DESPITE HOW EFFORTLESS Jimmy Carter makes it look, there's nothing easy about monitoring elections. Take the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), a body comprising 55 member nations (including the United States), whose monitors have suffered all manner of indignities. In Croatia, their chopper was shot down, and in Macedonia, their car set alight. In Kosovo, OSCE staff were attacked, while in Moldova, they were hit with kefir, a yogurt-like dairy product.
But sometimes, words can hurt more than flying yogurt. So the unfriendly reaction must've stung the OSCE, when they announced earlier this year that at the invitation of the State Department, 60 of their non-American members would fan out across the United States to monitor our presidential election in light of last cycle's Florida fiasco. The announcement was greeted with scorn, to put it mildly. Many Americans regarded this as a transparent effort by the OSCE to jab us in the eye, treating America like some third-rate banana republic. After all, it is we who usually bring democratic enlightenment to the likes of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and other far-flung corners of the globe, and not the other way around.
But fair is fair. One of our own congressmen, Florida Democrat Alcee Hastings, is president of the OSCE's Parliamentary Assembly, and that must speak to the unimpeachable integrity of the organization, if you'll pardon the expression (since the former federal judge is one of the few to have been impeached by Congress for perjury and accepting bribes). A little turnabout would seem to be called for. So in that spirit, I headed off to Capitol Hill shortly before Election Day for the OSCE monitors' orientation. There I made contact with the four-man parliamentary delegation from Kazakhstan, which was headed to North Carolina to monitor our election.
We all have our favorite Stan, and Kazakhstan is mine. I don't know much about the place, but have taken a shine to it from watching Borat, the clueless Kazakh reporter on HBO's comedy showcase, Da Ali G Show. Played by Sacha Baron Cohen, Borat, in trying to ingratiate himself to Americans, blithely references his own country's horrors, making (false) claims such as that Kazakhstan's national sport is shooting a dog, then having a party. The Kazakh embassy's press secretary has protested, giving publications like the New Yorker point-by-point rebuttals. He has argued, for instance, that while Borat asserts Kazakhstan's favorite hobbies are disco dancing, archery, rape, and table tennis, archery is "not prominent."
I couldn't wait, then, to make the acquaintance of a bunch of disco-dancing table-tennis players, but I was disappointed when I arrived at the orientation. The program consisted of two days' worth of grueling educational seminars by the likes of Common Cause and the Federal Election Commission. An OSCE official told me, "The Kazakhs were here for about 10 minutes, then they took off. Most of them don't speak English." In fairness to the Kazakhs, I do speak English, and I couldn't take any more than 15 minutes.
Later, I made contact with the Kazakh delegation's sponsor, Galymzhan Nurmagambetov, the embassy's second secretary and a man whose name is so unwieldy, I settled on calling him "GN." In limited English, GN told me that if I were to shadow them on their monitoring duties in North Carolina, I'd need to get approval from their delegation's leader, a Norwegian member of parliament named Bjørn Hernaes. By the time I reached Bjørn, he had already arrived in Raleigh and was stuck there without a car and driver, which, along with a translator, is usually provided according to OSCE custom. "Raleigh on a Sunday without a car is like a stone desert," he later told me. Tempted to ditch the whole mission in order to visit relatives in Florida, Bjørn seemed grateful for the prospect of my company. When I asked him the names of his Kazakh delegation-mates, he said how should he know? "Their names are so impossible, I gave the list to our Romanians."
I joined the delegation on the morning before the election for yet another lecture, this one by a University of North Carolina professor whose specialty is southern political demographics. With just seven more sessions on their schedule, they'd soon be qualified to catalog massive voter fraud. Wishing to make them feel welcome, I had studied the "Say It In Kazakh" portion of their embassy's website. "Biz bir zhanyuiadaimiz," I said, meaning, "We feel like family." My pronunciation might have been off. The Kazakhs, or "the Stans," as I took to calling them, since I couldn't say any of their names, looked at me confusedly. No matter. Already, stereotypes were being obliterated. The Kazakhs had a distinctly Asian look, as they are descended from Mongols. Like most Borat-watchers, I had erroneously assumed they would look like Albanian porn stars. Score one for the OSCE and fostering international understanding.
The rest of the program involved getting dragged around to the offices of various political hacks. At Kerry-Edwards headquarters, Stans One and Two raided the candy jar for dum-dums, while Stan Three pointed to a picture of John Kerry, exclaiming, "Vietnam! Vietnam!" But mostly, as we were dragged to presentations by lawyers and board-of-election types, the day was an indistinguishable blur--hours of boredom, punctuated by moments of sheer ennui. Several of the speakers seemed to have no idea the Kazakhs couldn't speak English, until GN would periodically start translating. The Stans would then put their heads together, bat the ball around among themselves, then come up with a question that called their fraud-spotting powers of observation into question. Usually along the lines of: How many Democratic senators are running for John Edwards's seat in South Carolina? Or, Why are there no political signs visible? (Raleigh's roadways are adorned with almost nothing but political signs, not that they could read them.)
One of the few bright spots of our day was lunch. Without a guide, the delegation ended up fastening on me as their de facto Sacajawea. "How are you going to get around?" I asked Bjørn, a witty and shabbily elegant Scandinavian who, when not serving as a conservative member of his parliament, runs a potato farm. "What do you mean?" he said, smiling. "We have a driver--you." I took Bjørn, the Stans, and two Romanian legislators to a naugahyde greasy spoon, reckoning they should experience authentic North Carolina barbecue. The Stans immediately bailed. "They prefer Chinese food," said an apologetic GN. "Barbecue horse for the Kazakhs," cracked one Romanian, obviously a Borat fan.
I expected my companions to be anti-American Euro-creeps, but was pleasantly surprised. Romanian MP Gyorgy Tokay, a 66-year-old Ralph Nader lookalike who told me to just call him "George," did have his tongue loosened after one beer and a look around the restaurant. "Americans--why are you so fat?" he asked. He also couldn't stomach our smoking prohibitions. "It's a free country. And they do this for my own good? I want to die a sick man, not a healthy one." But with New Europe earnestness, he added, "I love Americans," and about our recent Iraq adventure, he is simpatico: "We know what it's like to live in a country led by a serial killer." Bjørn, pointing out that Romanians have a fresher memory of being granted liberty than do Norwegians, who suffered through Hitler, seconded the motion: "All of our constitutions are a combination of the U.S. Constitution and British ideas. . . . If it weren't for the Americans, we'd still be speaking German in Norway."
THE OSCE claims in its history that the idea of a pan-European security conference was first raised by the Soviet Union in the 1950s. And it's with Soviet-style efficiency that the OSCE is sometimes still run. In addition to stranding their delegation without a car or real translator, they managed to leave a gaping hole in the Election Day itinerary, with only one scheduled stop at an actual polling place.
So Bjørn, the Romanians, the Kazakhs, and I headed to Raleigh's St. Raphael Catholic Church to watch people vote. A great furor has swept the European media over the fact that many OSCE delegations weren't given the full run of U.S. polling stations, since state law tends to be persnickety about who can approach the voting machines. But North Carolina's sunny election workers seem flattered they're here. We watch people vote for about 45 minutes, and everything is copacetic. Bjørn hangs out at a Kids Vote table, where a middle-schooler cracks open the phony ballot box to reveal that John Kerry is leading George Bush two-to-nothing. It's the only tampering we spot. Meanwhile, George buttonholes me, telling me we have to leave, since the Stans are creeping people out by videotaping them, perhaps for souvenirs. The OSCE delegation, it seems, provides the state's only example of voter intimidation.
Though the delegation has traveled around the world to observe our elections, official business is concluded until the returns start coming in at night, because of the OSCE scheduling gaffe. So Bjørn drafts me to take them to the beach, two hours away from Raleigh. After three days of insufferable lectures, he feels entitled: "We deserve some laziness; it's God's will I think. George, did you write down the total from the voter rolls? Me neither. Shall we say 4,516?"
It's my sincere wish that the Stans join us. But GN, while initially enthusiastic, seems uncertain. "In my country we wear these shorts, which I don't know are permitted here," he says, tracing tight cuts across his pubic region. "You mean banana hammocks?" I say, assuring him they're permitted, albeit discouraged. "Yes," he says, "We wear these banana hams you speak of." A bit shy, GN and the Stans hook up instead with a local Russian to take them to a winery, while the rest of us go to the beach.
We have a high time there, too. From the backseat of my minivan, George keeps bellowing that he needs to buy a P. Diddy "Vote or Die" T-shirt. When we arrive at a deserted beach on Cape Fear, George, who claims to be "in a beeg love with the sea," stays in his suit, content to finally smoke in peace. Romanian member of parliament Vasile Mois, who looks like a cross between Lenin and renowned Satanist Anton La Vay, has forgotten his swimsuit but goes ahead and strips down to his banana-ham skivvies anyway. Sixty-seven-year-old Bjørn, a good Norwegian to the last, convinces me to take a dip in the icewater Atlantic. "This is a reward for Kosovo--yes!" he says, splashing around like a dolphin.
When we return that night to the board of elections, our Coalition of the Ambivalent comes unwound. The Stans show up with a new translator, an ethnic Russian named Dmitri, who the Europeans suspect is some sort of diabolical apparatchik foisted on the Kazakhs after GN was disposed of (actually, after a day at the winery, GN had come down with an upset stomach and stayed in their minivan in the parking lot--"I usually drink whiskey, not wine," he later tells me). The Kazakhs are cranky that they are still stuck on field trips to election sites, instead of getting their hands dirty ferreting out election fraud, a subject they should be expert in, being from Kazakhstan. George insists to me that one of the more belligerent Stans is half in the bag, and implores me to call for a "strategic retreat" of their delegation, before there is some sort of embarrassing international incident.
Later, back at the hotel, Bjørn tells me that he has calmly explained to the Kazakhs that the reason they hadn't gotten an all-access pass to the polling sites wasn't because Americans are Potemkin propagandists who were concealing a seedy election process, but because our decentralized system means that state election law trumps invites to foreigners by Colin Powell. And besides, if they're dissatisfied with the program, they might want to take it up not with the Americans, but with the OSCE. I ask him if he plans to do the same. "There's a lot of things I discuss with my chauffeur," he says, smiling, "but not that." I can't help but feel sorry for him. Monitoring the world's leading democracy is no day at the beach. Except, of course, when it is.
Matt Labash is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.