Argument

Here’s How the 2020 U.S. Elections Resemble Those of Fragile Democracies

A veteran observer of elections in troubled countries describes the undeniable parallels.

trump-strongmen-election-2020-foreign-policy-illustration
Foreign Policy illustration/Reuters and Getty Images

With an incumbent president attacking the electoral process as rigged and refusing to commit to accepting the results, the Nov. 3 U.S. elections increasingly resemble those in struggling democracies and autocratic countries. I speak from experience, having led or managed some 40 election observation efforts in 22 countries over more than 30 years.

As the co-founder and president of Democracy International, I now see the United States exhibiting many of the same kinds of problems with elections that we in the international election monitoring community have long criticized in countries where democracy is less established. In genuine, established democracies, political competitors generally do not attack the rules or the fairness of the process, accuse the opposing candidate or the election authorities of cheating, intimidate voters, or threaten them with violence. In less than fully democratic countries, on the other hand, complaints about fraud and fairness are routine, and violence—or the threat of it—is often involved. This tends to undermine public confidence in the elections and in democracy itself.

In the struggling democracies and autocracies where I have observed elections, much of the argument is about the integrity of the rules and process. Losing candidates routinely attack the fairness of the electoral process, whether or not they have a basis for their attacks. In fact, you can tell that a country is not (or not yet) a successful democracy when the losers of its elections blame fraud for their loss and attack the legitimacy of the process.
You can tell that a country is not a successful democracy when the losers of its elections blame fraud and attack the legitimacy of the process.

The United States can now be compared with Bangladesh: The latter has many of the hallmarks of a democracy, such as multiparty elections and a functioning parliament, but in each of the six national elections since the country’s transition away from authoritarianism in 1991, the losing party has accused the winning party of rigging the vote. Another example is Egypt, which has missed the opportunity to move toward genuine democracy since its revolution in 2011, as the integrity of each of a series of elections has been challenged. In presidential elections in Afghanistan in both 2014 and 2019, candidate Abdullah Abdullah refused to concede to the declared winner, President Ashraf Ghani, plunging the country into political crisis. In the worst case, allegations of stolen elections can lead to a paroxysm of violence, as in Kenya in 2007, where about 1400 people were killed. Although Kenya’s more recent elections have seen less violence, the losing parties again complained that the elections had been stolen.

Much like political competitors in undemocratic countries, U.S. President Donald Trump has aggressively questioned the credibility of the election process. During the Sept. 29 presidential debate, for example, he claimed, without evidence, that there is “going to be fraud like you’ve never seen.” Even though voting by mail is well established throughout the country, Trump has repeatedly disparaged absentee balloting, calling it “horrible” and “corrupt.” He tweeted: “Mail-in ballots are very dangerous. There’s tremendous fraud involved and tremendous illegality.” In a recent online video, Donald Trump, Jr. asserted: “The radical left are laying the groundwork to steal this election … Their plan is to add millions of fraudulent ballots that can cancel your vote and overturn the election.” Trump has also attacked election administrators. He called Jocelyn Benson, who oversees elections in Michigan, a “rogue Secretary of State” and accused her of acting “illegally and without authorization” for implementing the state’s legally valid policy on absentee ballots. He also threatened “to hold up funding to Michigan if they want to go down this Voter Fraud path!” If Trump loses the election and blames fraud, he will join a long tradition of autocrats who have lost their elections.

Voter intimidation at polling places by unofficial security forces—or by poll watchers affiliated with political parties—is another practice often seen in less democratic countries and criticized by international election observers. We do strongly advocate for legitimate observers from nonpartisan citizen groups and political parties to gain access to polling stations, but international standards require generally that poll watchers be accredited and trained—and never allowed to disrupt polling places or harass voters. During elections in Egypt in 2014 and 2015, we criticized the presence of unidentified plain-clothed armed personnel at polling stations. In Myanmar in 2015, observers expressed concern about the recruitment of civilians for an auxiliary police force to be deployed at the polls. In Venezuela in 2018, ruling-party activists set up red tents outside voting centers in an apparent effort to pressure voters. The presence of these kinds of groups seems to go hand-in-hand with an increased risk of violence: In Bangladesh and Pakistan, for example, armed gangs affiliated with political parties often show up at polling places to discourage their opponents’ supporters from voting, and clashes between supporters of opposing parties are not uncommon. In elections in Afghanistan over the past 15 years, groups opposed to the government or to democracy in general have aggressively threatened voters with violence.
As with elections in fragile countries around the world, there is every reason to worry about violence on Election Day.

Compare these practices with what is now happening in the United States: Trump has urged his supporters “to go in to the polls and watch very carefully.” Donald Trump, Jr. has declared: “We need every able-bodied man and woman to join Army For Trump’s election security operation … We need you to help us watch them.” The idea is that the so-called army of supporters will show up at polling places to defend their vote against supposed fraud by supporters of Democratic candidate Joe Biden. This rhetoric seems to encourage vigilante-type confrontation during the elections and thus to increase the risk of violence. It echoes the president’s attacks on Black Lives Matter demonstrations around the country and his seeming encouragement to white supremacists and right-wing militias, as in the Sept. 29 presidential debate when he called on the extremist Proud Boys group to “stand back and stand by,” and when he defended the armed young Trump supporter charged in the killing of two people at a protest in Wisconsin. Speaking in August, Trump senior advisor Kellyanne Conway seemed to welcome violence before the election: “The more chaos and anarchy and vandalism and violence reigns,” she said, “the better it is for the very clear choice on who’s best on public safety and law and order.” It is striking for a U.S. president and those close to him to be calling for actions or using language that might incite violence or imply its endorsement. Such language is inherently intimidating, not to mention dangerous. As with elections in fragile or undemocratic countries around the world, there is every reason to worry about an escalating confrontation on Election Day and that whichever side loses the 2020 elections in the U.S. will see its supporters take to the streets.

Other problems common to controversial elections in developing countries are also now prevalent in the United States. International observers, for example, have criticized authorities in many countries for obstacles to voter registration and balloting, which may lead to the suppression of specific voter groups. In Myanmar, members of the Rohingya minority are generally not allowed to vote; in Afghanistan, participating in elections has been especially difficult for women. Likewise, in Florida, the Republican establishment has fought to undermine a state constitutional amendment requiring the restoration of voting rights to citizens with previous felony convictions by passing legislation and using the courts to limit those rights. In Georgia, in the lead-up to the 2018 midterm elections, Secretary of State Brian Kemp and the state legislature adopted a so-called exact match system for voter lists that reportedly held up 53,000 voter registrations, of which 70 percent involved minority voters. In Texas this year, state authorities have declined to expand the use of absentee balloting despite the ongoing pandemic, and Republican Governor Greg Abbott has decreed that each county—even the most populous ones—can have only one drop box for early ballots, thereby making voting much less accessible and disproportionately affecting urban areas more likely to vote Democratic. And many critics contend that recent service cuts by the U.S. Postal Service at the behest of new Postmaster General (and Trump donor) Louis DeJoy seem calculated to slow delivery of mail-in ballots.
Because of Trump’s attacks on the process, elections in the United States look more like those we have observed in less-than-democratic countries.

Similarly, international observers routinely call for the establishment of independent election authorities to oversee the interpretation and implementation of election laws, and the administration of the election itself, as official election management bodies often favor ruling parties. In many respects, this problem is actually worse in the United States, where there is no national election authority like in most democracies, and where partisan state and local political officials generally run elections. They sometimes even run elections in which they themselves are candidates, as happened in Georgia in 2018, when Kemp oversaw the election in which he was narrowly elected governor.

During the election itself, international observers almost always urge candidates, parties, and voters to wait patiently for votes to be tallied and to avoid prematurely claiming victory or questioning the count, as has happened in dozens of places, including Afghanistan in 2014, Honduras and Kenya in 2017, and Guyana and Malawi this year. In the United States this year, AP News has reported that “some Trump allies say their best bet is to hope that the results look close election night, before some of the mail-in ballots are counted, allowing Trump to declare victory and have the results thrown to the courts.” Trump apparently wants the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene on his behalf in any post-election dispute over ballot counting; during the first presidential debate, he admitted that he wants the Supreme Court “to look at the ballots,” calling for the confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett in time for her to participate in such a case. “I think [the election] will end up in the Supreme Court,” he said. “And I think it’s very important that we have nine justices.”

From experience monitoring elections around the world, we know that what distinguishes a genuine democracy from a troubled or fake one is that all major candidates and parties accept the rules and those that lose accept and respect the results. Legitimacy derives not only from the laws and rules that govern the system but also from broad acceptance of the rules of the game and the legitimacy of the process.

In large part because of Trump’s attacks on the process, elections in the United States look more and more like those we have observed in less-than-democratic countries. These are the kinds of problems that trigger substantial international concern. They hurt public confidence in the U.S. election process and threaten to undermine the very legitimacy of the United States’ democracy.

Eric Bjornlund is the president of Democracy International, chair of the Election Reformers Network, and author of Beyond Free and Fair: Monitoring Elections and Building Democracy. Twitter: @ebjornlund

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