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International group monitoring election gets mixed reception

WASHINGTON -- In some quarters, they were seen as outside intruders trying to tell the United States how to run its affairs. In others, they were welcomed and honored, even asked to pose for souvenir photographs.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe monitored a US presidential election for the first time, sending 92 observers, including 56 parliamentarians, from 34 countries. They fanned out to voting precincts in 11 states Tuesday.

At the local level, election workers "were delighted and honored and surprised" by the arrival of observers, Giovanni Kessler, a parliamentarian from Italy, said yesterday during a news conference. He said he was aware others did not appreciate the group's efforts, but he called them part of a small minority.

"If they are here to learn, that's fine," said one foe, Thomas P. Kilgannon of the conservative group Freedom Alliance. "But if they are here to cast judgment, that's where conservatives take issue."

Kilgannon alleged that Democrats asked for the observers to lay the groundwork for complaints of fraud in the event of a loss by Senator John F. Kerry.

"Americans do not need . . . the OSCE intruding into their voting places to ensure the integrity of the system," he said.

The State Department invited the observers to monitor the presidential vote after they had observed the 2003 governor's recall race in California and congressional midterm elections in 2002, focusing mainly on reforms started in Florida after the hotly contested 2000 presidential vote.

This year's vote "mostly met" standards agreed to by the 55-nation body, the OSCE team said in preliminary findings issued yesterday. The election was marked by "free and vigorous media coverage," exceptional public interest, and professionalism and dedication on the part of state and county election officials, it said.

But reforms started to address problems with the prolonged and court-contested 2000 presidential election are still "a work in progress," the report said. The group noted that long lines made voting difficult and that there were allegations of fraud and voter suppression, primarily among minorities, before the election.

Monitors were banned from some polling places in North Carolina and Florida, because there were no provisions in state law for allowing them in, the group said. It suggested changing state laws to allow unimpeded access for international observers.

"The high turnout indicates the importance of this election for the electorate and the strong democratic tradition in this country," said Barbara Haering, chairwoman of observers. "Although it was not possible for our observers to access polling stations in all states . . . it appears that the voting and the processing of ballots proceeded in an orderly manner."

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