José Manuel Martínez Sierra was the coordinator for the election observation mission for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) for the United States 2016 Presidential Election. He is the Director of the Real Colegio Complutense at Harvard, an organization to promote academic, scientific, and cultural cooperation between Harvard and Spanish academic institutions. He has served as an advisor in various Spanish governmental bodies, including the Ministry of Education. He has also served as the Spanish representative for higher education to UNESCO.


What is the role of the OSCE?

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe initially developed as an attempt at a regional level to help member states develop and implement policies. There was a presumption that international experts could help national governments and administrations, especially such countries that were emerging from dictatorships or a similar lack of democratic tradition. It has since developed in terms of security and the strengthening of democracy in terms of both within Europe and in other countries all over the world.

What of the OSCE’s observation mission for the 2016 US election?

It is not the first time the OSCE has sent an observation mission to monitor US elections but it is the most important one. The interesting thing about this observation is that it was first a candidate, in this case then-candidate Trump, who first called attention to possible issues with the procedures of election. Then, it was the government of the United States that invited international missions to observe the election. As far as I am aware, in addition to the mission by the OSCE, there was one other mission by the Organization of American States (OAS). The OSCE mission was probably larger and covered the entire United States except for three states that do not allow international observation due to past incidents. In these states, such as Texas and Arkansas, the state legislatures passed laws that forbade international observers from participating.

In general, what does the OSCE look for in an election?

Overall the OSCE mission is very similar to other international observation missions. For example, here in the United States, President Carter runs a center, The Carter Center, which specializes in international election monitoring all over the world, such as Venezuela, Bolivia, and Argentina. As such, the methodology is fairly standard for missions from the European Union, the OAS, and The Carter Center. In all, the main mission is to oversee that elections take place according to international standards and national legislation. The observers do not interfere- the only thing they do is take notes. Within these general guidelines, it is more important to observe that the system in both the logical and physical sense are well-established, that people running the process are selected according to fair and open standards, that political parties and candidates do not interfere with elections (particularly at polling stations), and that there is accountability that gives legitimacy to the results.

Were there any challenges that the 2016 election posed? 

As far as the 2016 US General Election is concerned, there were two issues that were specific to the United States. On one hand, in many states, civil society plays a more important role than in others. To give an example, in some areas, there may be polling stations in private houses or private clubs, so in these areas, the system may provide polling equipment, but it is civil society that plays a stronger role than in other countries. Secondly, elections are more complex in the United States than in many other countries. For an international observer, it is easiest to consider the presidential election, but at the same time, you have so many other questions on the ballot- 30 to 50. The huge variety of questions, from marijuana to pornography, also contributes to the complexity of US elections. Another aspect that originally arose from the 2000 election of Gore vs. Bush is the renovation of technology, given the huge issues that stemmed from punch card technology, and so the US is different from other countries in the amount of money invested in election technology even as a percentage of GDP.

Did the OSCE observation mission have any interaction with the OAS mission?

Normally, international election missions conduct their observations in a separate way, and as long as the election goes smoothly, there is no interaction between them. In the case of the United States, there was no interaction between the two big missions. To a certain extent, this is a good thing, given that there were at least two independent opinions regarding the same election. Therefore, if you had made the two missions interact with each other, to a certain extent this could have biased the final reports of the missions, since they would be almost certain to share information. There is a presumption that the more independent international observation missions you have, the more secure the outcome.

What was the conclusion of the OSCE mission?

The report that was published concluded that there were no major incidents that had any significant impact on the final result of the election. Challenges from some candidates regarding the outcome in certain states has generated some uncertainty, but the fact remains that the even those recounts that took place did not reveal any negative result. Of course, the capacity of the system to monitor itself is greater than that of international organizations, which can only observe and not make necessary changes.  

With regards to alleged Russian influence on the election, was that the type of thing that the OSCE mission was looking for?

It’s important to understand how the US election system works. Generally, voting is safest when physical votes are combined with black box or hard disk check-in, where you can have three of four different ways of actually counting the votes. In the US, the system varies state by state, and there is room for the legislature to operate as far as these election systems work. The good thing about the United States is that as mentioned, the US for the most part uses a multifaceted system that leaves physical evidence of the vote. It is practically impossible for a foreign country to “hack” the results in this type of system. Of course, in some countries that use physical votes, it may be easy to alter the results when civil servants or citizens participating in the elections switch out ballot boxes, but these types of problems are really only present in developing countries. Interference from foreign countries over the vote would only work in systems where there is little or no control over the physical vote, which is not the case in the United States.

Was the mission examining the campaigns leading up to the election or just the actual process of voting? 

Normally, election observation missions do not deal with campaigns, though it is true that in some places, particularly young democracies, missions may be expanded to observe campaigns. This has not been the case in the United States, but has of course been seen in other nations. It is an issue to be considered when there are doubts regarding constitutional rights, such as freedom of speech, freedom of association, the creation of political parties, or freedom of assembly, but this has not been seen in the US. The campaign leading up to the election was particularly rough, but there’s little room for doubt that the candidates expressed themselves with more freedom than ever. Even though the OSCE mission did not encompass the campaigns, in my personal opinion, the campaigns were characterized by the normal range of constitutional rights.

How do you think the result of the election bodes for the relationship of the US with the OSCE, European institutions, and the continent of Europe? 

It’s obvious that the new administration is going to reshape these sorts of relationships. Even as President-elect, Trump shaped events in Europe. With regards to UKIP in the UK or the Front National in France, Trump’s success represented to these parties a chance of similar success in their own countries with their individual political agendas. The fact that Trump chose to meet with Nigel Farage, the former leader of UKIP, before meeting with the Prime Minister, has an impact in the UK. In France, you can also see an impact on the presidential candidates, not just in the Front National. For example, the leader of the Republican Party, François Fillon, began to speak out in a more open way regarding the relationship between France and Russia/Putin in French foreign policy. On one hand, this stems from a view that Trump will force France and Europe as a whole to have a more diversified international policy and on the other hand, recognizes that Trump has gone beyond traditional politics by arguing for an improved relationship with Russia rather than engaging in conflict all over the world, thereby saving the taxpayers money. This prioritizes a more peaceful world while possibly sacrificing other values such as the pursuit of human rights all over the globe. So far as the European Union is concerned, this will suppose an opportunity, given that the since the 1950’s, the European community has shown great reluctance in the field of defense and security policy. We in the European must now face the possibility of bringing forward our foreign policy and defense policy. Now that the Trump administration has basically said that the European Union member states must pay their fair share in defense spending, this will likely force member nations to address this previous problem of not wanting to increase defense budgets. The member states can now take the chance to create a stronger European Union in terms of defense since they no longer have the alibi of relating on the European Union

There continue to be accusations of voter fraud in the election and yet as of now, no formal investigation into the matter. Did the OSCE mission find anything at all that could leave room for such accusations or are they, in your opinion, unfounded?

For the time being, what we know is that President Trump after the election, on November 27, has tweeted: "In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally." Later, on January 27, he tweeted: "Look forward to seeing final results of VoteStand. Gregg Phillips and crew say at least 3,000,000 votes were illegal. We must do better!” In my view, firstly, this claim of massive fraud is unsupported by any evidence. Secondly, it was contradicted by his own campaign lawyers, who argued there was no evidence of fraud when Green Party nominee Jill Stein sued for a recount in some states. And lastly, it is simple irrational since surprisingly enough the claimed fraud of 3,000,000 would only favor Mr. Trump and never Mrs. Clinton, no even a small number of the illegal votes. And, coincidentally enough, this figure is precisely the number needed for Mr. Trump to switch the popular vote victory of Mrs. Clinton.  

OSCE/ODIHR Election Observation Mission Final Report, in my opinion, goes in the opposite direction of Mr. Trump claim. It actually underlines that many people that should vote couldn’t do it. Concretely underlines some 4 million residents of US overseas territories and 600,000 residents of the District of Columbia do not have voting representation in Congress. In addition, residents of US overseas territories do not have the right to vote in presidential elections. More than 6 million convicts, including those who served their sentences as well as many facing trial, are disenfranchised, disproportionately impacting African Americans. These restrictions contravene the principle of universal and equal suffrage, as provided in OSCE commitments. Also, OSCE Final Report highlighted that more than an estimated 35 million eligible voters were not registered for these elections, underscoring the need for continued efforts to enhance voter registration, particularly among marginalized communities.

Thus OSCE recommended that in order to ensure the right and opportunity to vote for all citizens, particularly national minorities, Congress should give urgent consideration to establish the formula to identify jurisdictions to be subject to Section Five of the Voting Rights Act, in line with the ruling in Shelby County v. Holder.  It also recommended that Restrictions on voting rights for persons with criminal convictions should be reviewed to ensure that all limitations are proportionate. Rights should be restored when sentences have been completed, with the law clarified and communicated to those affected. Pre-trial detainees should be provided with the means to vote. The OSCE also suggested that US authorities should ensure that voter registers are maintained in full compliance with federal legislation. To ensure transparency of voter registration, the states could introduce oversight or audit procedures. Last but not least it was recommended that authorities should review existing measures to further reduce the number of unregistered voters, including addressing undue obstacles and burdensome procedures faced by marginalized sections of the population. Clear and accessible civic education programs aimed at inclusive voter registration should be in place.