Poll workers count ballots during the Oct. 1 parliamentary elections in the Republic of Georgia. (Submitted)
Jefferson County Election Commissioner Stu Soffer stands in front of the birthplace home of Joseph Stalin during an election observation trip to the Republic of Georgia. (Submitted)
Jefferson County Election Commissioner Stu Soffer presents an Arkansas Secretary of State lapel pin to Kareli District Election Commission Chairman Zaza Nadirashvili. (Submitted)
A voter deposits his ballot into the ballot box to vote in the parliamentary elections Oct. 1 in the Republic of Georgia. To the left, other voters are signing in and to the right, a man waits to deposit his ballot. The man in the green vest is a poll worker. (Submitted)
A Jefferson County election commissioner from White Hall was one of 31 Americans who observed elections earlier this month in the Republic of Georgia.
Stu Soffer was deployed by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights to observe the Oct. 1 parliamentary elections in Georgia. On Election Day, 290 OSCE long-term and short-term observers were stationed throughout Georgia to observe voting and ballot tabulation.
Soffer was teamed with an Italian doctoral candidate studying international humanitarian law at the University of Geneva. They were dispatched to Gori, birthplace of Joseph Stalin, along with observers from the United States, Spain, Poland, Belarus, Denmark, Germany, Finland, Belgium and Netherlands.
Soffer said the group got along well and English was the common language.
Election observation was conducted in the Kareli District, which was peaceful on Election Day.
Soffer said his biggest concern was the high potential for a traffic accident on the main road between Gori and their observation area. He said it was the first time he had ever encountered 3.5 lanes of high-speed two-way traffic on a two-lane road.
Another concern, Soffer said, was ensuring not to cross into the adjacent Russian occupied zone on one of the unmarked back roads they had to travel to reach polling locations. There were no directional signs once you left the main road, Soffer said, but they encountered an occasional police checkpoint and livestock on the narrow, winding mountain roads.
OSCE’s preliminary findings were the parliamentary elections marked an important step in consolidating the conduct of democratic elections in line with OSCE and Council of Europe commitments, although certain key issues remain to be addressed, Soffer said.
The elections were competitive with active citizen participation throughout the campaign, including in peaceful mass rallies. The environment, however, was polarized and tense, characterized by the use of harsh rhetoric and some instances of violence, Soffer said.
The campaign often centered on the advantages of incumbency, on the one hand, and private financial assets, on the other, rather than on concrete political platforms and programs, Soffer said.
Freedoms of association, assembly and expression were respected overall, although instances of harassment and intimidation of party activists and supporters marred the campaign environment and often ended with detentions or fines of mostly opposition-affiliated campaigners, contributing to an atmosphere of distrust among contestants, Soffer said.
This was Soffer’s seventh OSCE election observer mission representing the United States in a former Soviet republic in Eastern Europe or Central Asia.