Election 2020

Contested Elections Put the United States in Dubious Company

In younger democracies, disputes about the results may be more common, but in mature democracies like the United States, the loser should have reason to step aside.

By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
A protester carries a sign reading “‘Count Every Vote’—Democracy” in Detroit on Nov. 4.
A protester carries a sign reading “‘Count Every Vote’—Democracy” in Detroit on Nov. 4. Jeff Kowalsky/AFP/Getty Images

The situation seems straightforward: Since one of the candidates for president has won a majority, the losing candidate should concede. But that doesn’t happen; instead, he blames his defeat on vote manipulation and hacked voting equipment and calls on his supporters to protest. Clashes erupt between the two candidates’ supporters. If you guessed Kenya’s 2017 presidential elections, you’d be correct. But the United States now seems perilously close to a similar scenario, and it’s one most seen in much younger democracies.

“We were getting ready to win this election. Frankly, we did win this election,” U.S. President Donald Trump declared to supporters on election night, long before all votes had been counted. But, he added, just as he was winning, “all of a sudden everything just stopped. … This is a major fraud on our nation.” Trump’s announcement that he would take the case all the way to the Supreme Court—should Democratic challenger Joe Biden be declared the winner—puts him in the company of a rather small group of contestants who have likewise refused to concede.

In the United States, of course, Democratic nominee Al Gore turned to the Supreme Court in 2000 hoping for a recount of Florida’s votes, which had resulted in a statistical tie. But as for obvious losers who have disputed the validity of the elections, the pool is somewhat more dubious: Kenya’s Raila Odinga in 2017 and Gambia’s longtime ruler Yahya Jammeh the year before, which also saw election contender Jean Ping refuse to concede in Gabon’s presidential elections. At the moment, Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya is still maintaining that she won Belarus’s presidential election this August, which official counts awarded to President Aleksandr Lukashenko. (Tikhanovskaya’s claim that the election was unfair is supported by the European Union, among others.)

The situation seems straightforward: Since one of the candidates for president has won a majority, the losing candidate should concede. But that doesn’t happen; instead, he blames his defeat on vote manipulation and hacked voting equipment and calls on his supporters to protest. Clashes erupt between the two candidates’ supporters. If you guessed Kenya’s 2017 presidential elections, you’d be correct. But the United States now seems perilously close to a similar scenario, and it’s one most seen in much younger democracies.

“We were getting ready to win this election. Frankly, we did win this election,” U.S. President Donald Trump declared to supporters on election night, long before all votes had been counted. But, he added, just as he was winning, “all of a sudden everything just stopped. … This is a major fraud on our nation.” Trump’s announcement that he would take the case all the way to the Supreme Court—should Democratic challenger Joe Biden be declared the winner—puts him in the company of a rather small group of contestants who have likewise refused to concede.

In the United States, of course, Democratic nominee Al Gore turned to the Supreme Court in 2000 hoping for a recount of Florida’s votes, which had resulted in a statistical tie. But as for obvious losers who have disputed the validity of the elections, the pool is somewhat more dubious: Kenya’s Raila Odinga in 2017 and Gambia’s longtime ruler Yahya Jammeh the year before, which also saw election contender Jean Ping refuse to concede in Gabon’s presidential elections. At the moment, Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya is still maintaining that she won Belarus’s presidential election this August, which official counts awarded to President Aleksandr Lukashenko. (Tikhanovskaya’s claim that the election was unfair is supported by the European Union, among others.)

Indeed, most election result disputes take place in developing democracies. “[T]he most severe risks occur in fragile states and in transitional contests held during peace-building operations,” explained the political scientists Pippa Norris, Richard Frank, and Ferran Martínez i Coma in a 2014 paper. That makes some sense: With low trust in the system and immature and untested institutions, there’s less reason for the losing side to believe that it will have another fair bite at the apple. In mature democracies, with long-established parties, voter trust in the system, and independent institutions that organize the elections and report the result, the losing side understands that it is likely in its best interest to accept defeat and start organizing for the next round of voting.

Still, “democracies are not immune from electoral flaws,” warned the political scientists, citing the 2000 U.S. presidential race as an example. And the United States may be particularly vulnerable because its decentralized voting system—and the fact that unlike many other Western countries, the United States has neither a national population register nor a comprehensive voter roll—is imperfect. Add to that bitter partisan battles, and America’s democracy is under severe strain.

Should Trump lose and maintain that it’s the result of “major fraud,” he will drag the United States further into questionable company. This election has already done strange things to the country. “We are deeply concerned by reports of election irregularities,” tweeted Secretary of State Mike Pompeo the day before the U.S. election. He was referring to Tanzania. But for a moment, one could be forgiven for being unsure which country he meant.

Elisabeth Braw is a columnist at Foreign Policy and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where she focuses on defense against emerging national security challenges, such as hybrid and gray-zone threats. She is also a member of the U.K. National Preparedness Commission. Twitter: @elisabethbraw

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.