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In Wake County, European election observers critique the process

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European election observers, who arrived in the Triangle on Tuesday, saw a process that lived up to America's own voting laws. But they had harsher criticisms for the impact of outside spending and our two-party system.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which is supported by the United Nations and of which the United States is a member, deployed the monitors. Texas officials had indicated they would arrest the observers if they set foot in the Lone Star state, but eight came to North Carolina and others, numbering nearly 100, spread out as far afield as Pennsylvania and Virginia.

Of the eight observers in North Carolina, six favored Obama, one supported Romney and one declined to give an opinion. They all noted their political opinions were as legislators and Europeans rather than observers of the election process itself.

The officials noted that the election activities they witnessed in Wake County were free of voter fraud and tampering, but also complicated.

"It's more for experience for us, than to look for shortcomings or cheatings. We are convinced that's not possible here," said Wolfgang Grossruck, a member of the Austrian Parliament.

But, he noted: "I think here is the most complicated system we have observed. It's like you have to go to university to be able to vote. I'm joking, but it is complicated."

Grossruck is a member of Austria's Conservative party and visited polling stations around Raleigh with his colleague Karl Oellinger, a member of the Austrian Green party. They said the complications were more a question of confusion than fraud.

They noted the large number of races on the ballot and the crowds around voting booths. Many other poll watchers said they saw voters who were unsure whether they needed identification or other paperwork to cast their ballot.

Grossruck and Oellinger also pointed to the fact that people must register to vote in the United States. In Austria, citizens are automatically registered to vote, they said. In other European nations, such as Belgium and Liechtenstein, not voting carries a fine.

While North Carolina didn't ban the European observers, the delegates did experience some pushback. At the first polling place the two Austrians visited, precinct officials wouldn't let them in. After making some calls to higher-ups, the observers eventually gained access.

"In other countries the voting process is more transparent, not the procedure itself," Grossruck said. "You don't have common rules from state to state and I think every federal state [in Europe] has its own rules and procedures."

Other observers from Norway, Iceland, Denmark and Liechtenstein said they had no problems entering the polls to watch the voting process.

The monitors' most notable observations emerged in the differences between political systems.

"We went to a rally in Virginia and it was like a rock 'n' roll concert," said Robert Marshall, a member of the Icelandic Parliament. "It's good that you have found a way to get people excited, but it is very different in Europe."

"The campaigning period is maybe too long here," noted Oellinger. "The campaigning period is two or three months in Austria."

Campaigns are also largely publicly financed in Europe. Grossruck and Oellinger were suspicious of the influence of outside spending in U.S. elections.

"Here I have seen many millions and billions of dollars going from private companies to finance Super PACs," said Oellinger, who believes the shorter campaign period and the lack of corporate spending make Austria's system superior.

"I think it would be better off for the United States to have more [political] parties," he added. "There is such a big split between the two parties, which maybe prevents progress."

Grossruck, a conservative, was troubled by the U.S. Republican Party's move to the right. "You have some Republicans that have done a good job. I remember Ronald Reagan. He did a good job," he said. Yet Grossruck is now an Obama supporter. He questions the Republican tax policies and their drastic cuts to social services. "We cannot imagine a place where people are not helped by the state and provided with health care."

The biggest difference between the U.S. and Austrian systems, Grossruck said, is a lack of divisiveness in the latter. Politicians "are not nicer to each other in Europe," said Grossruck. "But we're not as polarized. For example, [Oellinger] is from the Green party. I am from the Conservative party. In political decisions we are different, but it doesn't prohibit our friendship. We are personally very, very close friends."

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