Every OSCE election observation mission normally begins with an official communication from the host government, inviting the OSCE to send observers.
The next step is to deploy a needs assessment mission to assess the situation in the relevant country and determine the scale of a potential observation activity.
Missions vary in size and scope, but a standard election observation mission is deployed throughout the entire host country and involves several levels of observers and analysts.
The core team usually consists of at least 12 members, including a head and deputy head; media, elections, political, and legal analysts; a co-ordinator of long-term observers; logistics officers; statisticians; finance officers; and security officers.
The core team is complemented by a number of long-term observers (LTOs), election experts offered to the ODIHR by OSCE participating States, who are deployed to regional centres throughout the country.
They meet regularly with local officials, as well as with representatives of political parties and non-governmental organizations, in order to contribute their regional findings to the ODIHR's overall reporting on the pre-election period.
LTOs spend six to eight weeks observing and assessing the election administration, implementation of the law and other regulations, the conduct of the campaign, and the political environment.
Every standard election observation mission will have anywhere from a hundred to a thousand short-term observers, also offered to the mission by OSCE participating States. They arrive several days before voting and leave a day or two after voting. Their job is to observe the polling, counting and tabulation procedures, and to report their findings.
Observers visit around ten polling stations on election day, where they fill out forms to gather detailed information about each polling station. Each form contributes to the overall statistical profile of how polling-station procedures are being conducted throughout the country. This permits the observation mission to determine whether irregularities, when they occur, are of an isolated nature or are systematic.
What a mission observes
The areas that come under scrutiny during an election represent all key stages of the process.
The ODIHR commences with a review of the election-related legislation, following which it monitors: the registration of candidates and voters; the campaign; the coverage provided by both publicly and privately owned media; the work of the election administration; the handling and resolution of complaints and appeals, including the functioning of the judiciary; and, finally, the instalment in office of elected officials.
On election day, short-term observers begin by monitoring the opening of one polling station to see whether it opens according to regulations, whether ballot boxes are empty and properly sealed, whether the polling station has received and can account for ballots, and whether the commission is familiar with the relevant procedures.
Throughout the day, observers monitor how voters are processed, whether they are accurately listed in the voter register, and whether they are able to vote in secrecy and free from intimidation. The vote count is an important part of the election process and is also observed.
After the ballots are counted, the results of the polling-station count are usually transmitted to a regional election commission, where the regional results are tabulated and transmitted to the national level. Often, short-term observers accompany the official results to the tabulation centres to observe that they are properly delivered, received, and accounted for in the tabulation.
When combined, the findings of short-term observers, the pre-election findings of long-term observers in each region of the country, and the overall findings and analysis of the core team allow an observation mission to make an accurate, detailed assessment of the conduct of an electoral process.