The assertion published by the pro-government Russian daily Izvestia on October 20 kicked off a week of angry denunciations by senior Russian officials of what they characterized as a concerted effort by Washington to prevent Russia from monitoring the November 8 U.S. presidential election.
But an examination of the official responses from the three states where Russia formally asked to deploy its observers shows that the claim of a “threat” of “criminal prosecution” is clearly a massive stretch.
In a September 28 letter to the Russian consul in Houston, Texas Secretary of State Carlos Cascos explained that the state “is unable to accommodate your request to visit a polling station” and noted criminal penalties for violating election laws. But at no point does he make any overt threat.
“Please note that only persons authorized by law may be inside of a polling location during voting,” Cascos wrote in the letter. “All other persons are not authorized and would be committing a class C misdemeanor crime by entering.”
Individual U.S. states are responsible for organizing voting within their borders for federal elections, yielding a wide variety of methods, rules, and regulations nationwide. Several U.S. states, including Texas, prohibit international election observers.
Cascos offered his office’s availability “to discuss generally the election process or perhaps facilitate a meeting with local election officials.”
The Russian consulate in Houston sent nearly identical requests to Oklahoma and Louisiana. The responses he received, copies of which were obtained by Polygraph.info, both said the states could not offer access to polling places but made no mention of criminal prosecution.
Oklahoma Secretary of State Chris Benge wrote that “while it would be our honor to offer the opportunity to observe our voting process, it is prohibited under state law to allow anyone except officials and voters in or around” polling stations. Louisiana Secretary of State Tom Schedler said his office “would have been open to such a visit” but that his staff has been overwhelmed by the aftermath of massive floods in the state in August.
Senior Russian officials also accused Washington of violating the Vienna Convention governing diplomatic relations after the three states declined to allow Russian observers into polling stations. One pro-Kremlin political commentator said the United States was violating Article 26 of that convention. That article guarantees diplomats “freedom of movement and travel” within the receiving state’s territory but adds that they are “subject to its laws and regulations concerning zones entry into which is prohibited or regulated for reasons of national security.”
David Stewart, a law professor at Georgetown University and a former assistant legal adviser for diplomatic law and litigation at the U.S. State Department, told Polygraph.info that “nothing in the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations gives accredited foreign diplomats a right to observe inside polling places.”
“In our system, state law controls the circumstances of the voting, in particular who can be inside the polling places,” Stewart said.
The flap over the election monitoring follows a formal accusation by the U.S. government that Russia is behind a string of cyberattacks and e-mail leaks aimed at interfering in the U.S. election process -- an allegation the Kremlin has denied.
For an idea of what an actual threat of prosecution looks like, Russia needs to look no further than the response Texas delivered to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), created under the UN Charter, ahead of the 2012 U.S. presidential election.
“It may be a criminal offense for OSCE’s representatives to maintain a presence within 100 feet of a polling place’s entrance,” Texas Secretary of State Greg Abbot wrote. “Failure to comply with these requirements could subject the OSCE’s representatives to criminal prosecution for violating state law.”
Abbott added on Twitter: “UN poll watchers can't interfere w/ Texas elections. I'll bring criminal charges if needed. Official letter posted soon. #comeandtakeit”
The OSCE’s election-monitoring body called the threat “unacceptable.”