migrant crisis, millions of displaced people fled to Europe from the same regions that now face the greatest risk of further instability; migration flows may surge once more as environmental pressures mount. Stable governments and populations rely on access to vital resources and are thus deeply imperiled by the threat of widespread drought, crop failure, flooding, and other disruptions that climate disruption portends. By this measure, any of the “staging” areas for migrants in North Africa, as well as their origin nations throughout Africa and the Middle East, are already politically fragile. The OSCE has gradually begun to mobilize around the pressing security reality of a changing climate. In the wake of the latest UN Climate Report, Nilza de Sena, chair of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s Economic and Environmental Committee, warned that the effects of climate change are close and potentially disastrous and urged bold action to “accelerate decarbonization and intensify the discussion on the expansion of renewable and sustainable energy and maximizing energy efficiency.” The OSCE also has joined the Environment and Security (ENVSEC) Initiative, a sweeping multi-agency program established to examine the security risks posed by climate change, particularly in Eastern Europe, South Eastern Europe, the South Caucasus, and Central Asia. Crucially, the effort treats climate change as a threat multiplier inherent to future national and international security agendas. Its “Climate Change and Security” report analyzed credible domestic security concerns for OSCE member nations, including competition for scarce resources, increased social tension and conflict, loss of trade, and infrastructural damage. The analysis has yet to account for the compounding effects the external pressures of increased migration will inflict, as the same climate shocks ripple across more fragile regional neighbors. Climate disruption and subsequent migration imperils the whole of the OSCE and calls for a defense of its most foundational commitments, from sovereign equality to territorial integrity to interstate cooperation. Action must be taken to prepare for the security crisis on Europe’s doorstep, both in domestic planning and investment abroad. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization calls for massive investment in rural development to bolster opportunity, resiliency, and stability. It has developed Sustainable Development Goals to address the structural drivers of migration and shepherd responsible growth in migrant source countries. Increased investment in infrastructure, ensuring reliable access to resources, and redoubled diplomatic conflict resolution will help stem the instability and conflict that displaces vulnerable populations. Further, the Center for Climate and Security promotes a Responsibility to Prepare framework for European leaders to elevate the institutional awareness and responsiveness to climate insecurity, both in migration hotspots and on Europe’s doorway. ENVSEC’s Climate Change and Security report proposes a portfolio of actionable items to better brace OSCE project nations, many of which can and should be implemented broadly across Europe, including raising public urgency, encouraging cross-sectoral policy integration, and incorporating increased cross-border cooperation on climate projections and vulnerability assessments. Finally, the United States’ withdrawal from the Paris Climate accords need not preclude it from climate leadership within the OSCE. It remains uniquely poised to help foster the vital regional cooperation needed to meaningfully address these challenges. European security was shaken by the migration crisis of 2015. Political stability across the continent was undermined and fringe populist forces emboldened in its wake. Unless concerted, collective action is taken quickly, the coming waves of climate migration could make past surges look like ripples. The U.S. and OSCE have both a mandate and responsibility to lead.

  • Slovakia's Chairmanship of the OSCE

    In 2019, Slovakia holds the chairmanship of the world’s largest regional security organization: the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which brings together 57 countries from North America, Europe and Central Asia. At the Helsinki Commission’s first hearing in the 116th Congress held on April 3, 2019, Slovakia’s Minister of Foreign and European Affairs, Miroslav Lajčák, was invited to discuss the chairmanship’s priorities for the OSCE in 2019 and its plans for progress. Minister Lajčák was received by Helsinki Commission Chairman Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20), along with Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker, Ranking House Member Rep. Joe Wilson, and Commissioners Sen. Cory Gardner, Rep. Gwen Moore, and Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick. Chairman Hastings encouraged Minister Lajčák to meet with civil society during his country visits as Chair-in-Office, including in the United States.  Co-Chairman Wicker observed, “[a]t a time when civil society is under threat in so many countries, we look to you, as the Chair, to ensure that people’s voices are heard in the OSCE.” Minister Lajčák stated that “resolving conflicts and mitigating their impact on people” in countries suffering from “economic instability, political instability, [and] human rights violations” is a priority for Slovakia’s Chairmanship. He focused on Ukraine due to the severity of the country’s conflicts, while also acknowledging those in other areas of the OSCE region such as Transnistria, Georgia, and Nagorno-Karabakh, for which Co-Chairman Wicker emphasized the need for the OSCE to “strengthen the process of democratic reform, fight against corruption, and fight against regional instability.” The minister emphasized that his goal will be to focus on a list of nine concrete measures that would “bring about small, but concrete, results and improvement [in Ukraine] for the people on the ground,” such as humanitarian demining and repairing civilian infrastructure. He asserted that repairing Stanytsoa Lukanska, a bridge which serves as a key piece of transportation infrastructure in the Luhansk area, is the most important of these measures. The minister also emphasized the need to ensure a safer future, especially for young people, by countering cyberterrorism and its (mis)use in organized crime and human trafficking. He emphasized the importance of educating youth in matters related to cybersecurity, including emerging threats such as cyberterrorism. To that end, Slovakia’s chairmanship will use its convening authority “to call attention to new trends and explore potential collaborative impact.” Chairman Hastings optimistically remarked that “young people know a hell of a lot more about [cyber security and technology] than we do” and Commissioner Moore commended Mr. Lajčák for focusing on the youth – “it is a quintessential strategy for preventing chaos.” Finally, the Slovak Chair-in-Office focused on multilateralism, considered by Minister Lajčák as a “fundamental problem-solving and war-preventing” tool both in and outside of the OSCE. Furthermore, Minister Lajčák emphasized the importance of “working together on multilateral platforms [which] is inevitable if we want to safeguard peace and prosperity to our people,” calling the OSCE “the platform to do just that.” He affirmed this priority of co-operation between OSCE participating States in response to a concern raised by Commissioner Moore regarding certain participating State’s “violations [of all] the Helsinki principles” which would undermine multilateralism within the OSCE: “We have to […] look eye-to-eye and talk about issues […] that is what makes the OSCE unique.” Throughout the hearing, the Chair-in-Office stressed an intent to counter terrorism in his priorities. Part of the minister’s first conference to encourage youth education involved “promoting tolerance and non-discrimination, and the best practices in combating modern-day anti-Semitism,” to stem terrorism. Furthermore, a second conference, held a week before the hearing, “focused on preventing and countering terrorism as well as violent extremism and radicalization that lead to terrorism.” The minister asserted that “terrorism and violent extremism pose as grave a threat as ever” and that “we, at the OSCE, need to continue updating and adapting our toolbox” to be prepared for the future. Despite specific victories, such as the recent destruction of the remaining Daesh strongholds, the minister advised that “this is not a time to get comfortable,” and that “we need to address the root causes [of terrorism] and stay one step ahead.” The OSCE Chair-in-Office also addressed regional challenges including Russia’s continued aggression in Ukraine; protracted conflicts in Transnistria, Georgia, and Nagorno-Karabakh; increasing instability in the Western Balkans; and Turkey’s campaign to stifle dissent in every sector. Many countries are struggling—or failing—to live up to their OSCE commitments in the areas of human rights, democracy, and the rule of law, and vulnerable communities are targets of discrimination and violence. However, Chairman Hastings is optimistic about the capability of the OSCE to advance the rule of law, human rights, and non-discrimination its participating States. Minister Lajčák expressed confidence that providing concrete measures to improve the daily lives of those living in conflict, educating youth, and encouraging multilateral engagement on their behalf will lead to positive developments throughout the OSCE region.

  • First Person: A Divided Island’s Long Road to Peace

    By Mark Toner, Senior State Department Advisor There are two images seared into my brain from my visit to Cyprus during a recent congressional delegation led by Sen. Roger Wicker (MS). The first was a darkened, underground garage filled with the rusting hulks of mid-1970s Toyotas.  They were once the sparkling-new inventory of a car dealership situated in the heart of Nicosia, Europe’s last divided capital. Following the 1974 incursion by Turkish forces in the wake of a failed coup attempt, the dealership became part of a buffer zone that runs like a scar across the length of Cyprus, separating the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) and the Republic of Cyprus (RoC). The dealership’s owner fled when the fighting erupted and never returned. The cars sit frozen in time, waiting for customers who will never come. Abandoned vehicle in Nicosia, Cyprus. The second was both jarring and moving: at the Committee on Missing Persons, we entered a clean, cavernous room full of long tables on which an array of partially-reconstructed skeletons were arranged—the remains of some of the more than 2,000 people who disappeared during the outbreak of violence between Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots in 1963-64, as well as during the later 1974 conflict. Located in a compound in the United Nations Protected Area near the old Nicosia airport, the Committee is an organization established by both the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot communities that recovers, identifies, and ultimately returns these remains to their still-grieving families and loved ones, using state-of-the-art DNA technology and an exhaustive scientific process. These were just two of the places we visited during our two-day stay on the island as part of a bipartisan, bicameral delegation on its way to the Winter Meeting of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly in Vienna, Austria. As part of our jam-packed schedule, the delegation met with the President of the Republic of Cyprus and Turkish-Cypriot leadership, and toured the UN buffer zone with the hardworking and good-natured UN peacekeepers who police the 112-mile ceasefire line. Cyprus is among the world’s oldest and most intractable frozen conflicts, and the social, political, and economic tensions the conflict created still feel fresh today. Since the island was effectively split in two in 1974, there have been repeated UN-led attempts to broker a settlement and reunify the island, but all have ended in failure. It is also a tale of two realities. While Greek Cypriots enjoy the benefits of EU and Eurozone membership and seek to exploit the potential of untapped hydrocarbon reserves located in an Exclusive Economic Zone that surrounds the island, those who live in the self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus remain politically and economically isolated from the rest of Europe and rely heavily on their big brother to the north, Turkey, for security and economic assistance. Our visit to Cyprus was a stark reminder of the difficulty of moving past an unresolved conflict, in a place where grievances are often passed from generation to generation, and the ghosts of the past remain as tangible as the neglected shell of a crumbling 15th-century church in the UN buffer zone or the rusting hulks of airplanes still sitting on the runway of the abandoned Nicosia International Airport. Our brief visit to the Committee on Mission Persons, however, was a poignant reminder of the vital importance of civil society in restoring a sense of normalcy once the fighting ends.  It is a calming place, where dedicated people from both sides of the conflict work together to bring a sense of closure to those who lost loved ones in the fighting; it speaks to the fierce resiliency of the people of Cyprus and the enduring hope that old wrongs can yet be overcome.       

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