Originally published in the San Antonio Express-News, August 15, 2004
by Susan Ives

Being a poll watcher was the scariest thing I’ve ever done.

Scarier than the Gulf War. Scarier than dangling from the open door of a helicopter snapping photos of a refugee camp. Scarier than being mugged in New York City.

In 1969, Jock Yablonski, head of Miners for Democracy, challenged Tony Boyle for the presidency of the United Mine Workers Union. Yablonski lost but appealed to the Department of Labor, charging Boyle with bribery, ballot-box stuffing and intimidation.

Boyle did what any crooked, scum-sucking union boss would do when cornered: He hired three hit men. Yablonski, his wife and 25-year-old daughter were brutally slaughtered on New Year’s Eve.

When the feds ordered a new election in 1972, Miners for Democracy asked college students to come to western Pennsylvania to be poll watchers. I’d been singing mining songs since I was knee-high to a pickax: They were calling my name. On election day I was dropped off in front of the American Legion Hall in Tamaqua.

Watching to make sure one of Boyle’s toadies didn’t run off with the ballot box. On the lookout for a bagman trying to buy votes with $5 bills (stolen, we later learned, from the pension fund). Scanning the parking lot to make sure dissident miners weren’t run off. Waiting for the goons with guns.

Scared. Really scared.

Boyle was eventually convicted of embezzlement and murder for hire. He died in prison in 1983.

Makes a presidential election look tame by comparison.

In July, 13 members of Congress, led by Democrat Eddie Bernice Johnson from Dallas, wrote Secretary of State Colin Powell requesting monitors “to ensure free and fair elections.” They sent a similar letter to Kofi Annan at the United Nations.

They were surprised and pleased to get a letter from Assistant Secretary of State Paul Kelly indicating that the Bush administration “has now invited the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, or ODIHR) to observe the November 2, 2004 Presidential Elections.”

According to the OCSE Web site, the process will go something like this:

A preliminary assessment team will be deployed throughout the country for six to eight weeks to assess election laws and administration, the media environment and the campaign.
Later, short-term observers will arrive to monitor the end of the campaign and the voting and counting process.

A preliminary statement will be issued right after the election; a final report will be published within a month.

The United States and the 54 other, mostly European, signatories obligated themselves to this process by the 1990 Copenhagen Document. In the past 10 years, OCSE has sent more than 10,000 observers to 150 elections.

They’ve been in the United States twice before: They sent 10 observers for the 2002 midterm congressional election in Florida and two to the California gubernatorial recall election last year.

It’s a smart move on the part of the Bush administration. If we recommend observers to emerging democracies, it’s only fair that we be willing to undergo the process. OCSE had observers in Macedonia in April. They’ll be in Afghanistan in October. They’ll be here in November.

That was the first rule of leadership I was taught in the Army: Don’t ask people to do anything you’re not willing to do yourself. Lead by example.

And think what you will about the 2000 presidential election and the mess in Florida, but millions of Democratic voters still believe they were robbed.

Anything that can be done to make the election process more transparent is worth a shot.

There has been grumbling that by admitting observers we are giving up our sovereignty. Hogwash. The observers make recommendations. That’s all. They don’t interfere with the election. They can’t overturn the results. They watch. They recommend.

And if they need help, they can call on me. Just stick me in the parking lot and bring on the voters.

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