Observe D.C. – Applying International Election Oversight Mechanisms in the United States

By Ben Mindes

Election administration in America is governed not by one singular body, as is typical in almost every country around the world, but by nearly 10,000 local jurisdictions, each with their own rules and regulations. Local elections are often underfunded and rely on volunteer poll workers who often receive minimal training on complex election procedures. Assessments of electoral administration quality are largely based off election administrators themselves or anecdotal observation efforts.

Therefore, when allegations of election fraud surfaced in the aftermath of the recent special elections in Alabama, the only recourse available to determine whether such claims were justified was to ask the administrators themselves.

Where is the third-party oversight ensuring that election administration procedures are being followed? How can voters know for certain whether the outcome of an election that goes to a coin toss was not a result of malfeasance, Russian hacking, or some other kind of manipulation.

When you go to vote, how do you know your vote is secure? When you leave your polling station, how do you know that elections were administered in accordance to the rules? How do you know that the results were tabulated properly?

Observe DC

With funding from Georgetown University’s Baker Center for Leadership and Governance, I will be launching the first election observation effort in Washington, D.C. – Observe D.C.– that will see non-partisan, trained observer volunteers deploy to randomly sampled polling places across D.C.’s eight wards to collect data on the process of election administration.

For the last 20 years in over 90 countries, citizen volunteers have deployed to polling stations using this methodto gather representative data about the quality of election administration in their countries. This data is used to produce evidence-based recommendations to improve polling station security, simplify ballot procedures, and ensure transparency of election results.

For example, in the Philippines in 1986, hundreds of thousands of citizen volunteers mobilized to conduct an independent vote tally by collecting polling station-level results from around the country. The results of “Operation Quick Count” revealed that Corazon Aquino had won the election by 700,000 votes despite the election commission’s announcement that Ferdinand Marcos had won.

Such levels of citizen oversight do not exist in the United States.

Observe D.C. volunteer observerswill be armed with a standardized checklist that will gather data about polling station preparations, access for disabled voters, voter identification practices, secrecy of the vote, functionality of voting machines, and the transparency of the results tabulation process.  Data will be rapidly collected and transmitted to a central call center throughout election day and analyzed to produce concrete findings about the quality of the elections.

This pilot activity will provide a new level of electoral transparency in the District and a new platform for citizens to engage the political process in a non-partisan way. Data collected from this effort will allow the D.C. Board of Elections to pursue electoral reform based, for the first time, on independent and statistically representative data.

Observe DC 2

Outside of the District, this effort will demonstrate the feasibility of injecting systematic election observation methodology to other electoral jurisdictions in the United States where citizens may not be as confident in the quality of election administration or electoral processes more broadly.

Elections represent the most tangible access point for citizens to participate in democracy. It is up to those citizens to ensure that the administration of their elections is done so credibly and transparently. Mobilizing citizens to monitor key aspects of the polls has, around the world, proven to lead to an increased trust in election processes as well as evidence-based reform proposals to strengthen the integrity of future elections.

It is time for American citizens to take ownership over the security of their vote.


Visit Observe D.C.’s facebook page at www.facebook.com/ObserveDCto join the team. Email bsm57@georgetown.eduwith more questions!