The Carter Center and Freedom House together have more than a century of experience in working to promote and protect democratic electoral processes in countries around the world. This year, the risk of a significant breakdown in American democracy — and particularly a potential uptick in political violence — has compelled our organizations to focus more on conditions here at home.
Procedural challenges associated with the coronavirus pandemic, such as the rapid expansion of mail-in balloting and shortages of poll workers, may exacerbate existing deficiencies and lead to widespread dysfunction, disenfranchisement, and lengthy court battles on and after Election Day. Other problems have already surfaced, including disinformation campaigns by foreign and domestic actors and false claims of fraud or rigging that undermine confidence in the election results.
While these possibilities are daunting, there is reason to hope that they are being mitigated through the promotion of accurate information by news outlets and social media platforms, the orderly adjudication of legal disputes by an independent judiciary, and other measures taken by the states to make voting safe.
A surge in political violence, however, could disrupt those efforts and imperil the path to a democratic outcome.
Already this year, the country has experienced multiple high-profile clashes involving protesters and police or federal security forces, even though some 95% of demonstrations against racial injustice have been peaceful, according to the nonpartisan Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project. Vigilantes have been more visible as well, with 187 appearances of self-styled militias at rallies nationwide between May and July.
Next week’s election may serve as a catalyst for more politicized violence. Some combination of partisan tempers, errors or abuses by police, provocation by militias, and irresponsible communication by politicians or media outlets could help transform small, isolated incidents into more widely distributed violence, especially if misleading images and calls to action spread on social media.
Like a deadly virus, violence can be contagious. But with effective preparation, it can be prevented and contained. As a first step, political leaders at the national, state, and municipal levels — including both presidential candidates — should publicly stress that any problems surrounding the vote will be dealt with according to the law, with violations or disputes adjudicated by the courts, and that there is no need for extralegal intervention by citizens.
Politicians and public officials should also carefully avoid inflammatory language that may incite violence or exaggerate concerns about the voting, counting, and adjudication processes. Just as importantly, they should speak out against the use of such language by others in their own political camps.
Journalists and media outlets should convey similar messages about the rule of law and the need to marginalize reckless or deliberate incitement. If cases of electoral dysfunction or related political violence do occur, the media should rigorously provide both detail and context when discussing them. They must not normalize or inflate the scale of exteme, isolated events. If rival protesters clash or irregular vigilante “poll watchers” disrupt voting at one of a state’s hundreds of polling sites, for example, reporters should be sure to note that balloting is proceeding without incident elsewhere.
Law enforcement agencies should remain in close contact with the community and prepare for responsible management of protests, which in a few cases may include the presence of armed militias near polling or counting sites. Self-organized militias are illegal in all 50 states, and officials should ensure that they are not allowed to interfere with the democratic process. Peaceful demonstrations that do not violate electoral rules should be protected, and opposing groups of partisan protesters should be kept at a safe distance from one another.
Respected community leaders, especially clergy, should play an active role in maintaining calm around the election. They should promote patience among activists worried about a slow count or efforts that seem to be compromising the process, and publicly discourage any violent or illegal action by local residents.
A democratic election depends on positive participation not just by voters, designated poll workers, and election administrators, but also by law enforcement officers, journalists, and the candidates themselves. And while rival political parties in a democracy may have different policy prescriptions and visions for the future of the country, their competition must be governed by shared commitment to a peaceful, rules-based process and a mutual acceptance of final electoral outcomes.
Through many years of work overseas, our organizations have witnessed the great influence of America’s democratic example. The upcoming U.S. election provides an opportunity to demonstrate the resilience of our democracy, and to inspire hope around the world that public institutions and civil society, working together, can overcome the threats of electoral dysfunction and political violence, even in the middle of a pandemic.