Q&A

An International Election Observer’s Advice for America: Trust the Process

Used to monitoring elections in fragile states overseas, the Carter Center is turning its attention for the first time to U.S. elections.

A voter departs with two children after casting her ballot during early voting in the 2020 presidential election on October 29, 2020 in Adel, Iowa.
A voter departs with two children after casting her ballot during early voting in the 2020 presidential election on October 29, 2020 in Adel, Iowa. Mario Tama/Getty Images

By design, U.S. elections are different. For centuries, Americans have fought over who even gets to vote—and still are. Simply winning a lot more votes than the other side doesn’t mean a victory. And there’s a new wrinkle, more common in the developing world, where the incumbent has cast doubts on whether he will accept the results of the Nov. 3 election.

The fact that a disputed election is even in the cards shows how far democracy in the United States has receded—so much so, that international election observers, used to watching contested elections in often violent locales, have turned their eyes to American shores.

For the first time in its history, the Carter Center, whose Democracy Program has monitored 111 elections in 39 countries (most recently in Bolivia), is engaging in the U.S. elections. Although the center will not be carrying out traditional polling station monitoring on Election Day, it has mounted a public campaign to build trust in the U.S. electoral system and joined the Georgia secretary of state’s Georgia Bipartisan Task Force for Safe, Secure, and Accessible Elections.

Foreign Policy spoke with David Carroll, the head of the Carter Center’s Democracy Program, to learn why the center has turned its focus on the United States and what lessons learned in weakened democracies abroad can now be applied at home.

Foreign Policy: So what made you take the leap into this election?

David Carroll: We, as an institution, focus on democracy and human rights around the world. We’ve tried to prioritize countries and elections where we thought that the election was going to be an important test for that country.

It’s usually been places that were going through some kind of democratic opening or transition, and the election might present a breakthrough. But often, we’ve also looked at countries that were at risk of suffering some kind of a breakdown or a backsliding. But in all of those country contexts, what usually unites them is some combination of polarization and a lack of trust in government or election authorities, sometimes other elements of conflict. So while we’ve known for quite a long time through our international work that the United States has many flaws in its electoral system, it’s only really been in the last couple of election cycles that these kinds of concerns have been rising in the United States.

And this year, it just became so obvious and compelling the degree to which there is this lack of public trust that the elections will be credible and should be accepted. And that there’s now even a major party candidate saying that he might not accept the results; those all come together as things that, if we were looking around the world, we would identify this as a country that we should take a close look at and try to get involved.

FP: You announced this initiative a couple of months ago. There’s a few days to go. Are you any more assured that the public has trust in this election than you were when you started out?

DC: I’ve noticed, especially in the last month or so, heightened attention to these elections across the board, from all corners of American society. Everybody’s really engaging on this in such a way that I think there’s a cause for optimism that there’s going to be more attention to trying to address questions, uncertainties, and identify good, accurate sources of information in spite of the wave of disinformation that’s there.

And it’s certainly going to continue to be there, but there’s this counterweight of more awareness about the importance of good information. So while I don’t have anything concrete to point to, I do have a sense that there’s a lot more on the counterweight side than there was a month ago.

FP: Are you worried about Election Day and the days after?

DC: Well, I think one of the things where I’m more optimistic is that there seems to be much greater public understanding and media understanding about what we should expect. There’s a high probability that we won’t have the ability to call the elections on election night, which is not typically the case in the United States. It could take a little bit longer, and the message that everybody is pointing to is let’s just let the process work.

We have a lot of experience in this country with holding elections and following the legal processes—let’s just let those processes take their course. The only thing that would be concerning is if people don’t accept that and somehow they’re convinced that there is a rigging attempt. And there’s really no reason to think that unless there’s clear evidence of that.

And that brings up the question of disinformation. There’s going to be, I think, a high possibility that there will be framing of this as an election that’s being stolen from under the rug. And so it’s really going to be important to remind people: There’s actually a process. There are election authorities in every state that do this routinely and many people with a lot of experience. There are legal channels. There’s a lot of transparency. The media will have people looking at this. So let’s just let the process take its course.

FP: The decentralized nature of the U.S. election system makes it difficult to manage—does that need to change?

DC: You know, it’s hardwired into our constitutional structure. In most U.S. states, you have partisan elected officials who are ultimately responsible for election administration. And what we know as an international standard in good practice, you want independent election authorities. And that’s something that we could pursue in this country, as well as the independent boundary commissions to establish the boundaries of our electoral districts—another thing that is extremely politicized.

FP: You seem quite calm about Election Day.

DC: I would say that I have a great deal of confidence. There’s good reason here to rely on election administrators: They are bound by law, they have election procedures, they’ve been doing this work over and over again. So there are very good reasons to have trust in this process—we just have to understand it more.

Our enemy is the distrust and the disinformation and the overreaction to a scenario where we might not have a clear outcome right away or where there might be disputes and attributing problems to fraud or rigging when there may not be any evidence for that.

And this is a dynamic that we see internationally all the time. That’s frankly why international observers can play a really important role. It’s quite often the case that there are allegations of fraud and rigging, and there might be a kernel of some factual information in some of those claims. Then when you kind of disassemble that, you dig deeper, and you look at the facts, you find out that there was a problem there but it wasn’t a systematic problem: It didn’t represent a large number of votes, and it didn’t have any impact on the outcome. And so you’re going to have narratives that are going to play into those fears. This is what we see very, very often.

FP: Twenty years ago, we had an outlier—Florida. What happens if there is a contested situation like that?

DC: It goes back to transparency in the rule of law and established procedures and engaging in those in a transparent, forthright way. But the biggest risk, and the biggest concern, is that the temptation to believe disinformation, and to believe stories about rigging, gets combined with people who are armed and feel like they need to defend a process that’s being stolen from them. When, in fact, that is probably unlikely to be what is happening.

And I don’t know, because the election hasn’t happened, but I think the bigger risk is that people grab onto a false narrative, and then there’s violence that really creates a different kind of a problem. It’s not an election problem.

Colm Quinn is the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @colmfquinn

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