America is facing a crisis of confidence in its electoral process. In the November presidential election, hundreds of millions of voters will cast their ballot—but increasingly, these voters do not trust their votes will be counted correctly. This growing distrust could have devastating consequences for America’s stability, and may precipitate post-election violence more familiar to countries in the developing world than American city streets.
Both of us have worked to promote electoral integrity worldwide, serving as election observers in Angola, South Africa, Ukraine, Tajikistan, and elsewhere. These experiences showed us that in countries that lack strong democratic traditions, transparency is often the cornerstone of building public trust in the electoral process. In such elections, each step of the democratic process is open to inspection by political parties, voters, members of the media, civil society groups, and international observers. Electoral monitors, both domestic and international, strengthen public trust by demonstrating that votes are counted correctly—and, when necessary, keep election administrators honest by exposing mistakes.
U.S. elections are, in several respects, less transparent than elections in many developing countries. Electoral transparency has not featured prominently in public policy debates, even as other voting issues—such as felon disenfranchisement, gerrymandering, and voter suppression—have captured increasing amounts of public attention. Even cries of voter fraud have not been clearly linked to calls for increased transparency, focusing instead on preventative measures such as voter identification laws or accuracy of voter registration rolls. But despite how little attention it garners, transparency is absolutely critical to ensuring public confidence in the democratic process.
Electoral transparency varies significantly by state. In some states, observers have access to most of the relevant parts of the pre- and post-election process, while in others, they can only access activities that occur on Election Day. And nearly all jurisdictions regulate observation by categories of stakeholders. Most states grant the broadest access to partisan observers appointed by political parties, while restricting access to observers from nonpartisan groups. Therefore, American electoral transparency is a function of both location and affiliation, often falling short of granting all relevant stakeholders access to all essential electoral processes needed to prove votes are being counted correctly.
Granting the broadest access to partisan observers is rooted in an intentional design choice to create an adversarial system. Such systems are based on an intuitive idea: Grant equal access to political parties with opposing interests, allow them to argue before a neutral arbiter, and the truth will win out. This recalls American legal traditions, which place heavy emphasis on zealous advocacy by opposing lawyers to help judges decide cases. But despite its prevalence, the wisdom of this system is not as clear in the electoral context, where the “neutral arbiter” is often an election administrator who herself is an elected official and an overtly partisan actor.
In good times, America’s patchwork system of adversarial election transparency does not matter much. To the extent that they even think about it, Americans largely accept election results without worrying whether clerical errors or other administrative snafus changed the outcome by a few hundred votes. But this November will be different. A high-stakes election coupled with rising partisan animosity will mean intense scrutiny over every aspect of the elections. And in the likely occurrence of mistakes and errors, political leaders have primed the American electorate to suspect foul play by the opposing party. If election results cannot be verified by independent outside observes, intense political conflict—and even violence—could result.
While increasing transparency promises a host of benefits, there are downsides. Most worrisome, there is a risk that increased transparency will be “weaponized” by America’s political parties and exploited to increase their chance of winning the election. This weaponization could take several forms, including using partisan poll watchers to intimidate voters likely to support opposing parties, challenging processes that are technically correct but likely to favor political opponents, and causing other disruptions to the voting process. Such disruptions could delay vote counting and enflame partisan tensions at precisely the time when quick results and cooler heads are needed.
These considerations make clear that transparent elections, when improperly implemented, can bring serious risks—including imperiling the very processes they are meant to protect. But these are obstacles that many other democracies around the world have managed to address. Drawing on our experiences in developing democracies, we offer four ways U.S. states can efficiently improve the transparency of their elections.
First, the rights of all observers, regardless of affiliation, should be made co-extensive with the rights of partisan observers appointed by political parties. Political party observers, though important stakeholders in the process, face strong incentives to act in a way that maximizes their political interests. Expanding access for nonpartisan observers, including those from international election observation organizations, could help ensure more objective monitoring of election processes.
Second, observer access must extend beyond Election Day. States generally allow Election Day observation by at least some types of observers, but in some states access does not extend beyond Election Day. Such laws have failed to keep pace with shifts in American voting behavior. Where most Americans once voted in person on Election Day, an increasing share of the American electorate will now vote in some other way—perhaps in-person at early voting stations, or by dropping their ballot in the mail. The coming 2020 presidential election may be the first election in American history where more than half of the electorate votes before Election Day, thanks in part to states expanding vote-by-mail access in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Therefore expanding observer access to pre- and post-election activities—including testing voting machines, risk-limiting audits, and tabulating absentee/vote-by-mail/provisional ballots—is immensely important.
Third, states should minimize the use of non-observable election processes. Electoral processes are only as strong as their weakest link: If one step of the process cannot be verified, neither can the final result. Electronic voting machines that do not produce a paper trail, for example, should be replaced with alternative processes that outside observers can verify.
Finally, it’s time to bring American elections into the 21st century: We must leverage technology to increase election transparency. In other countries, live-streaming vote tallies and other important processes is a common practice, meant to allow citizen oversight and build trust in electoral practices. Such measures exist in isolated jurisdictions around America, but should be more widely adopted.
We do not think American election officials should take their cues from nascent democracies in all respects. But in the realm of transparency, there is much we can do to bring American democracy up to international standards. As the 2020 presidential election approaches, strengthening public confidence in American elections will only increase in importance. State and local election officials must act quickly to expand electoral transparency and allow for outside observers to verify that all votes are counted correctly. Doing otherwise invites partisan tension, distrust, and potentially the first widespread electoral violence in America in modern memory.