In Brief

How Will U.S. Elections Be Judged by Other Democracies?

The 2020 U.S. election is threatened by pandemic-related disruptions as well as long-standing weaknesses that could undermine its legitimacy. How will international election observers judge the process?

The U.S. presidential election on November 3 looms as one of the most tumultuous in modern history, with the potential for a delayed or disputed outcome amid the coronavirus pandemic. Democracy watchdogs at home and abroad have already signaled concerns about the integrity of the process and called for expanded election monitoring. In this context, a small group of international observers will lend their judgment on the soundness of the vote, a process that has stoked controversy among local U.S. officials in the past.

What is international election monitoring?

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International organizations routinely send teams of observers to monitor elections at the invitation of local governments. They keep tabs on all aspects of the electoral process—including candidate selection, campaign finance, media coverage, voter registration, voting, and ballot counting. They seek to gauge the health of broadly accepted democratic norms, such as equal and universal ballot access, political pluralism, public confidence in electoral systems, voter privacy, transparency, and accountability. Their reports offer recommendations for improvement but they have no enforcement authority.

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The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), focused largely on post-Soviet and Central Asian countries, is a leading example. In Latin America, the Organization of American States (OAS) carries out election observation missions. Private organizations, too, play a role—the Atlanta-based Carter Center observes elections throughout the world.

These missions continue amid growing democratic challenges around the world. Watchdogs such as Freedom House say the health of democratic institutions is on the decline, including in the United States.

What’s in store for 2020?

The State Department formally invited the OSCE to observe the 2020 election, and in May and June the organization visited for a preliminary assessment. Its members said that [PDF] the COVID-19 crisis makes the November vote “the most challenging in recent decades.” 

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voters cast their ballots in Atlanta, Georgia
Voters in Atlanta, Georgia, cast their ballots in early voting for the 2020 U.S. presidential election. Chris Aluka Berry/Reuters

Specifically, they warned about difficulties hiring poll workers, obstacles to in-person voter registration, logistical problems with the mass shift toward by-mail voting, concerns about restrictions on peaceful assembly, and the increased possibility of cyberattacks. “These and other challenges may decrease the level of trust in election administration,” they warned, “potentially affecting the integrity of election day proceedings, and, as a consequence, the acceptance of the election results.”

The OSCE originally recommended a team of five hundred observers fanned out across the country. However, citing the pandemic, it will instead send just thirty long-term observers, along with seventy-five observers from its Parliamentary Assembly. The OAS hasn’t been invited this year. 

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Have international organizations monitored U.S. elections before?

Yes. The OSCE—of which the United States is a founding member—has sent observers to every U.S. presidential and midterm election since 2002, in the wake of the disputed 2000 vote in which the Supreme Court ultimately decided that Republican candidate George W. Bush defeated Democrat Al Gore. In 2016, the Washington-based OAS also sent a forty-one-person team, led by former Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla. 

There is also a range of domestic election observers. However, many of these are explicitly partisan. The Department of Justice (DOJ) can also send federal observers, but after a 2013 Supreme Court ruling, local officials no longer have to accept them

How have international observers judged recent U.S. elections?

In 2016, the OSCE sent more than four hundred observers. They found that [PDF] the U.S. presidential election “demonstrated commitment to fundamental freedoms of expression, assembly and association.” The election, they said, was “administered by competent and committed staff and enjoyed broad public confidence.”

However, they also highlighted weaknesses in the U.S. system that threaten its fairness, integrity, and security—and have recently said few have been addressed since the last election. These include:

A highly decentralized system. U.S. elections are administered by thousands of different jurisdictions at the state and local level. That means rules and practices vary widely across the country and are often determined by local partisan dynamics. It also means that international election observers have uncertain access: the federal government may welcome them but local officials often reject them. Eleven states explicitly bar them, including swing states Florida and Ohio, and election officials in many other states have refused to meet with OSCE staff.

Disenfranchisement. Residents of U.S. overseas territories and the District of Columbia—more than four million people in all—don’t have voting representation in Congress, and residents of overseas territories can’t vote in presidential elections. At the same time, more than six million convicted felons are barred from voting, undermining universal suffrage. The OSCE also criticized the 2013 Supreme Court ruling invalidating federal oversight of local elections meant to protect the rights of minority voters.

Low voter registration. Some thirty-five million people, about 15 percent of eligible voters, aren’t registered. Observers found national voter identification rules to be inconsistent and at times confusing.

Vulnerabilities in voting security and secrecy. The OSCE raised alarms about widely used electronic voting systems, pointing out that fifteen states don’t provide a paper audit trail. It also warned that outdated equipment and underfunded systems could open the door to malicious attacks or inaccurate vote tallies. Finally, it noted that both in-person and by-mail voting systems sometimes failed to ensure voter secrecy. 

Unclear contestation rules. The OSCE has noted that, in the case of a legal challenge, many jurisdictions do not have fixed timeframes for resolving disputes, while recount procedures are inconsistent and sometimes vague.

Further Reading

Election expert Larry Diamond argues in Foreign Affairs that to promote democracy abroad, the United States must fix its own broken system.

Also in Foreign Affairs, Lawrence Norden and Derek Tisler look at how states have prepared for cyberattacks and other voting disruptions.

For the Conversation, Professor Timothy Rich explores U.S. public support for international election observers.

The Brennan Center for Justice lays out how U.S. election systems can be improved.

The Washington Post delves into the history of voter intimidation and the Voting Rights Act.

Correction: A previous version of this article did not include representatives of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly in its tally of 2020 election observers. This was updated on October 19, 2020.

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