With the 2018 midterm elections receding in the rearview mirror, there is an argument to be made that this time around demonstrated that the American political system broadly “works.” The pendulum that swung sharply toward nativism and xenophobia has swung back toward inclusion and pluralism. Or, put more neutrally, the underdog party reclaimed some lost ground.
The rise of Donald Trump in the Republican Party may have been the product of ongoing partisan sorting, now along urban-rural lines and educational levels, rather than more broadly geographical or economic ones. But overall, Trump’s fear-mongering and divisive rhetoric, which secured him a surprise win in 2016, seems to have gone on to alienate and energize a sizable centrist suburban constituency, and thus cost the GOP scores of House seats, several governorships, and multiple state legislatures. Democracy’s moderating effects appeared to have been on full display this month.
Moreover, as advocate and analyst Kevin Johnson wrote recently for Election Reformers, a good number of nonpartisan election reforms were adopted by statewide referenda—providing variously for non-partisan commissions to draw legislative boundaries, or to reinstate the vote for felons who have done their time—and many of these initiatives were endorsed by voters in counties that Trump carried two years earlier. This suggests that the Trump voters’ obvious disdain for politics-as-usual carried over to support for practical steps to limit the self-dealing of incumbent politicians at various levels and in both major parties.
So does our election system work? Not so fast. The jury is still out, and there is reason to be pessimistic. After all, Donald J. Trump himself says the system is broken, that it is “rigged.” Indeed, this was one of his closing arguments in the 2016 campaign: that the American political system was stacked against him and his supporters. Even after he won, he couldn’t stop complaining that imaginary “millions” of illegal immigrants voted, presumably against him—which is notable because it is usually, around the world and historically in the United States, that the losing side complains that the system isn’t fair, not the winner.
Trump has decried and exaggerated “voter fraud” to a fare-thee-well. Even when the bizarre and chaotic Presidential Advisory Commission on Voter Integrity failed to find any evidence of voter fraud, Trump and his wingman—soon to be former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach—insisted that the American system is crooked. The curious thing about this is that a lot of Americans believe the election system is broken, but these are mainly Democrats and left-leaning voters, not Republicans. Winning is enough to persuade most conservatives that the system works.
There are real problems in our system to be sure. America does not really have political parties. Every candidate, at virtually every level, has to raise her own money and develop a profile—and often must campaign against an aging incumbent of the same party. So coherent governing platforms are generally hard to propound. (Neither “conservative judges” nor “universal healthcare” is a governing program; these are slogans.) This in turn means that candidates depend on funding from private sources of increasingly curious provenance, like billionaires and Super-PACs (which increasingly are flush with “dark money” thanks to the infamous Citizens United 2010 Supreme Court decision I wrote about in these pages). Then there is the shameless gerrymandering in which legislative district boundaries skew results to protect incumbents for a decade at a time. Most frequently, there are the determined efforts by some elected officials, including those responsible for managing the elections, to exclude large blocks of voters when those officials assess that those voters—think African-Americans or university students or Hispanics—are likely to vote for the other side. This is often called addressing voter fraud. Which doesn’t really exist. Though the disenfranchisement is real.
Just about every country in the world with problematic elections has a group of independent nonpartisan volunteer election monitors who provide a neutral public judgement on whether the government of the day (and its election administrators) have conducted elections in a manner consistent with the laws of the land. They often also provide commentary about whether those rules are fundamentally fair. The United States, however, does not have such nonpartisan monitors, because we have traditionally relied on the contestants themselves to police one another, deploying political party or candidate-chosen poll watchers to ensure that the other side does not fiddle with the process and the tabulation. So challenges and complaints when they come are always tinged with self-interestedness. Wouldn’t it be better if we had neutral referees, without a horse in the race, to monitor the proceedings, like so many other countries do?
After all, it has been Americans—mainly at the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI)—who have taken the concept of nonpartisan election monitoring on the road, around the world, training people on best practices in this important art. The goal of these efforts has always been simply to document shortcomings in the process so they may be improved in future elections. Maybe it’s time we took some of our own medicine?
Though Americans have been the principal proselytizers, the idea was first hatched in the Philippines, where a citizens’ movement led by Catholic clergy and local businesspeople emerged in the mid-1980s to limit the ability of dictator Ferdinand Marcos to manipulate elections, as he had then been doing for a quarter century.
And it worked!
When Marcos called the infamous “snap election” of 1986—giving his opposition just twelve weeks notice that an early presidential election would be held on February 7 that year—the National Movement for Free Elections (NAMFREL) was ready with more than 100,000 volunteers trained in the details of the election law and procedures. The official Commission on Elections declared Marcos the winner, but NAMFREL’s volunteers had compiled the precinct-by-precinct vote totals and reported that opposition leader Cory Aquino had actually won with 7,835,070 votes to Marcos’ 7,053,068. A sit-in by nuns and students and tens of thousands of others around the election commission eventually persuaded the military to turn their tanks around, from defending the government to defending the citizens in the streets. Within days, Marcos was on his way to Hawaii and permanent exile.
Today, thirty years later, there is now a formal Global Network of Domestic Election Monitors (GNDEM), with more than 250 member organizations in 89 countries, founded in 2009 with support from NDI, supporting the critical work of citizen election monitors throughout the world through solidarity and resource-sharing.
No one will be surprised to learn that some governments do not like independent civic election monitors, especially those that depend on fraudulent elections to stay in power.
When I visited the Republic of Georgia last month with a delegation from the German Marshall Fund of the United States to observe the first round of the presidential election, we met with independent observers from three national civic groups who were monitoring the process (before, during and after election day itself)—the International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy (ISFED), the Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association (GYLA) and the national chapter of the global anti-corruption network, Transparency International (TI). Some of these groups perform other kinds of watchdog functions, as well. Indeed, it has been TI’s high quality reporting on a range of corruption issues and shortcomings in rule-of-law that has provoked the de facto ruler of Georgia, Bidzina Ivanishvili, to single out for consistent personal attacks the charismatic young leader of TI, Eka Gigauri, as he was doing in the run-up to last month’s voting.
Or consider the case of Russia, where a network of election observers known as GOLOS (an acronym which in Russian also means “vote” or “voice”) has worked for most of the past two decades. During the pivotal 2011 Russian legislative elections, when the governing United Russia party failed to win half the vote despite various shenanigans, GOLOS mobilized more than 2,000 monitors. During the campaign, GOLOS created an interactive map to which citizens across the vast country could submit reports, video evidence, audio recordings, and photographs of election rules violations. Over 4,500 reports came in alleging illegal campaign tactics, including stories of employers threatening workers with pay cuts and local officials ordering business leaders to pressure subordinates to vote for candidates of United Russia.
But it was not those who committed these campaign law violations who were prosecuted; it was GOLOS that was charged and fined for publicizing the violations. Russian prosecutors accused GOLOS of “dissemination of rumors under the guise of trustworthy reports, with the goal of defaming a party as well as its individual members.” This led directly to the enactment of the infamous Foreign Agents Registration law requiring NGOs that receive financial support from abroad to describe themselves as “foreign agents” in all their printed or broadcast materials—essentially to self-identify as traitors to their country, when they were actually trying to help strengthen their country’s democratic character. Because the leaders of GOLOS declined to label themselves as enemies of the Russian people, a court in July 2016 ordered the liquidation of the organization due to “serious irremediable breaches of law”.
Independent observers in other countries have similarly been hounded, harassed and legislated out of existence, from Azerbaijan to Egypt to Venezuela. All of which makes one think that independent nonpartisan citizen monitors of elections are serious enterprises, if these kinds of governments are so neuralgic about their reports.
Sometimes, governments with sketchy records on election management enlist dubious international observers to provide a veneer of legitimacy to elections that otherwise would not pass muster. Thus Moscow deployed dubious political personalities from the European equivalent of the Land of Misfit Toys to praise the conduct of phony election in the occupied territories of eastern Ukraine last year. Common sense and experience enable most analysts and citizens to tell the difference between legit observes and phony ones.
More credible international observers can and often do provide sober dispassionate assessments that can calm turbulent waters and show the way forward to ever better election management. For instance, our own recent mid-terms were visited by a delegation of Europeans deployed by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the 57-member body in which the United States is a full member and historically a leader in its efforts to strengthen democratic practice “from Vancouver to Vladivostok” (moving eastward from Vancouver). In a professional and serious and well-informed statement by friendly foreigners, the delegation noted this month that in the American elections “fundamental deficiencies remain in law, particularly in respect of disenfranchisement of citizens on various grounds.”
The experts also reported
Legislation and practice effectively disenfranchised around 11 million otherwise eligible voters. Some 4.7 million citizens residing in the District of Columbia and in US territories lack full representation in Congress. An estimated 6.1 million persons with criminal convictions are disenfranchised, with a disproportionate impact on racial minorities… These restrictions breach OSCE commitments and international standards with regard to universal and equal suffrage.
While international commentary on U.S. elections is not likely to have much persuasive value stateside (recall the snide remarks from Fidel Castro after the 2000 Florida recount hanging chad debacle that Cuba would be glad to monitor future elections), it does show that informed independent nonpartisan assessment is possible. And I would posit that it can and ought to be done by Americans, too.
There has lately been a lot of talk about strengthening the civic fabric of the nation—through better civic education, media literacy training, and calls for mandatory or voluntary national service. Retired 4-star Army General Stanley McChrystal, for instance, has waged a campaign for this, noting in Time magazine that the legal structure to do so exists in the under-funded AmeriCorps program. Voluntary civic service need not be a yearlong commitment; it could be done over a few weeks on a part-time basis to provide a dispassionate perspective on the conduct of our own elections.
NDI and the OSCE could bring their technical expertise to AmeriCorps, to recruit and train an appropriate number of citizen monitors to help us know the ways in which our elections are actually working or not working. To create a factual baseline of information as a foundation for the political and policy discussion. It could be done, that is, if we want to make Americans confident in our elections again.