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Carter Center Preps Ohio Women for Election Observation

  • Carter Center trainer Gilles Saphy reviews the observation form that the Ohio League of Women Voters plans to use on Election Day 2016. The training is part of a pilot project between the League of Women Voters and The Carter Center. (Photo: The Carter Center/L. DeJong)

  • Cleveland participant Mimi Becker listens as fellow volunteers discuss Election Day observation. (Photo: The Carter Center/L. DeJong)

  • Peg Rosenfield of Columbus talks about her experiences in past elections. (Photo: The Carter Center/S. Ellison)

  • Carter Center staffer Tye Tavaras goes over a form with a League of Women Voters volunteer. (Photo: The Carter Center/L. DeJong)

  • Ohio League of Women Voters Executive Director Carrie L. Davis discusses the plan for Election Day in Ohio. (Photo: The Carter Center/L. DeJong)

On a gorgeous Saturday afternoon, a group of Ohio women sat inside a Cleveland conference room holding a spirited discussion about democracy:  Just what does it mean to have a genuine election? What constitutes universal suffrage? What qualifies as voter intimidation?

The following day, in Columbus, the scene played out again.

All these women, members of the League of Women Voters of Ohio or its partners, gave up part of their precious weekends to learn about election observation from Carter Center staff.

“I’ve been horrified by all this talk of election-rigging,” said Catherine Turcer of Columbus, explaining one of her reasons for coming. While she believes there are plenty of safeguards to protect the election, she understands that many voters still feel distrustful.

“At the end of the day,” she said, “having observers say, ‘This is what we saw, and this is what we didn’t see’ will make people more confident and will have an effect for elections to come.”

The Ohio league has long worked on election protection, explained Executive Director Carrie L. Davis. Members station themselves outside key polling places and file incident reports when voters complain about being denied the right to vote.

That work is important and will continue, she said, but the Ohio league wanted to do more and so partnered with The Carter Center.

“Election protection takes place primarily in places with a history of problems, which are typically urban areas,” she said. “Election observation offers a chance to cover more suburban and rural areas. We felt like adding this component would give us a more accurate snapshot of what’s happening on Election Day — the good, the bad, and everything in between.”

With 88 counties in Ohio, Davis said, volunteers can’t get to them all. And the league’s work is made more difficult because state law makes no provision for nonpartisan observers in polling stations. Participants may have to observe from outside, relying on what they can see (lines, possible intimidation) and reports from voters who’ve been inside.

 “But we hope to have a good sample and a good variety,” she said. “This is a pilot project to see how it works, to see how we can improve it, to see how we can expand it in Ohio and beyond for 2018 and 2020.”

The Carter Center’s decision to offer observer training grew out of its recent U.S. election-observer research project with the National Council of State Legislatures, said David Carroll, director of the Center’s Democracy Program.

“As we implemented that project, we realized that there was a knowledge gap – not only about the varying access for observers in the U.S., but also about the methods used by international election observers,” he said. “We thought it useful to reach out to credible groups who might be interested in learning more about observing. The League of Women Voters has a long history of supporting election integrity, so they were a natural fit.”

Peg Rosenfield, a Columbus resident and longtime league member, agreed.

“We have spent 96 years helping people have access to vote,” she said. “The system has to work right for us to do that, and I think election observation goes a long way toward making sure the system works right. And where it doesn’t, we can know that and fix it.”

Bev Dorson and her friend Mimi Becker — “retired troublemakers” from Hudson, Ohio — said they came away feeling better equipped to observe.

“Seeing the observation form in advance and getting to have input into it was helpful,” Dorson said. “I’m looking forward to helping the fair process of democracy, if I can.”

Related Resources

Carter Center Statement on the Integrity of U.S. Elections

Observing U.S. Elections | Q&A with Democracy Program Experts David Carroll & Avery Davis-Roberts

Carter Center Launches Webpage on Election Observation in the United States

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