Electoral violence of some form occurs in one out of every five global elections conducted over the course of a year. This violence has a range of manifestations, including extreme crimes again humanity as experienced in Kenya and the Ivory Coast with thousands of people killed and displaced.
It can also take the form of personal intimidation, such as the so-called “night letters” publicly posted by the Taliban in Afghanistan that warned people there would be retaliation if they cast ballots. Although these tactics vary widely, they all employ violence or threats of violence to achieve political objectives.
Elections are inherently contentious. However, one can distinguish between constructive conflict – where candidates and political parties compete for votes – and destructive conflict, in which electoral competition leads to threats or becomes violent.
As experts specializing in electoral security, our team works around the world, often on behalf of the U.S. government, to uphold two foundational, democratic pillars: that electoral administration is apolitical; and that elections should remain peaceful. The United States is viewed as having well-run elections, and it teaches these and other principles to countries that want to improve their systems.
Given our work, it has been demoralizing to see the recent, increased politicization of our own country’s electoral processes and the various warning signs for potential violence to erupt around our November 2020 elections.
We are not pointing the finger at one person, interest group or political party. This situation is born from a confluence of multiple factors – the deep, systemic fault-lines, violent political protests, dehumanizing political rhetoric, undermining of electoral integrity, normalization of citizen militias, media incitement and the trauma of COVID-19 – that present a perfect recipe for potential electoral violence.
To prevent violence during this election cycle, constituents must have faith in the integrity and peacefulness of the U.S. electoral system.
Undermining our electoral processes can no longer be condoned under the guise of political gamesmanship. Elections are typically run by professionals dedicated to the process, and if there are evidence or concerns about fraud or disenfranchisement, then politicians, activists and voters must work with these election administrators to address them. Managing the November elections during a pandemic will be a feat by itself. Adding the threat of electoral conflict only exacerbates these challenges.
For example, if masks are required but a voter refuses to wear one, can a poll worker refuse that person’s right to vote? What if the person becomes aggressive towards a poll worker who asks them to put on a mask? What if a voter becomes aggressive towards someone who stands too close in line at a polling station?
On Election Day, what will be the hierarchy of enforcement? Will poll workers be empowered to refuse entry if a voter is non-compliant? Under what criteria will law enforcement be called if a person is non-compliant? Will they be trained to respond without intimidating voters who are peacefully waiting to cast their ballots?
Fortunately, there are dozens of non-governmental, non-partisan organizations that address these situations around the world who could offer their experience during this critical time. There are also international best practices gleaned from our experiences that could be implemented before the November elections to reduce the possibility of violence.
First, authorities should ensure the transparency of the electoral process. Over the next three months, while get-out-the-vote and voter registration campaigns are important, civil society and election officials equally need to focus on voter information campaigns to provide voters with the information they need to exercise their right to vote and to help counter the escalation that might be caused through disenfranchisement. Ensuring that voters know their polling station, procedures, required documentation and where they can go for recourse is crucial for mitigating potential agitations on election day.
Second, the rules governing the process must not change immediately before an election takes place. Discussions on whether a state will allow mail-in ballots, absentee voting, early voting, etc., are legitimate. However, any alterations should be made now and remain unchanged through Election Day. Again, this is not a political argument, nor an endorsement of any initiative, nor support for the status quo. Instead, it is a best practice proposed to prevent electoral violence in a sensitive period by allowing authorities enough time to implement any changes and for the electorate to understand these adjustments. As we saw in Georgia and other state primaries this year, when election officials do not have enough time to train staff and poll workers on processes and equipment, it exacerbates the disenfranchisement and disillusionment of the electorate.
Third, violent rhetoric and provocative disinformation through both traditional and social media must be deescalated and countered so that these messages do not provoke violence against candidates or their supporters. One international best practice is to draw on religious leaders, trusted community voices and non-governmental organizations to take the lead in peace messaging, conflict mitigation and civil discourse when politicians refuse to de-escalate civil society.
To maintain the efficacy of our elections as peaceful mechanisms for voicing our differences, and to maintain the legitimacy of our democracy, citizens must trust that they can work within the confines of elections to have their voices heard.
Let’s work together over the next months to ensure this happens.
Jeff Fischer is the Senior Electoral Advisor for Creative Associates International’s Electoral Education and Integrity (EEI) Practice Area in Washington, D.C. He is the lead author of USAID’s Electoral Security Framework and Best Practices Guide in Electoral Security and has served as Commissioner with the Kansas City Election Board and the Missouri Political Finance Review Board, Director General of Elections of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) for the first post-conflict election in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Director of Elections of the OSCE in Kosovo for the first post conflict municipal elections. Leora Addison, Terry Hoverter, and Aliya Jalloh work with Creative’s EEI Practice Area and, respectively, have spent nearly a decade managing electoral conflict prevention and voter education programs in the Middle East and West Africa, two decades specializing in comparative constitutions, electoral dispute resolution, and legislation drafting, and a decade supporting and managing electoral conflict prevention and voter education programs in Sub Saharan Africa. Special thanks to EEI colleague Ardo Aden for her contributions. Comments and opinions expressed here are those of the authors and are not intended to represent positions of Creative’s clients, beneficiaries or implementing partners.