So intent was Riccardo Migliori on his mission — observing the U.S. election and asking questions about the voting process in Baltimore — that he missed the statues of saints and the oil painting of Pope Leo XIII. So foreign was the idea that voting might take place in a house of worship that he apparently didn't notice the brass crucifix on the wall above him, either.
In fact, it wasn't until he left the polling place in Little Italy and stepped onto chilly Exeter Street on Tuesday morning that Migliori, a senior member of Big Italy's parliament, realized he had just seen Americans voting in the basement of a Roman Catholic church.
"A church?" Migliori asked, looking up at the front doors of St. Leo the Great and, high on the brick façade, a gilded statue of the church's namesake. "I am surprised. With the separation of church and state, we would never dream of having a polling place in a church."
He's a big, bearded, affable man in a well-worn raincoat, part of a delegation of 110 election observers from 30 countries operating under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. That organization dates back to the Cold War and represents 56 nations in matters of human rights, press freedom and free elections. It dispatches election observers all over Europe, the former Soviet Union and North America, including the U.S. (Just about everywhere but Texas.)
Migliori, who is from Florence, has been a member of the Italian Chamber of Deputies since 1996. He takes a special interest in election integrity and serves as president of the parliamentary assembly of the OSCE. He's traveled to numerous countries to watch elections — Belarus, Ukraine and, more recently, Tunisia.
Tuesday, Migliori started his work in Little Italy, accompanied by two aides and Francesco Luigi Legaluppi, the Italian consul general in Baltimore. Legaluppi and an old friend of mine from the neighborhood, Elia Mannetta, served as interpreters.
Migliori and his two staff members, Vincenzo Picciolo and Giuseppe Maggio, stepped into St. Leo's basement at 7:05 a.m., just as citizens started to vote.
They were greeted by Alan Shapiro, the chief Democratic judge for the precinct.
Here's what Migliori asked Shapiro:
"How do you limit propaganda from the polling place?"
Shapiro: "There's no electioneering allowed within 100 feet of the polling place, which means anyone who electioneers has to stand across [Exeter] street."
How do the election judges and workers keep things moving?
Shapiro: "We all work quickly because we know the routine and we've worked together before, several times."
Migliori noticed that voting machines were lined up at angles, but open to the central part of the church basement, where, conceivably, people waiting in line could peek over their fellow citizens' shoulders. Why not turn the machines around, Migliori wanted to know, so that the open side of each faces the wall?
Shapiro pondered this a moment and said, "Actually, the way the machines are set up, people can't see how someone else votes." And besides, the power cords weren't long enough to arrange them as Migliori had suggested.
Next: "If someone voted early, do the election judges have the capability of knowing that, so that a person could not vote twice?"
This question had been on Migliori's mind since he first heard about early voting in the Maryland and other states. Allowing people to vote ahead of Election Day seems fraught with risk, he said.
Shapiro: "Anyone who voted early, their name is in the poll books already and they would not be able to vote a second time."
Migliori: "Do you ask each person if they voted already?"
Shapiro: "We don't have to. The machine will tell us if they voted already; the machine will tell us their voting history."
Migliori: "Do you ask the voter for identification?"
Shapiro: "We only ask if the machine asks us to ask for ID for some reason."
It was outside, after Migliori realized he had just visited a polling place inside a church — and recovered from that shock — that I asked him about his mission and his impression of U.S. elections.
But his comments were more about our campaigns.
"There's no equality among the candidates," he said, noting how American politicians raise millions of dollars to gain television exposure. In Italy and much of Europe, he said, candidates are accorded equal time.
"And it doesn't matter how much money they have," Migliori said. "When you begin the race, everyone must be at the same starting line. That's only fair."
The Italian politician noted that for most Americans, deciding on a president Tuesday was a $2 billion choice — between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. "And so," he noted, "most Americans have no idea that there were other candidates for president on the ballot."
Truth, as only an outside observer can deliver it.