Election 2020

What International Election Observers Will Be Looking For on Tuesday

At least three groups will be closely monitoring the voting process for even more signs of trouble.

A voter casts his ballot at an early voting center in Washington, DC, on Oct. 27.
A voter casts his ballot at an early voting center in Washington, DC, on Oct. 27. Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images

As someone who has led or managed more than 40 election observation efforts in 22 countries over three decades, I have seen many problematic elections in struggling democracies and authoritarian states. Unfortunately, the 2020 U.S. elections already resemble those in many of the world’s fragile democracies, as I described in Foreign Policy on Oct. 24. Since then, the parallels have only gotten more disturbing, with U.S. President Donald Trump and his campaign continuing to accuse the challenger of planning to “steal” the election, last-minute legal challenges to voting procedures in key states, and Trump tweeting encouragement to supporters whose threats had led former Vice President Joe Biden’s campaign to cancel an event in Texas.

As millions of Americans go to the polls tomorrow, among the many people watching closely will be the international election observer community, including me. Official observation efforts monitoring the U.S. elections include those of the Organization of American States and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. For the first time, the Carter Center has a domestic election program that somewhat resembles their election observation programs overseas. While we always emphasize the importance of monitoring the entire electoral process before, during, and after voting, here is what I and other election observers will be looking for on Election Day itself.

When monitoring in-person voting in the United States, observers will look for compliance with local voting procedures—for example, whether polling places are open as scheduled, operate efficiently, and protect ballot secrecy. Observers also assess the process of checking voter registration and eligibility, which in the United States varies significantly from state to state. Observers also look for signs of voter intimidation, such as from unauthorized individuals inside or outside polling stations. As I pointed out in my article, this could be a serious issue following Trump’s and his campaign’s repeated calls for his supporters to go to polling stations to “go in to the polls” and “defend” the vote against alleged “fraud.”

As someone who has led or managed more than 40 election observation efforts in 22 countries over three decades, I have seen many problematic elections in struggling democracies and authoritarian states. Unfortunately, the 2020 U.S. elections already resemble those in many of the world’s fragile democracies, as I described in Foreign Policy on Oct. 24. Since then, the parallels have only gotten more disturbing, with U.S. President Donald Trump and his campaign continuing to accuse the challenger of planning to “steal” the election, last-minute legal challenges to voting procedures in key states, and Trump tweeting encouragement to supporters whose threats had led former Vice President Joe Biden’s campaign to cancel an event in Texas.

As millions of Americans go to the polls tomorrow, among the many people watching closely will be the international election observer community, including me. Official observation efforts monitoring the U.S. elections include those of the Organization of American States and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. For the first time, the Carter Center has a domestic election program that somewhat resembles their election observation programs overseas. While we always emphasize the importance of monitoring the entire electoral process before, during, and after voting, here is what I and other election observers will be looking for on Election Day itself.

When monitoring in-person voting in the United States, observers will look for compliance with local voting procedures—for example, whether polling places are open as scheduled, operate efficiently, and protect ballot secrecy. Observers also assess the process of checking voter registration and eligibility, which in the United States varies significantly from state to state. Observers also look for signs of voter intimidation, such as from unauthorized individuals inside or outside polling stations. As I pointed out in my article, this could be a serious issue following Trump’s and his campaign’s repeated calls for his supporters to go to polling stations to “go in to the polls” and “defend” the vote against alleged “fraud.”

Election observers will also evaluate how long voters must wait to cast their ballot and whether there are other obstacles to participation—issues that are especially important in the U.S. context. With the COVID-19 pandemic still raging in much of the country, observers will also want to note whether the local process protects the safety of voters and polling station personnel, including whether officials, poll watchers, and voters are wearing masks and maintaining social distancing. Election observers usually also estimate voter turnout independent from any official numbers.

When election observers visit polling places, they typically use a checklist or questionnaire provided by their observation mission. By using a standardized list, a mission can systematically collect comparable information from diverse polling stations. That’s more complicated in the United States than just about every other democracy, because the United States lacks a uniform nationwide election process. Election procedures vary not only by U.S. state but often by locality as well.

In order to make a final judgment on the integrity of an election, the observation missions will aggregate local findings—which may not be typical—and compare them with findings from other places. The question for an observation mission is not whether problems occur at all but whether they are systematic and capable of making a difference in an election’s outcome.

Of course, millions and millions of Americans will already have cast their ballots through mail-in, early in-person, or absentee voting. The balloting on Nov. 3 will be only a part of the overall process. And given the legal challenges already announced by Trump, and his refusal to commit to honoring the results, the biggest threats to a democratic election process may not occur until after Election Day.

[For more of FP’s coverage on the 2020 U.S. election, check out Postcards From the Wedge, our series on how niche foreign-policy issues are playing out in key battleground races, The World’s Election, our collection of articles on how other countries are watching the Nov. 3 vote, and What We’re Missing, a set of daily takes from leading global thinkers on foreign-policy issues not getting enough attention during the campaign.]

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

More from Foreign Policy

An illustration of a captain's hat with a 1980s era Pepsi logo and USSR and U.S. flag pins.

The Doomed Voyage of Pepsi’s Soviet Navy

A three-decade dream of communist markets ended in the scrapyard.

Demonstrators with CASA in Action and Service Employees International Union 32BJ march against the Trump administration’s immigration policies in Washington on May 1, 2017.

Unionization Can End America’s Supply Chain Crisis

Allowing workers to organize would protect and empower undocumented immigrants critical to the U.S. economy.

The downtown district of Wilmington, Delaware, is seen on Aug. 19, 2016.

How Delaware Became the World’s Biggest Offshore Haven

Kleptocrats, criminals, and con artists have all parked their illicit gains in the state.