The heated debate over voting rights in the United States is on full display in multiple venues. Senators clashed last week about the need for the major federal voting protections recently passed by the House. State legislatures across the country, meanwhile, are considering a range of proposals that ignore the positive lessons from the 2020 election.
Georgia, having just emerged from close presidential and Senate elections, is ground zero in the voting rights debate. Last week Gov. Brian Kemp signed an election law overhaul passed by his fellow Republicans in charge of the General Assembly. Proponents see it as essential for ensuring ballot integrity. Voting rights activists see it as harkening to the spirit of the Jim Crow era.
While there has been an element of hyperbole in the vehement reaction of the law's critics, their response is understandable in light of the measure's origins in the highly partisan and baseless allegations of fraud in the November election. Those claims reflect a well-organized disinformation campaign and the conspiratorial delusions of a sore loser, former President Donald Trump, who is now under investigation in Georgia for possibly committing an election-related felony.
Furthermore, the new law falls short of international standards and democratic principles in several important ways.
First, these principles obligate governments to provide access for all eligible voters and to ensure the integrity of the process — making it simple to cast a ballot while making fraud or other malfeasance difficult and easily detectable.
Actions in recent years by Georgia's legislators and election officials had made improvements in attaining these goals. The state now allows voters to review their ballots on paper before they're cast and conducts the best available form of post-election audit to enhance confidence in the result. And it has increased access to the franchise with automatic voter registration.
Georgia has now undermined this positive record. Several provisions of the new law reduce access to the ballot necessary because our Election Day, unlike in many other countries, is not an official holiday. Early in-person voting and voting by mail effectively obviate the need for citizens to choose between work obligations and civic duty. And both alternatives already had ample security safeguards, including required verification of personal data before issuing an absentee ballot.
The new law requires vote-by-mail applications to include approved identification and sensitive personal information. The request must be submitted at least 11 days before Election Day. And drop boxes for the envelopes will only be allowed inside early voting locations. These changes do little to improve the integrity of the process. But they may well discourage Georgians without an approved ID, along with the elderly and others unable to access the more limited drop boxes.
Advocates for these restrictions repeatedly point to the 2005 report of a commission chaired by former President Jimmy Carter and former Secretary of State James Baker that encouraged further study of vote-by-mail practices. But given technological advances in the past 15 years, and the experiences of states conducting elections almost entirely by mail, Carter now says "voting by mail can be conducted in a manner that ensures election integrity."
A second principle that should guide election laws across the world is that people with a partisan or personal interest in the outcome should not be in position to influence an election.
Georgia's law falls far short here as well. It changes the makeup and authority of the State Election Board in ways that could allow undue influence by the political party in control of the state capital. The elected secretary of state is no longer chair of the board; instead, the official will be appointed by majority votes of the state House and Senate. Although commendable provisions encourage selection of a political independent, the likely outcome is four of the board's five members will be from one party and have no independence from the majority in the legislature.
Compounding this problem is a new provision granting the Election Board authority to temporarily replace election administrators in as many as four counties. Improving performance by subpar local election offices is a worthy goal. But the law is silent on the criteria for replacements, so this power could easily be abused for partisan ends. Taken together these provisions allow the majority in the General Assembly to control both the State Election Board and election administration in pivotal counties.
Rather than place these powers in the hands of partisan legislators, Georgia should establish an independent committee to shortlist candidates for the chair (and maybe all the members) of the Election Board and to find replacements for flawed local administrators. This follows the example of structures reducing partisan self-dealing in other areas of our democracy: the nominating commissions that find potential judges for courts in more than half the states, and the independent commissions that have a role in redrawing legislative and congressional boundaries in about one-fifth of the states.
Ultimately, repairing democracy in the United States requires a recognition that candidates and parties reliant on elections need to step back from how elections are run.
This guiding principle is behind much of the good government package known as the For the People Act, passed by the House as HR 1 and now before the Senate as S 1. For example, the bill would require independent redistricting commissions and automatic voter registration in every state — two reforms that do not favor either party and that have gained bipartisan support in state legislatures and state referenda.
While some of the consequences from the new Georgia law are not likely to be as dire as many claim, its enactment is a significant negative step for the country — a step away from democratic principles and toward a symbolic transformation of falsehood into law. Democracy has been ill-served by this development.
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Garber has worked on overseas elections for 35 years and is on the board of the Election Reformers Network, a nonprofit founded by such international specialists now working to improve American electoral systems.
Having been involved with several similar efforts, my colleague wanted to know whether, given the short time frame, I thought such an initiative was feasible. In those days, right after the fall of the Berlin Wall, just about anything seemed possible. Soon, I was assisting the activists in training prospective election monitors and designing a plan for assessing the accuracy of the vote count.
For election day, the newly formed Bulgarian Association for Fair Elections deployed more than 10,000 volunteers to polling sites throughout the country. Within hours of the polls closing, their parallel vote tabulation confirmed a narrow victory by the ruling Socialists — much to the disappointment of the activists, most of whom had voted for the opposition even as they performed their monitoring responsibilities in a nonpartisan fashion.
My experiences in Bulgaria and elsewhere are receiving renewed interest as the United States prepares for this presidential election.
Ashley Quarcoo and Tom Carothers sought to explain "What Washington Can Learn About Elections — From Abroad" in Foreign Policy in February. Their piece stemmed from a USA Today poll last summer that found nearly 40 percent of Americans said that, if the candidate they support loses in November, they will have little or no confidence in the integrity of the election process.
The reasons for this vary. Some question the legitimacy of a seemingly antiquated Electoral College. Others cite ID requirements in many states preventing many prospective voters from exercising their franchise. And of course, the malign consequences of disinformation and fake news, whether promoted by foreign or domestic sources, have compromised our public discourse.
These longstanding concerns have only been exacerbated by the complications of organizing elections during a pandemic.
As a short-term fix, I suggest formation of a bipartisan group that builds on the evolution of domestic monitoring efforts across the globe over four decades. The Philippines National Movement for Free Elections is generally credited for crystalizing the concept of nonpartisan election monitoring. It formed in 1984 and played a major role in uncovering and exposing fraud during the 1986 snap presidential election. Relying on its reports, the international community refused to accept the results announced by the election commission. Following massive street demonstrations, Ferdinand Marcos, who had ruled for 21 years, was forced to leave the country.
Hundreds of organizations in countries across the globe have since sought to emulate and expand upon the Phillipine model. In 2012 the United Nations issued a declaration describing how nonpartisan election observation enhances electoral integrity by deterring and exposing irregularities and fraud — and promotes public confidence and citizen participation in government and public affairs.
In the United States, political parties and the media historically have played the principal roles in monitoring elections. Under the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the federal government assigned monitors to specific jurisdictions, mostly in the Deep South, where there was evidence voters would be precluded from casting ballots or their votes would not be honestly counted. These monitors proved critical in increasing African-American turnout and in transforming an apartheid-like system in Southern states.
Today's challenges require a different approach. Our collective concerns relate to a lack of confidence many have in the electoral process and fears that losing candidates and their supporters will refuse to accept their defeat. Thus, while monitors at polling places remain critical and courts must continue to play their assigned role, we need a high-profile, non-governmental effort to buttress support for the electoral process.
Because of American parochialism, this confidence-building role cannot be fulfilled by international observers. Instead, a national Commission for Credible Elections should be established, which would include former prominent Cabinet secretaries and members of Congress of both parties, former federal and state judges, and leaders from the private sector and civil society organizations.
A small staff would facilitate the work of the commission, which would convene monthly between August and December. After each meeting it would issue a public assessment of the process — informed by information solicited from election administrators, candidates and civil society organizations regarding specific aspects of the election process.
Bipartisan commissions formed after the 2000 and 2012 elections offered many constructive recommendations, and several were adopted through legislation or administrative practice. Another example of an independent organization that benefits democracy now is the Commission on Presidential Debates, which works to ensure general election debates are held every four years for the benefit of the electorate; it receives no funding from the federal government or from any political entity with an interest in the election outcome.
Skeptics will undoubtedly question the feasibility of such an effort. Is there time to recruit the high-profile personalities? Who would fund the commission? Would it not duplicate efforts already underway? Are we not too preoccupied by the need to respond to Covid 19's complication of the election to justify a parallel initiative?
I heard many similar questions during my years overseas. Timeframes are too short to mobilize. Funding for basic infrastructure is not available. Organizational space and political realities dictate prioritizing immediate economic and health needs over more ephemeral concerns like democracy.
And yet, the realization that electoral failure is not an option has stimulated passionate activists to mobilize fellow citizens under much more formidable circumstances. In the United States, we may not need a nation-wide mobilization of millions of nonpartisan monitors on Election Day, but the 2020 election could definitely use the encouragement of citizens to participate and an authoritative assessment of the process.
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