Election Monitors Who Watch Hot Spots Worry About the U.S.

American democracy, once a model for the rest of the world, is now a concern to outside observers.
Election Monitors Who Watch Hot Spots Worry About the U.S.
American 'I Voted! Did You!' stickers at a polling station Michigan, U.S. (Photographer: Erin Kirkland/Bloomberg)

Ahead of November’s presidential election, an assessment by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe explained its decision to send a “large” team of observers to help ensure a clean vote: There were fears the incumbent might abuse government resources to keep power, disinformation (or “fake news”) was being spread, and inflammatory language used. The report, published earlier this month, was about Moldova, where voters choose a new leader for the former Soviet republic on Nov. 1. If you thought it was describing the U.S., which goes to the polls two days later, that’s an easy mistake to make. 

For decades, American nonprofits such as the National Democratic Institute, the International Republican Institute, and the Carter Center have observed elections in Moldova and other nations around the globe, confident of the model that their own country, the world’s oldest constitutional democracy, had to offer. But this year’s contest between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden is holding up a mirror. Fought amid the Covid-19 pandemic, Black Lives Matter protests, and levels of political polarization not seen for a century, it’s looking a lot more like the ones these organizations so often admonished—with even such fundamentals as the willingness to lose in doubt.

“What country are we in?” Biden asked on Sept. 24 after Trump declined at a press conference to commit himself to a peaceful transfer of power so long as people are allowed to vote via mail-in ballots. Trump has said, without evidence, that mail-ins are uniquely susceptible to fraud. One answer came from Mitt Romney, himself a former Republican presidential candidate: Without a peaceful transition of power, “there is Belarus,” he tweeted. That post-Soviet nation, ruled by one man, President Alexander Lukashenko, for the last 26 years, has been in turmoil since his Aug. 9 reelection was widely dismissed as stolen.

From allegations of voter suppression and abuse of the U.S. Postal Service for political ends to a candidate warning of large-scale ballot fraud before the first polling station has even opened, no previous U.S. vote has looked so depressingly familiar to veterans of international election monitoring. And with the Sept. 18 death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, that list of commonalities got longer still. The brutally partisan dispute over her early replacement has thrown yet another fundamental strength of U.S. democracy—an independent judiciary—into the 2020 election’s political cauldron.

“The number of possible things that could go wrong this time is higher than I have seen in my lifetime,” says Sarah Repucci, head of research and analysis at Freedom House, which annually ranks countries around the world on a range of democratic freedoms, including elections. “Traditionally, our electoral process scores for the U.S. were perfect.”

That’s unlikely to be the case when Freedom House makes its next index. The Carter Center, a U.S. nonprofit that has monitored 110 elections in 39 countries abroad since 1989, said on Aug. 28 that it was assigning a team to work at home “to help build confidence in the process and results.” The decision was unprecedented and marks the first time the organization has detected democratic “backsliding” in the U.S. The OSCE, a 57-nation body of which the U.S. is a leading member, had planned to send 400 observers for Election Day plus a 100-strong long-term election monitoring team, with the latter recommendation up from from 26 in 2016. But staff are supplied by the member states and a combination of Covid-19 safety concerns and travel restrictions have led to a shortfall, according to spokesperson Katya Andrusz. The mission will be scaled back to 14 core experts and 30 long-term observers.

To be sure, U.S. democracy has long suffered from serious failings, including opaque campaign finance, gerrymandering of electoral districts, and the disenfranchisement of the world’s largest—and disproportionately Black—prison population. A democracy index run by the Economist Intelligence Unit, the U.K.-based research arm of the Economist magazine, has ranked the U.S. among “flawed” democracies since 2016, trailing most of western Europe.

The probity of the election process itself, however, remained a U.S. strong suit, even after the 2000 “hanging chad” episode, when Ginsburg and the eight other members of the U.S. Supreme Court had to rule on whether to allow a recount in Florida. Democratic Party candidate Al Gore accepted the court’s decision against him, despite having beaten George W. Bush in the popular vote. Gore’s willingness to submit to the rules of the game is a distinguishing factor of healthy democracies. It’s hard to imagine a repeat in the toxic political mood of 2020, in particular if mail-in votes should tip the result against Trump.

Equally familiar to international election observers are allegations of voter suppression tactics, such as culling the number of polling stations in targeted areas or imposing onerous voter ID requirements to reduce turnout in minority, primarily Black, districts. On Sept. 24, the actor and former Republican Governor of California Arnold Schwarzenegger said he would fund the reopening of Southern polling stations closed since the 1965 Voting Rights Act—which had protected against moves to disenfranchise Black voters—was terminated in 2013.

Nations in which voter suppression targets minorities form the kind of club you shouldn’t want to join. Zimbabwe’s ruling ZANU-PF party was long accused of using intimidation and registration hurdles to reduce the vote of the country’s minority Ndebele community, which tends to vote for the opposition. In Turkey, ethnic Kurds accused the authorities of suppressing their vote in 2018 parliamentary elections by closing polling stations on bogus security grounds. In Moldova, the opposition fears that on Nov. 1 the government will open a higher density of polling stations for its citizens living in Russia, where the nation’s migrant workers tend to back the pro-Russia incumbent President Igor Dodon, than for those in the European Union.

Allegations that Trump’s postmaster general, Louis DeJoy, has cut funding and dismantled sorting machinery for political ends since his appointment in June recall frequent examples of institutional abuse for political ends in other countries. DeJoy has said he’s trimming costs for business reasons. Democrats say he is deliberately undermining the system’s capacity to process mail-in ballots, which are used more by Democratic than Republican voters. Mail-in voting is rare in emerging economies, so this would be a newer twist. But governments determined to stay in power have long used control over other institutions to skew elections, including politicized courts, stacked electoral commissions, weaponized law enforcement, and state-run media that can blank or smear opposition candidates.

The U.S. is still a world apart from Moldova, let alone Potemkin democracies such as Belarus, or—despite President Vladimir Putin’s claims of his country’s democratic superiority—Russia, where free media is muzzled and opposition politicians have been jailed, deported, and even poisoned. “Of course, the situation has changed recently in the U.S., but you cannot compare it,” says Janez Lenarcic, who headed the OSCE’s election monitoring operations when it observed the 2008 and 2012 U.S. presidential contests, as well as votes in many of the former Soviet republics. “In the U.S., you have qualified, effective, efficient electoral administration bodies, you have freedom of the media, freedom of expression—you have vibrant processes and strong traditions based on individual liberties and freedoms,’’ Lenarcic says, adding that he spoke in a private capacity, and not in his current role as the EU’s commissioner for crisis management.

Some of the apparent similarities with weak electoral systems may even speak to the underlying strength of U.S. democracy. Take Trump’s pre-vote warnings of fraud. Prior claims of fraud are common in countries with few or weak democratic institutions. Yet, in those places, it’s invariably the opposition that makes such claims, based on the experience—often well documented by international observers—of past elections a ruling party has stolen. Numerous studies have shown that the U.S. has no modern record of statistically significant voter fraud, whether by mail or at the ballot box.

The same goes for the controversy over voter identification laws—something that election observers routinely try to get autocratic governments to adopt. That makes sense in a country such as Zimbabwe, where the inevitable reduction in turnout that voter ID requirements produce is a price worth paying to reduce ballot box stuffing. Less so in the U.S. In 2016, three courts—in Texas, North Carolina, and Wisconsin—overturned new voter identification requirements introduced to combat alleged voter fraud, largely because the states’ attorneys had failed to provide evidence of such a threat. In Wisconsin, the judge complained that they hadn’t produced a single instance of a voter who had been charged with the crime.

Adding citizen observers at polling stations is again something international observers tend to encourage, because it can add transparency to distrusted voting systems. But Trump’s opponents fear that his call for an additional 50,000 Republican party observers to monitor polling stations on Nov. 3—as with the claims of widespread mail-in ballot fraud—may be an attempt to do the opposite: sow doubt in a fundamentally trustworthy system.

What worries historian Edward Foley is that the mechanics of U.S. democracy haven’t always been as trusted or clean as they were for much of the 20th century, and there’s no guarantee they won’t regress. American elections in the 19th and 18th centuries were as rife with instances of blatant fraud, voter intimidation, and violence as those in many emerging democracies today. Foley’s 2016 book Ballot Battles chronicles a litany of bare-knuckled power grabs and ballot fraud, including the use of troops to intimidate voters, bogus ballot exclusions, and an 1855 vote in Kansas on whether to declare itself a free or slave state that saw 6,307 ballots cast—out of 2,905 eligible residents.

Perhaps most worrying today is the precedent of the 1876 Hayes vs. Tilden presidential election, in which Democrats—then largely the party of the South—suppressed the Black vote, and Republicans used their control of critical state election bodies to steal votes back. When both candidates claimed victory, Congress, the final arbiter of such disputes, split on party lines. The deadlock was broken only when Hayes agreed to withdraw federal troops from the South, effectively ending Reconstruction in exchange for the presidency. The Achilles heel of the U.S., says Foley, remains the arbitrating role that partisan institutions play in election disputes.

Still, Alexander Hamilton, a co-author of the U.S. Constitution, once said that the true test of a democracy is not when the result is so tight it’s disputed, but when a candidate rejects a result that is, at least according to the accepted norms, clear. “What would worry Hamilton is if there was an outcome this year that was not close in the 2000 Bush vs. Gore sense,” says Foley. “If there were no hanging chads or real reason to dispute the result—and it’s just that the losing side didn’t like losing.’’

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