Thornton is director and senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund’s Alliance for Securing Democracy.
The United States is in a dangerous place today, with 64 percent of Americans believing democracy is in crisis, mostly centered around the 2020 elections. According to the findings, this is due to the false belief that the 2020 elections were fraudulent, according to Republicans; but Democrats feel democracy is in danger because of this lie and resulting behavior, such as the Jan. 6 storming of the Capitol.
As I’ve said to small-d democrats elsewhere, without trust in elections, little else matters. You can have the cleanest, most professional exercise imaginable, but if a significant percentage of the population, or most of one of the major competing political parties, does not believe this, then democracy is in danger.
Around the world, countries use election observation to help establish this trust. For 25 years, I lived overseas working for organizations promoting democracy, a key component of which was organizing both domestic — partisan and nonpartisan — and international election observation missions. Observation efforts can expose shortcomings and lead to ways to mitigate them. The main aim, however, is to ensure public trust in the election process and the legitimacy of the result, and thereby trust in democratic governance. The U.S. should do the same through domestic and international nonpartisan election monitoring.
First, let’s be clear about what election observation is and is not, as the term is misused and coopted in a similar way to election audits or “fake news.” During the 2020 campaign, Donald Trump called upon his supporters to “go to the polls and watch very carefully,” summoning “Trump’s Army” and telling the Proud Boys to “stand by.” Republican state lawmakers are passing laws to eliminate restrictions on observers’ actions in polling stations — restrictions in place to prevent interference and harassment — and to allow observers to record individual’s data, and even authenticate voters’ signatures. Mobs of partisan supporters swarming polling stations to intimidate, question and film voters, weigh in on procedures they do not understand, or attempt to validate electoral documentation is not election observation, which aims to protect against those exact acts.
Global standards, such as the Declaration of Principles in International Observation, emphasize non-interference — observers must not interrupt, interfere or even argue with election officials or voters while monitoring.
Whether election observation is carried out by political party monitors or nonpartisan civic groups, it requires immense time and preparation. Groups should recruit, train and deploy monitors to every polling station, or a statistically representative sample (for domestic efforts), across the country or selected geographical area, to observe the voting and counting processes. Monitors must be well-versed in the electoral framework, follow a precise methodology for data collection, and adhere to a strict code of conduct. Missions must develop checklists and systems to record and analyze findings as well as methods for reporting complaints in compliance with the law.
Such monitors can serve as deterrents, as wrongdoers are less likely to make off with a ballot box in front of watching eyes. Nonpartisan observers can serve as essential referees following the elections, rebutting false accusations, made-up election problems, and partisan hyperbole by neutrally presenting the facts and backing up the work of election administrators.
Sometimes reports from observation efforts do indeed expose serious flaws, large enough in some cases to affect outcomes. Famously in the Philippines, public protests brought down Ferdinand Marcos in 1986 after the domestic monitoring organization NAMFREL exposed that the actual vote count was different from the official, and manipulated, outcome. In Cambodia, I supported election observers in monitoring the voters’ list, showing that hundreds of thousands of legitimate voters were deleted from the rolls, while non-existent people were added. This led to an opposition parliamentary boycott. In Gaza there was once a shooting outside the polling station where I was observing, and our security unit had to scale the wall to quickly carry me out.
It all sounds rather exciting and exotic, but in my decades of election observation it has been almost always painfully boring. I’ve spent countless hours late at night in sweltering polling stations hovering around a ballot box by lantern watching the painstaking counting process ballot by ballot, chugging warm Coke to stay awake. Yes, there are always — absolutely always — errors and problems. The ballot tallies at the end of the count in a polling station are off by one or two votes. An election official mistakenly forgets to stamp a ballot requiring it to be thrown out. Some zealous supporters break the periphery of the polling station and shout at voters. Usually these incidents, though critical to document, do not amount to large-scale fraud meriting protests or requiring a new election. A boring election is the most important of all, demonstrating to the public that the elections were sound, legitimate and produced valid results.
Given the serious polarization in the U.S. and our inability to view anyone as neutral, it may be challenging for us to believe in nonpartisan domestic election observation. Just as every news outlet is distrusted by one side or another, any observer group could quickly be labelled as partisan the second it failed to validate a pre-existing view about the election. One way used to mitigate this problem elsewhere is to build coalitions of organizations. Rather than one particular civic group, many organizations, perhaps leaning both right and left, could work together.
Where such domestic division exists, international observation has also been an essential addition, more likely perceived as politically neutral with no “skin in the game.” Groups like the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the National Democratic Institute deploy election monitors across the globe. International observation, however, has had limited success in the U.S., where certain states have failed to accredit such organizations or allow access to polling places.
The U.S. — and both parties — should welcome nonpartisan observation and provide observers with in-person access to all stages of the election process and the information they need, as they may be able to help diffuse tensions should conflict again emerge around the results.
I recognize that part of our population is unlikely to be persuaded by analysis from nonpartisan monitors. But it could help to have a few more referees confirm what official election bodies, courts and main media channels are reporting. Domestic citizen observation has the added benefit of involving more citizens in, and providing them important training on, our election process. Volunteer pollwatchers have a front-row seat to our elections, and they can see how professional and incident-free they actually are. This could be a first step in building back public faith.