Applying International Standards to 2020 Elections

The U.S. government spends about $2.4 billion per year supporting democracy around the world. Through this support we aim to encourage adoption and compliance with internationally accepted principles and obligations for democratic elections and governance. These principles and obligations are grounded in Article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and are included and elaborated on in regional treaties and agreements. 

Grounded in this foundation, advocates of democracy have developed detailed approaches to evaluating the fairness and legitimacy of elections, and the quality of democratic governance. How does the 2020 election in the United States compare to the standards we apply in our international democracy assistance?

Effective elections must accurately reflect the free expression of the will of the people; and must be perceived by the voters as fair with an outcome seen as legitimate. Elections fail when they do not result in an outcome generally perceived as fair or legitimate. Failure can be caused by a breakdown in process, or by factors that cause voters to doubt the fairness or legitimacy of the process. 

Although there is a lot of evidence of both process failure and intentional malpractice in the 2020 presidential election, a strong argument can be made that this was a failed election because it did not meet the minimal standard of ensuring the perception of legitimacy among a large portion of the population. Numerous factors over a long period of time have contributed to the general lack of faith in the legitimacy of our election process.

Election Environment

The relative fairness of an election cannot be determined solely by considering what occurs on election day, as there are a number of other factors which can affect citizens’ and political parties’ ability to participate effectively in the democratic process. 

Politicized Bureaucracy: When looking at the environment for elections, international observers try to determine if there is evidence of a politicized bureaucracy; that is, a bureaucracy that is composed almost entirely of representatives of one party or faction. If this exists, there is a presumption of bias, and efforts are made to depoliticize the bureaucracy, and ensure safeguards are in place to prevent the bureaucracy from suppressing other political parties, and manipulating election processes. 

In the United States, it is unfortunate but true that one party has come to represent unionized government workers, and it is alleged that these unions prevent significant employment in government of members of other parties. This apparent discrimination has resulted in up to 95 percent of employees belonging to one party, and has even contributed to an oppressive environment where employees with diverse opinions have become afraid to express their opinions for fear of losing promotion and employment opportunities, and being “doxxed” or “canceled.” 

The politicization of the public-employee bureaucracy is highlighted most clearly by the creation by the FBI of “investigations” of Russian collusion based on disinformation created by Russians. The information appeared to be fake from the beginning, but was used to justify activities aimed at damaging the electoral prospects of one party in 2018 and 2020. In addition, the politicization of the FBI bureaucracy is seen in the failure to investigate or prosecute illegality related to the storage and use of classified material, falsifying affidavits, and “pay for play” schemes involving high-level members of their favored party. 

Media and Voter Education: Freedom of speech and freedom of the press are essential for electoral democracy, and promotion of these freedoms is an essential element in America’s foreign policy and human rights strategy. Effective voter education is also essential for fair elections. To participate effectively in elections, voters need to understand the registration and polling processes, and for their participation to be meaningful, they need to have information about the policies and platforms of competing candidates and parties so they can make an informed choice. Voter education through election administrations and civil society organizations is a major component of our international election assistance. 

Unfortunately, multinational and monopolistic corporations have captured most of the media in the United States, including the increasingly important social and entertainment media. Their global perspective aligns most closely with one party, and, with the support of their allies in the bureaucracy, these oligarchs feel increasingly free to shape their reporting and messages towards the party line. Obvious untruths (like the Charlottesville “very fine people” hoax) are promoted, true information (like the suspicious business activities of a presidential candidate and his son) is hidden or ignored, and the political speech of opponents and ordinary citizens is openly suppressed. Entertainment media, including movies, television shows, and sports, are also increasingly used by the oligarchs (often referred to as the “one percent”) to deliver political propaganda. 

Disinformation, propaganda, and lying (by commission or omission) by the establishment media resulted in many voters lacking the information they needed to make an informed choice on election day in 2020. From an international standards perspective, monopoly control of media by one party is an indication of an environment not conducive to free and fair elections.

Violence and Intimidation: In many countries, election assistance provided by the U.S. State Department goes to tracking and trying to mitigate election-related violence and intimidation. This type of violence is typically perpetrated by formal or informal youth wings of political parties, and aimed at suppressing political events or speech by adherents of other parties, and discouraging vulnerable voters from participating in elections. Significant political violence and intimidation is sufficient to call into question the integrity of an election process. 

Yet domestically, the United States has seen a huge increase in politically motivated violence and intimidation since the 2016 election. The violence began with unmotivated attacks on people wearing political hats, or with bumper stickers on their cars, and intensified when gangs of youths wearing black masks began attacking speakers and their supporters on college campuses. Later, these same thugs rioted in urban centers, hunting down and beating up anyone suspected of harboring opposing political views. 

The violence and intimidation also occurred online. For the first time, a major American political party had come out against free speech, arguing that politically incorrect opinions constituted “hate speech” that should be criminalized. While the blackshirt thugs attempted to enforce these ill-defined speech codes in the street, their more sedentary allies had potentially far greater negative impact doxxing or canceling anyone who dared express disfavored opinions online.

Intimidation and threats of violence were effective, and in the 2020 elections vast areas of the country had no bumper stickers or yard signs for one party. In my neighborhood (Falls Church, Va.), I asked the local party chair for a yard sign and was told they were not distributing them because they might be used to target party members for violent attacks, keying cars, or burning houses. It is commonly acknowledged that in the United States in 2020, most people did not feel free to openly express their political opinions. 

FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images

Election Process

Changing the Electoral Framework: According to international standards, changes to the electoral framework should be made in an inclusive and transparent manner, and passed with sufficient time before Election Day to enable adequate voter education. This is important because one of the most common causes of failure in elections is changing the election framework close to the election. Sometimes the failure is related to increased complexity introduced through a new process or technology that cannot be effectively implemented in the time available; but often it is because the change is perceived to provide an unfair advantage to one party. Either can fatally undermine the legitimacy of the process. 

The U.S. Constitution provides relatively little guidance on the conduct of elections, leaving that to the states and sometimes to counties to determine. This has resulted in the most complex, disjointed, and irrational election legal framework in the world. Problems have surfaced repeatedly in numerous election cycles, but no significant effort to adopt international best practices has ever been made. These varying standards and approaches create opportunities for confusion and malpractice and significantly diminish voter confidence in the integrity of the process. 

In the 2020 election cycle dozens of significant changes in election processes were made across the country. Many of those were made late in the process, with some during or after the actual election. These late changes were perceived to serve partisan interests, and contributed to undermining public confidence in elections. The most significant factor used to justify these late changes was the COVID-19 pandemic. 

COVID-19 and Mail-in Ballots: When the pandemic struck early in 2020, democracy assistance providers in the United States and other Western nations responded almost immediately. By April of 2020 USAID had produced a paper highlighting how authoritarian leaders and other malign influences might use the pandemic to undermine democracy and human rights, and provided advice on how civil society groups overseas might protect against or mitigate these abuses. Subsequent papers by the foreign policy establishment focused on how election processes could be modified to protect voters while ensuring integrity during the pandemic. During 2020, USAID provided substantial assistance to many countries to facilitate COVID adaptation, ensuring in-person voting could be conducted safely and more or less on schedule. 

Within the United States, however, the immediate electoral response to the pandemic was a push by one party for mail-in rather than in-person voting. It is well known among election specialists that mail-based voting is much more susceptible to fraud and abuse than in-person voting, but it was argued that the pandemic made mail-in voting necessary (despite the examples of safe in-person voting from other countries). The new mass mail-in voting processes were conflated with existing systems for absentee voting, but the new systems lacked the checks and security features developed over generations for absentee voting. In the event, the public-health fears proved unfounded, as much of the country did vote in person without appreciably affecting the overall incidence of the disease. 

In many parts of the country, matching a signature on a voter list with that on an absentee ballot was the only way to verify the identity of the voter. To handle the huge number of mail-in ballots compared to previous elections, signature matching processes were changed or eliminated without proper transparency or consideration, shortcuts were taken and safeguards dropped, which weakened security and diminished confidence in the validity of millions of ballots in Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Georgia. Mail-in or absentee ballots lacking an outer security envelope would normally be ruled invalid, but in Pennsylvania they were accepted, contrary to international practice and norms. 

In most elections worldwide, mail-in ballots must be postmarked by a specified date (usually Election Day) to be counted, but in Wisconsin and Michigan employees of the United States Postal Service were instructed to backdate late arriving ballots so they could still be counted.

Mail-in ballots also facilitated a practice called “ballot harvesting,” in which political operatives go door to door picking up ballots from homeowners. This undermines the secrecy of the ballot and introduces opportunities for intimidation and vote buying, and in places like senior homes and apartment blocks enables one person to collect, fill in, and submit numerous ballots. Ballot harvesting decreases the security and credibility of election processes and is consequently contrary to international best practices.

Voter Registration and Voter ID: The U.S. government has provided hundreds of millions of dollars through its foreign assistance to support voter registration processes in other countries. An accurate voter list and effective voter ID are seen as essential for deterring malpractice and cheating, and for enhancing voter confidence in the integrity of the process. American foreign policy also promotes the Open Election Data Initiative, which advocates internationally for transparent and publicly accessible election data. 

Domestically, again, the picture is quite different. The average accuracy of state-maintained voter lists is far below what would be considered minimally acceptable overseas. The update process is often non-transparent, and some states outsource their list maintenance to a private organization funded by a politically partisan billionaire. Many states restrict public access to some election data, and charge exorbitant fees for data they do release, limiting the public’s ability to verify the process, and violating international norms. 

In 2020, poorly maintained voter lists led to allegations of ineligible voters in several areas. In Georgia, a campaign lawyer provided a list of more than 70,000 allegedly ineligible voters who had cast ballots in the election. Also in Georgia, over 20,000 people appear to have filed a Notice of Changed Address form to the Georgia state government or had other indications of moving out of state, but these ineligible voters appear to have remained on the voter rolls and were able to vote in the 2020 election. The dead also appear to have voted in these elections with remarkable frequency. In Pennsylvania matching voter rolls to public obituaries found 8,000 dead voters successfully casting mail-in ballots. Similar findings were reported from Georgia, Michigan, and Nevada. 

Through our foreign assistance programs, the U.S. government supports in-person voter registration and biometric (fingerprints or retinal scanning) voter ID; which can be checked against a central database during the voting process to prevent multiple instances of voting for one person and ensure that only those who are qualified can vote. Yet here at home, one political party opposes any voting ID requirement, arguing that significant numbers of disadvantaged populations (primarily African Americans) don’t have ready access to ID, and thus will be disenfranchised. This argument is widely perceived as a partisan attempt to create space for cheating because it is only ever applied to voting, not to flying, or cashing checks, or other activities that require ID; and secondly, because it is patronizing and African Americans generally do have IDs.

In election assistance overseas, if there is a marginalized population without access to IDs (the right to identity is recognized by the UN), this is generally addressed by creating specific programs to ensure that everyone has access to them; and this would also be the appropriate response in the United States, if lack of ID were actually a serious concern. 

Peter Zay/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Election Management

Vote Buying: Vote buying overseas is often a form of patronage, symbolizing the feudal bond between a local big man and his clients. It damages democracy because it replaces accountable representation with a one-time payment, but also because it views people as inherently unequal; with a few having agency and the rest merely dependents. Vote-buying is common in underdeveloped countries that retain a feudal patron-client social structure, and ending this practice and the patriarchal social structure that goes with it is a frequent objective of U.S. democracy assistance. 

Surprisingly, there are credible reports of vote-buying in recent U.S. elections as well. In one report, political party operatives in full party regalia offered people raffle tickets for cash and prizes if they would vote. Similar activities happened in many other states, in all cases targeting Native American communities, presumably under the assumption that Native Americans would be more susceptible to this form of malpractice. 

Ballot Box Stuffing: Internationally, ballot box stuffing is one of the most common forms of severe election cheating. In most cases, ballot box stuffing can only occur with the cooperation of polling station staff, so evidence of stuffing necessarily implicates some or all polling station workers. It can occur the old-fashioned way (marking extra paper ballots for a favored candidate), or though through more modern means where machines are used in the polling process. 

Ballot box stuffing is prevented by a transparent process open to observers, so a non-transparent process is cause for concern. A primary focus of U.S. election assistance is promoting a transparent process that allows effective observation, and much of our other election assistance supports international and domestic election observers. 

Following the November 3, 2020 elections there were numerous reports of ballot box stuffing. One truck driver swore an affidavit that he picked up large crates of ballots in New York and delivered them to a polling location in Pennsylvania. In Pennsylvania a polling worker is alleged to have used an unsecured USB flash drive to load a large cache of votes onto vote tabulation machines that did not correlate with the mail-in ballots scanned into the machines. In Wisconsin, poll workers were observed running ballots through tabulation machines more than once, and in Wayne County, Michigan, poll watchers observed canvassers re-scanning batches of ballots through vote tabulation machines up to three or four times. 

In another incident at a counting center located at the State Farm Arena in Atlanta, Georgia supervisors told poll watchers, observers, and media that counting would be suspended due to a water leak, but after the room was cleared, several election officials pulled out large boxes of ballots from underneath a draped table and proceeded to feed those votes into the counting machines. This was all caught on video, and a surge in votes for one candidate could be seen after these votes were processed. 

Some officials and their allies in the media suggested it is perfectly acceptable to count ballots in the absence of observers, but it is an international best practice to only count in the presence of observers (in some countries it is required that observers be present). If observers are intentionally sent out of a counting center, or prevented from effective observation in any other way, that is seen as evidence of malpractice, and reason enough for an international observation mission to state they are unable to validate the election process. 

Chris McGrath/Getty Images

Election Observation

In-Person Observation: Election observation is the most visible part of U.S. democracy assistance, typically carried out by high-profile organizations like the Carter Center, the National Democratic Institute, and the International Republican Institute. Observers play a critical role in ensuring that an election process is transparent—and transparency is the most important factor in determining whether an election process is perceived as credible and legitimate. Nothing else, no technology or process, can replace transparency in reassuring voters that an election is fair. 

Every international and domestic observer has a checklist, and every checklist has a central question: Were observers allowed to observe all aspects of the polling and counting processes? Failure to allow observers into polling stations or counting centers, or to allow them to observe all aspects of the process, is relatively common in less developed countries, and is recognized as sufficient to delegitimize an entire election in the location it occurs. 

International standards require that observers be allowed to witness all aspects of the process: they can see the empty ballot box before the polls open; can see that IDs are checked and that the IDs presented match the person; can hear the person’s name as it is called out, and see it checked off the voter list; can see that the voter receives one ballot only, marks it in secret, and places it in the ballot box. 

After the polling observers should be able to see the box opened, and as the votes are counted they can confirm that the party or candidate called out is the same that is marked on the ballot, and can confirm that the standards used to rule mismarked ballots invalid are applied equally. At the end of the count they can freely record the results, so that, with results from other observers, they can independently aggregate all results in a parallel process to confirm the official aggregation process. 

Failure to meet any of these criteria is noted and can be seen as grounds to doubt the legitimacy of the process, or to declare that the legitimacy of the process cannot be confirmed due to a lack of transparency. 

It should be noted that the process described above is a manual process, and there is a good reason for this. No other election process allows the same level of transparency to observers as a manual process. An observer can arrive in the morning before opening, watch the process all day, watch the count, and at the end of the day testify that the process was fair and legitimate. Machine voting (except in hybrid systems used in Korea) simply doesn’t allow this level of transparency for observers, and so cannot generate the level of confidence that is possible with manual voting. 

The 2020 U.S. elections were riddled with instances of suppression of legal observation. In Georgia, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, poll watchers and observers were denied entry to ballot counting centers by judges of elections and other poll workers, despite presenting proper certification and identification. In Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, and Pennsylvania, poll watchers were forced inside confined areas, limiting their view. In some cases, this confinement was enforced by local law enforcement. Across these four battleground states, poll watchers were directed to stand at unreasonably lengthy distances from ballot counters. In Michigan, poll workers put poster boards over the windows of the room where ballots were being processed and counted so as to block the view. In Pennsylvania, tens of thousands of ballots were processed in back rooms where poll observers were prohibited from being able to observe at all. 

According to international norms and standards, every single instance of interference with or suppression of election observation is regarded as at least an irregularity, undermining faith in the integrity of the process, and at worst evidence of efforts to conceal criminal activities. When observers and the public lack confidence in the integrity of an election process, democracy assistance providers normally recommend canceling the flawed elections and holding new ones. 

Statistical Anomalies: In most countries international observers supplement in-person observation with statistical analysis that is highly effective in revealing anomalies indicative of malpractice. Many such analyses conducted following the 2020 elections have identified significant anomalies. One analyst assessed publicly available data published by the New York Times and had anomalous findings more than the margin of victory in three states: Michigan, Wisconsin, and Georgia. 

An anomalous data pattern observed in Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Georgia showed a significant decrease in the rejection rate for mail-in ballots. Normally, the rejection rate for absentee ballots is higher than for in-person ballots, due to the additional requirements for absentee ballots (e.g., if someone forgets to seal the ballot or place a signature on the outer envelope the ballot will be rejected). With a huge number of people casting mail-in ballots for the first time, you would expect the invalid rate to be even higher in the COVID-affected election, and this is what did occur in most places, but not in these battleground states. This anomaly indicates different standards were used in assessment, or that no standards were applied to a significant number of fraudulent ballots.

It is a sad irony that in many American states, covering numerous different practices and procedures, and with an array of specific examples, the 2020 election in the United States—the birthplace of modern democracy—failed to live up the standards that we expect and encourage in the rest of the world.

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About Tim Meisburger

Tim Meisburger is an election integrity and international development specialist. During the Trump Administration, he was a Deputy Assistant Administrator at USAID, and the Director of the Center for Democracy, Rights and Governance.

Photo: Chris McGrath/Getty Images