HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Montana election officials want to keep tabs on two foreign observers who will be in the state for routine monitoring of next week’s elections, including where they are staying, what questions they are asking and what documents they are seeking.
A memo sent Sunday from Secretary of State Corey Stapleton’s office to county election officials says observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe are expected in Montana. The Independent Record newspaper, which first reported about the memo, published a copy of it Thursday.
“If you happen to have an encounter with any member of the group … you will need to provide me with the following information as soon as possible,” according to the memo by Stapleton’s director of elections and voter services, Dana Corson.
The document includes a checklist of questions, including the circumstances surrounding the contact with the foreign observer, questions asked and information supplied, access or documents requested and provided, and their plans for staying in that location.
The OSCE observers appear to be performing routine election observation at the invitation of the United States, one of the 57 nations that are members of the organization created during the Cold War as a bridge between East and West. The organization observes elections around the world and has monitored seven elections in the U.S. since 2002, most recently in 2016.
Paulette DeHart, clerk and recorder for Lewis and Clark County, said Thursday that it’s common for county election officials to host individuals who want to view the election process, including foreigners.
“We do that for everybody, no matter who they are or where they’re from,” she said. “They don’t have access to ballots, they don’t have access to the equipment.”
Officials with the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights in Poland did not immediately return an after-hours call for comment. The office describes its election mission to the U.S. on its website and says 13 experts will be based in Washington, while 36 observers are deployed in teams of two to various states.
The observers will monitor voter registration, campaign activities, media coverage and Election Day procedures. They will compile their observations in a report that will be shared with the public and the U.S. government.
Corson said in his memo to county officials that he was recently told two observers would arrive in the state after Sunday and would be looking to meet with various people. He said one visitor would be a Pakistani national and that “anyone in the group is of interest, but in particular — the female observer is of high interest.”
It’s not clear to whom he was referring, what he means by “high interest” or why it matters that one would be from Pakistan, a U.S. ally. A list of the election observers published by the OSCE does not include anybody from Pakistan.
Corson, in response to an Associated Press query, said, “I just shared what I knew.” He said he wrote the memo “based on my conversations with the FBI” but said this appears to be like any other election year with foreign observers.
“I have no more concerns with this information than I already did with regard to running secure elections next week,” he said. “It’s just another data point that I am managing.”
Corson also instructed county officials not to share the memo and labeled it as “unclassified controlled information for official use only,” a term defined in U.S. Department of Defense regulations but not by Montana state laws that regulate public access to records.
“The information contained is only to be shared by those within your organization who have demonstrated a need to know,” Corson wrote.
He told the AP on Thursday that he was wrong to try to prevent the memo’s disclosure.
“I am sending out a clarification to the clerks that this information is Unclassified,” Corson wrote. “I was simply trying to be discreet in notifying the clerks about foreign observers just showing up unannounced.”