While many are still surprised  by the outcome of the United States’ General Election, and following suggestions by the Republican candidate that “rigging” might occur, Salem Weekly spoke with someone with considerable perspective on elections: Salem’s Les Margosian.

Margosian has served as an international elections observer for 20 years. He has worked in more than 20 countries, largely with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) a treaty organization with 56 members—all European countries including former Eastern Bloc Countries.

OSCE’s initial purpose was to monitor ceasefire agreements, particularly in former Yugoslavia, and prevent outbreaks of hostilities between the West and the Soviets.

The United States always invites OSCE to observe presidential elections. OSCE has just issued its Preliminary Report on the November 8 elections (it can be seen at  www.osce.org).


SW: When did you get involved with OSCE?

Margosian: I first got involved in the mid-90s when OSCE didn’t just observe elections, but actually conducted them. Members of the Election Mission were in charge of the precinct-level polling stations. I worked on four different elections in 1996 through 1997, the first time in Sarajevo working with a “CORE” team that was writing manuals, planning for the logistics, and generally preparing all necessary groundwork for an election in what was a bitterly contentious environment.

SW: Does OSCE enable fair and free elections?

Margosian: The mere presence of international officials will embolden those who are trying to conduct clean elections and in many cases, hopefully, impede those contemplating electoral fraud.

One example of an OSCE having a major impact was Ukraine’s Orange Revolution of 2004, when a clearly fraudulent election was invalidated based in large part on the OSCE Preliminary Report. Another example is provided by weak and discredited governments seeking increased acceptance from the international community by receiving a good “report card” from OSCE on its conduct of elections.

Finally, citizens of most countries really want the respect of the international community  for the quality and competence of their elections. The vast majority of election officials I’ve dealt with, from polling station workers to the chairpersons of district and regional electoral commissions, mayors and provincial governors, and even candidates and political party officials, genuinely want “fair and free,” transparent elections.

SW: Any experience you especially remember?

Margosian: Unquestionably, the most frightening environment I experienced was Sudan, and parts of that country which were to become South Sudan in 2010. Intertribal, religious (Moslem, Christian, and pagan), and inter-ethnic (our interpreter, who was from the Nuer Tribe, threatened to kill our driver who was from Uganda) hostilities were intense. Stationed in remote areas and reliant on irregular UN flights was an extremely uncomfortable experience.

Another exciting mission was the 2010 Kyrgyzstan elections when just a few weeks before the election in an area I was covering, the Kyrgyz began a massive ethnic cleansing program against their Uzbek neighbors. My partner, a retired Finnish Judge, and I were forced to spend two nights and a day in the bunker-like basement of our hotel. On the second day our Kyrgyz driver decided our best bet was to make a run for it and he managed to navigate through four roadblocks and reach the open road.

Twenty minutes later, he received a call from a colleague in town saying that they had just burned down our hotel. The rest of our trip was to the capital city of Biskek, but by then my partner had suffered a nervous breakdown and was medevaced home to Finland.

SW: What are the chief differences between American elections and some of the foreign ones you’ve observed?

Margosian: I observed the Russian parliamentary election this September, and it is interesting to compare them to our presidential elections. The most notable difference is the absence of negative campaign rhetoric in the Russian elections, especially negative comments against candidates from the ruling party. Electoral discourse is heavily censored by governmental agencies.

The result is a very bland and not very informative discussion of issues, which in turn leads to a very low level of public interest in the elections, with turnout at the national level barely exceeding 40 percent.

Another significant difference is that the campaign period in Russia (and a large number of other countries as well) is limited by law to only a few months, in stark contrast to our seemingly endless campaigns.

SW: How much credence do you give to Donald Trump’s fears of “rigging” here in America? How about internationally?

Margosian: With elections independently conducted in over 3,000 counties, our elections are virtually impossible to “rig” in a manner affecting national totals.

On the other hand, with local elections with very low turnouts and equally popular or unpopular candidates, with large numbers voting with absentee ballots (which by their design may be susceptible to electoral fraud), with increasing number of “voter suppression” laws making it difficult for entire categories (for example the elderly and poor) to vote, there is significant additional reasons for concern regarding the integrity of our elections.

In other countries, most notably the former Eastern Bloc and Soviet countries, ballot fraud of a physical nature, such as ballot box “stuffing” is far more common. But even in that sort of environment, the more serious problems don’t occur at the polling station. Voter intimidation, vote buying, and even the creation of fake or “technical” political parties causes far more electoral havoc than ”rigging.”

During our conversation with Les Margosian, he discussed his thoughts on “motor-voter” laws like Oregon’s (which automatically registers people to vote when they register their car) and what it’s actually like to travel to a country to be a long term election observer. We couldn’t include these topics for lack of space, but provide them below.

SW: What is your opinion on motor-voter laws, such as ours in Oregon? 

Margosian: In virtually all (20 +) countries where I’ve observed elections, the voter list or registers are maintained by the state, which in former Soviet or other authoritarian states is a comparatively simple matter as all citizens are required to have a passport with their current address constantly updated. 

This is called a “passive” registration system as opposed to our “active” system which requires our citizens, on their own initiative, to register themselves at the appropriate agency. Our new Motor Voter Law obviously moves us closer to a passive system. My guess is that longterm, this will be a positive development.


SW: Tell us more about what it’s like to observe international elections.

Margosian: OSCE observers arrive in the country “4-5 weeks before the election, after securing accommodations.” They begin their work by “briefing interpreter and driver on their various job responsibilities, begin interviewing local officials starting with mayors of major cities  and provincial governors [and] electoral officials who manage local and district election commissions (i.e., those responsible for actually conducting the elections), media and academicians – and importantly, candidates and political party officials.”

“Based on the info gleaned from all sources [OSCE observers] write weekly reports, [including the] competence of responsible officials and preparedness for conducting election, and any difficulty candidates are experiencing  in their campaigns, compliance of all participants with relevant election laws, and any other matters of interest. At the same time, they prepare for short term observers who will come 4 or 5 days prior to the election. We have to prepare regional briefing packets, arrange logistics, secure accommodations, hire drivers and interpreters, and generally plan their observation program.”

“After the election, [OSCE observers] follow up on complaints  and make final rounds  of interlocutors, surveying their opinion of election and seeking their recommendations of how laws, systems and procedures could be improved.”