There’s Still Time (Barely) for America to Have a Free and Fair Election

Some hard-won active advice for staging a national vote during a pandemic.

Early voters line up outside of the Vienna Community Building to cast their ballots for the Nov. 3 election, in Vienna, West Virginia, on Oct. 21, 2020.
Early voters line up outside of the Vienna Community Building to cast their ballots for the Nov. 3 election, in Vienna, West Virginia, on Oct. 21, 2020. STEPHEN ZENNER/AFP via Getty Images

When U.S. President Donald Trump predicts electoral fraud, unfair elections, or tampering with mail-in ballots, he is essentially indicting himself. If global election monitoring teaches anything, it’s that responsibility for addressing glitches in an election process, and ensuring it serves voters, ultimately belongs with the serving government.

That is not to imply that elections are ever perfect. There are always new insights to apply, especially as new technologies are introduced across the entire electoral process. This year, as the United States deals with the public health threat posed by COVID-19, securing a safe, fair and healthy election will require unconventional steps. Fortunately, lessons can already be gleaned from experience.

Looking around the world, it’s safe to conclude that most people will still opt to vote in person. Anticipating the needed protective equipment such as face masks and sanitizers for poll workers and voters will be a vital measure. Election authorities across the United States will also need to compensate for the effects of international travel restrictions. Those hurdles mean there will be an increase in overseas votes, which authorities will need additional capacity to count in timely fashion. Specific exemptions on travel restrictions should also be made for international election observers and journalists who have always been able to report on the election.

American authorities should plan ways to counter adversaries hoping to interfere in the election. Research has shown that manipulating media and public opinion is the main objective of many of the outsiders who meddle in elections. To avoid amplifying such malicious efforts, public authorities will need to maintain discipline and clarity in their messaging. This is important before but especially after election day. In a divided country, credible and consistent messengers—people outside the partisan fray, widely recognized for their expertise in public health, democratic processes, or cybersecurity—will be vital to ensuring key information reaches people. U.S. authorities should already be considering how to bring such a group of messengers together.

Journalists will have a responsibility to adopt a code of conduct on how to deal with last-minute leaks of information exfiltrated through hacks. It is crucial that they not take initial claims, including those circulating on social media, at face value. (Often, malicious actors have manipulated the spread of rumors by attaching the label “leak” to disinformation.)

In France, the national electoral commission warned media organizations ahead of the last presidential election not to publish materials illegally obtained through hacking attacks. When hacked documents were dumped online an hour before the start of the so-called blackout barring campaign coverage days before the vote, French media followed the commission’s advice. Media organizations including Le Monde did eventually assess the documents but concluded the timing and release of the information could only be aimed at disturbing the democratic process. And so #MacronLeaks did not have the massive impact that the hackers might have hoped for.

Authorities should work to make more IT support available to local election officials. Having technical experts on call would help deal with Election Day glitches. Before the elections, a combination of stress tests, tabletop exercises, and Election Day simulation games can ensure that technical vulnerabilities are caught and patched in time. Having auditable systems and paper trails for verification purposes would further help bolster voter confidence.

Social media companies must also accept responsibility for ensuring a fair election. New civic initiatives—including the Election Integrity Partnership and the Healthy Elections Project—allow for real-time monitoring of potential threats and the sharing of best practices. Still, no external party will ever have the view that social media companies themselves have of what disinformation and manipulation attempts are flowing through their ecosystems. The government, or other social actors, can attempt to regulate these companies, but until that happens, the greatest impact will come from the companies themselves committing to be transparent about the measures they are taking to police disinformation and to otherwise avoid becoming the instruments of those who want to destroy democracy.

Political parties and candidates should likewise pledge not to use hacked, leaked, or doxxed information and must vow to refrain from deploying such tactics, including through third-party consultants. Any claims of illegal behavior by political participants should be directed to independent arbiters who can ensure swift accountability. Having in place a committee of inquiry that will independently evaluate the elections, regardless of whether there is acute reason for concern, would further inspire confidence in the election.

Even with the sort of ad hoc all-of-society approach described above, the Nov. 3 election will still surface underlying social or political problems. In the United States, these include the lack of a federal data protection law, structural inequalities, or the de facto disenfranchisement of people with health challenges. A long-term agenda to ensure these structural problems are tackled must not be overshadowed by the urgent needs in the short term. From the procurement of election technologies to the updating of campaign finance and advertising rules, the work toward safeguarding fair, safe, and healthy elections in the United States is an ongoing process.

The only way to ensure trust in the coming presidential election is for all of society—from poll workers to journalists to researchers to campaign workers, and not least to voters—to work together toward that goal. The challenge is great, because of the pandemic, polarization, and allegations of fraud that the president himself regularly fuels. That’s why the United States should not wait to carry out ad hoc measures to improve the electoral system’s resilience.

There is no doubt that the world will be watching what happens in November. The fairness, safety, and legitimacy of the presidential election will have consequences for the resilience of democracy not only in the United States, but everywhere.

Marietje Schaake is President of the CyberPeace Institute and International Policy Director at the Cyber Policy Center at Stanford University.

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