The Soviet-era prison’s thick concrete structure provided some much-needed relief from the nearly 100-degree July heat. It was, by design, an intimidating place: a dark and damp maze of heavy, locked doors. But, at least it was cool. My team, a local English teacher that I had hired as a translator and the Polish diplomat assigned to be my partner on this mission, sat with me. We were told the room we were in was traditionally used for interrogations but was now a multi-function room that (you could smell) had been cleaned with bleach to protect us from COVID-19. The doors were locked for our safety as the inmates were escorted to the room in small groups. I fidgeted with my mask while I sat there and thought: what a strange year 2021 had already turned out to be.
Moldova, a country sandwiched between Romania and Ukraine, was holding an election. I was one of 38 American election experts sent there to join my international colleagues to take part in an international election observation mission orchestrated by the OSCE, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. This treaty organization is composed of 57 member countries from Europe, Central Asia and North America. It is the world’s largest regional security organization with a mission of promoting peace, democracy and stability throughout the region. The Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights is the division of the OSCE that monitors elections. It has observed 150 elections in the last decade, deploying thousands of expert observers drawn from the entire OSCE region. The OSCE sends observers to monitor events leading up to, during and after each election. The observers put together a comprehensive and detailed report of what occurred, stating candidly what went well and recommending improvements. The criteria for being certified as an election expert varies from country to country. The United States typically selects candidates with significant poll working, campaigning, and election law experience. Candidates must complete a training and certification program from their home country and a second training and certification program by the OSCE. Observers then need to quickly become experts in the election laws and procedures of the country being observed. For the Moldovan election in July of 2021, 228 observers were deployed across the country, with an overseeing core team of 11 based in Moldova’s capital city of Chisinau.
Moldova has a parliamentary system. This election was a “snap” or early election, meaning it did not result from the end of a particular term of office. Instead, it was the result of a series of controversial moves by both the newly elected president and by Parliament, which ended up before the Constitutional Court. The president of Moldova ordered the dissolution of Parliament after it declined to give a vote of confidence to the president’s two nominees for prime minister. Parliament prevented dissolution by citing the COVID-19 pandemic to declare a state of emergency. They then voted to rescind the appointment of a Constitutional Court judge and appoint her replacement. Ultimately, the Constitutional Court annulled the state of emergency, upheld the president’s dissolution of Parliament, and annulled Parliament’s vote to switch out one of its justices, finding it unconstitutional.
My team was part of a regional cohort assigned to an area that includes the second-largest city in the country, Balti. We took a three-hour, very bumpy bus ride northwest of the capital through beautiful sunflower fields to get there. Once in Balti, we attended a regional briefing on the area’s political activities, our points of focus for the observation, emergency procedures, and our specific areas of assignment. This regional cohort included members hailing from 10 countries. It was at this meeting I learned my team would be going to jail — but we’ll get to that.
On July 11, 2021, my day started with three scrambled eggs, some local farm cheese, some sort of meat product (I politely declined) and some cherry pastries the translator had baked for us. Breakfast was quick and followed by a mad dash to get to our first polling place before it opened. It was still dark out, but we wanted to see with our own eyes the empty ballot box, the fixing of the seals, the opening of the blank ballots from the safe and that all the other opening procedures were followed. We expected to be on our feet for 24 hours standing, watching, assessing and reporting. Typically, we are expected to spend a significant amount of time at each of about a dozen polling places. We report immediately any extraordinary activity. This could include violence, the ballot box being stolen, the polls suddenly closing early, etc. Less urgent activities such as voter intimidation, group voting, ballot box stuffing and other issues are reported by completing short e-forms that are sent electronically to the core team throughout the day. The hand-counting of ballots begins shortly after the polls close at 9 p.m. The seals are checked and removed, and the boxes of ballots are upended and dumped onto a large table. One at a time, the selection indicated on each ballot is called aloud by the president of the local election committee while the ballot is held up and displayed for all in the room to see. The ballots are arranged and then counted and recounted. The count of ballots is expected to match the count of voters tallied on the voter list. This raucous happening did not end until 2 a.m. Next, the ballots and protocol forms are transported to the Central Electoral Commission (in our escort) as the officials from each polling place lined up with their ballots and sheets to be double-checked and processed. The sun was rising again, just as we got back to our hotel.
And in the middle of it all, we went to jail. We were not under arrest. The jail visit was only a small part of our assignment — one of 10 polling places my team would visit on election day. About 120 individuals eligible to vote were at the jail while awaiting trial. My team’s assignment included escorting the mobile voting box from the public polling location to inside the jail, watching the casting of ballots, and escorting the box back to the public polling location where the ballots would be comingled with cast ballots from the local precinct.
The OSCE observation mission model and its reports have become the international standard for this work. From my experience contributing to the data gathering, assessing, reporting and analyzing, I recognize the importance of impartial election observation. The primary goal is to detect and deter fraud, but so much more comes from this process. It improves the quality of elections and builds public confidence in the integrity of the process by exposing weak or erroneous practices. And, when reports are positive, it can enhance the legitimacy of the governments that emerge from elections and of the process itself.
So much of what we do as attorneys involves seeking the truth and protecting the rights of our clients. International election observation allows me to practice these learned skills in less traditional but equally important ways. Election observation does not ensure free and fair elections, but it does help foster an environment where they can take place. Everyone should have the right to elect the government of his or her country by secret ballot. I am honored to have the opportunity to use my skills in advancement of such a fundamental human right.
James F. Wellock is assistant city solicitor at the City of Lynn and serves as counsel to the Lynn Human Rights Commission. As an international election observer, Wellock has monitored elections in Moldova and North Macedonia.