Dr. Shane Barter: Reflections on His Experience as an Election Observer

December 14, 2022
Dr. Shane Barter poses in front of an election sign in Kazakhstan.

Free and fair elections are crucial to democracy, and Shane Barter, professor of comparative politics and director of the International Studies concentration, recently returned from observing elections in Kazakhstan. Dr. Barter joined the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) mission to observe the country’s presidential election on November 20. Dr. Barter, who joined SUA in 2011, has worked with various groups observing elections since 2003. He is currently working on a book on territorial autonomy that examines special forms of self-government for territorially concentrated minority nations, such as Quebec, Scotland, and Tibet. This January, he is taking an SUA Learning Cluster class to Wales to study that country’s governance.

How did your trip to Kazakhstan come about?

There are various international groups that a country can invite to observe an election, and each has a roster of experts. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) is one of the largest groups, and through Canadem (a Canadian NGO), I was invited to apply in late October. Within a couple days I had a phone interview, and a few days later I was accepted. It was then lightning speed completing the extensive paperwork together with the training sessions. I became part of a 300-person observation team and was deployed to the southern province of Kyzylorda for the November 20 vote.

What was your experience once you were on site?

As an international observer, you are provided access for in-depth observation at all stages of the election process. There are long-term observers that are on the ground several weeks before the election, who are able to observe the entire campaign. I served as a short-term observer, arriving at a particular site a few days before the vote. You witness the immediate lead up, election day, and then the tabulation of votes. Election day is exhausting. I started at about 6 a.m. and finished around 2 a.m. the next day.

As an election observer, you are not a monitor. You are not a police officer, and you are not there to fix things. You are there to observe, with your observations becoming part of a larger pool across 150 or so teams. On this mission, we had pens with an electronic sensor, so when we filled out forms with the data that the OSCE was interested in, it automatically uploaded the data into our smartphones and to the mission center. If you see something you think is troubling or amiss, then the mission center can see if it is random or if there is an accumulation of similar problems.

Can you tell us a bit about the history of election observation?

One of the earliest examples was the Philippines in the 1980s, when a student-led group, which eventually became the Asian Network for Free Elections, were observers and their work helped show that former President Ferdinand Marcos was cheating. Since then, election observation has grown across Eastern Europe and has become the norm in democratizing countries. Observers might catch cheating or identify problems that a country can then respond to. Having foreign observers can also help prevent groups from cheating or using violence or intimidation. The idea is to give a bit of an assist to pro-democratic forces within a given country.

How did you get your start doing this?

I was working as an intern for a Thai human rights group in 2003 called Forum-Asia, and they needed someone to help observe a Cambodian election. After that, I worked with them in Indonesia, and then was invited by the Carter Center to become a long-term observer for the 2004 U.S. presidential elections. It was a really enriching process. I got to follow campaigns, meet with journalists, and look into various allegations and report back to the headquarters. The Carter Center has been really innovative, inviting countries that are less democratic to see firsthand how elections are done. They sometimes also bring people from around the world to the U.S. to observe, so it is less about democratic Western countries observing non-Western countries. I also worked for the European Union in Indonesia in 2006, then as a polling worker in Canada and the U.S, and went to Ukraine in 2019.

How do these visits impact your own ideas about democracy?

I think that sometimes people think it’s cool to criticize democracy. I think people take it for granted. Meanwhile, people in other countries might struggle and die for it. For me, democracy is not some whipping post that you criticize because someone got elected that you don’t like. It is a much deeper idea about how we live, and fairness and minority rights. So the idea of playing some small role to work with the international community to help pro-democracy voices appeals to me. When you go into rural areas in a country and meet people at polling stations, they see that their work matters and that the world actually cares. There’s a degree of solidarity. Even just the stories you tell while having a cup of coffee together about the weaknesses of elections in one’s own country helps foster such solidarity.

How do these trips dovetail with SUA’s mission?

Of course, part of SUA’s mission is to foster global citizenship. Let’s not be uncritical of the idea of global citizenship, which could be seen by some as elitist or assimilationist. But there’s a lot of value in transcending borders, making connections to other places, and humbly trying to educate yourself about other places so you can better learn about your own home. As an International Studies professor going to Kazakhstan, I recognized that I didn’t know enough about Central Asia, which is such an important region. And when I told friends that I was going, they just didn’t have anything to say because they knew so little.

We have a few students from Kazakhstan at SUA who taught me a lot before I went. I loved the things they suggested—the foods they wanted me to try, the sites I should see. This really helped me during my brief mission. For example, one student sent me some of her favorite music to listen to before I left. Just after I met the local driver and translator, one of the songs on the radio was one I knew and could hum along to. That helped me connect with them a little bit right away.

In terms of the political landscape, my visit gave me more insight into where they are now and the challenge of creating durable political parties. With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, there is a fear that Kazakhstan could be next. They also have a lot of Russian men who do not want to be drafted coming into the country. So there’s a lot of tension, and the country is literally a crossroads in terms of Islam, Russia, and connections to China and East Asia, but also a country that wants to be linked to the West and balance external influences.

My experience has already influenced my teaching. In my course on democracy and democratization, we did a session on election observation and the rise of non-traditional, maybe less democratic election observer groups that will certify elections with very different standards than more established groups. I was excited to return and share my hands-on experiences, hopefully enriching the course in terms of real-time democracy promotion. If working as an election observer in Kazakhstan encourages people to learn more about Kazakhstan and the value of democracy, then we have created something truly valuable.