In recent years, international election observers have monitored tumultuous votes in countries like Afghanistan, Ukraine, and Russia. This year, they're turning their attention back again to the US, a place not normally considered a democracy in danger but looking increasingly chaotic.
Members of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) began flying into Washington, DC, last week to prepare for Election Day. But just hours after roughly a dozen OSCE experts officially began working on Sept. 29, the US witnessed one of the ugliest debates in its history — peppered with claims from the sitting president that the election results will be fraudulent unless he wins.
That was even before the president was rushed to hospital on Friday, having contracted a deadly virus, and details of his health were hidden from the public, further fueling the uncertainty heading into the contentious vote.
Over the course of 90 minutes during last week’s debate, President Donald Trump heckled and lied with abandon. He declined to denounce white supremacists. He mocked the drug addiction of the living son of opponent Joe Biden as the former vice president discussed his dead son. He framed the death of a suspected shooter in Portland, Oregon, as an extrajudicial killing, boasting he had sent in US Marshals who “took care of business.” And he once again sought to undermine public faith in the integrity of the election by falsely claiming there’s “going to be a fraud like you’ve never seen.”
“I’m urging my supporters to go into the polls and watch very carefully, because that’s what has to happen,” Trump said, declining once again to commit to a peaceful transfer of power.
Such language is “usually something that’s criticized by election observers around the world,” said Susan Hyde, a University of California, Berkeley, political science professor who studies election observers and who previously worked as one in seven countries. “I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that would have caught their attention.”
“That’s a dictator,” said one American who previously monitored elections across three continents but who asked not to be named because she didn’t want to be seen to be speaking for her current employer.
“That’s what we see in African countries consistently,” she said, going on to talk specifically about Zimbabwe.
“I’ve never thought in my eight years of working in this industry, that I would be worried about election violence in the US in this day and age,” she added, “but now I wouldn’t put it past us.”
Katya Andrusz, a spokesperson for the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, declined to comment on the current US election, stressing that the organization’s observers, who have been monitoring US elections for 20 years, always remain politically neutral.
Speaking about democracy more broadly, though, she underscored the importance of public confidence in the vote.
"In any country, trust in the process is absolutely vital and if there is anything that’s undermining trust, it’s not healthy for a democracy,” Andrusz said. “A big part of democratic elections is the trust in them, that the system works, that your vote counts.
“If people don’t believe that’s the case, it can weaken public confidence in the democratic process itself.”
Of course, the events of the last few days surrounding the coronavirus outbreak inside the White House have thrown yet another spanner into a tumultuous election season. With doctors warning Trump may still experience severe symptoms of COVID-19 in the days to come, there remains speculation of what might happen if he should die or become too ill to continue in the election — chatter Trump sought to squash on Monday night with a publicized return to the White House from his hospital bed designed to show him as every bit the Strongman leader.
In a stunt that Atlantic writer and democracy historian Anne Applebaum compared to Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, Trump stood on the balcony of the White House while still infected, removed his mask, and saluted for the cameras. A White House video of the event, set to booming orchestral music befitting an action film, was released within the hour.
“Anyone hailing from an authoritarian country is horrified by that Trump video, as should be anyone who values democracy over demagoguery,” said Garry Kasparov — the Russian chess grandmaster, chairman of the Human Rights Foundation and Renew Democracy Initiative — on Twitter. “The staging, boasting, the disregard for people’s lives. He won’t change and he must go.”
Interest in the US election around the world remains feverish, with international broadcasters airing last week’s debate live (causing translators to struggle) and foreign news sites often leading with the latest political developments.
While international attention is high, global opinions of the US are falling to low levels. A September Pew Research Center survey of 13 nations found that in several countries, the number of people with a positive view of the US was lower than at any point in their almost two decades of polling. The decline is driven in part by perceptions of the Trump administration’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, but also by views of Trump himself. Fewer than 1 in 10 Belgians, for example, have confidence that the US president will do the right thing.
As the president continues to upend democratic norms and undermine public faith in the integrity of the election, experts told BuzzFeed News they fear not only for the US image abroad, but for the US itself.
“Especially from a country that has been promoting election observation, promoting democracy, been a beacon of democracy around the world and thought it was in a position to send observers to other countries to instruct them in the right ways to run elections, it’s discouraging,” said Judith Kelley, the dean of the Duke Sanford School of Public Policy, who has studied such observers extensively. “It’s very, very discouraging.”
Kelly said Trump’s comments at the debate would likely alarm election observers, who would see his attempts to undermine public confidence in the election as a form of voter suppression.
“I also think that Trump was indirectly urging his supporters to engage in voter intimidation and he was indirectly himself engaging in voter suppression by simply discouraging people from believing that this election would matter, that their ballot would be counted,” she said. “Why show up if you think your vote wouldn’t count?”
The president’s debate comments came less than a week after the Trump campaign released a video in which his son Donald Trump Jr. called for supporters to volunteer as partisan election observers, which are permitted under the law. Except Trump Jr. framed his callout in highly militaristic terms. “We need every able-bodied man and woman to join Army for Trump’s election security operation,” he said, calling for people to “defend” their ballots and “enlist.”
“President Trump is going to win. Don’t let them steal it,” Trump Jr. said.
A week before that, supporters of the president disrupted early voting at a site in Virginia, chanting slogans. Some voters and election workers felt intimidated by the group and had to be provided escorts, according to officials.
“You can have voter intimidation without guns,” said John Campbell, who lives in nearby Alexandria and who, as US ambassador to Nigeria, oversaw the team of American diplomats who monitored that country’s 2007 election.
Campbell noted that in Nigeria it is not uncommon for gangs of political supporters to try to intimidate one another. “It’s one of the reasons why elections are very often so violent,” he said, “particularly in the run-up.”
Eric Bjornlund— the board chair of the Election Reformers Network and president of Democracy International, which consults internationally on issues of governance and politics — told BuzzFeed News that “armed politically affiliated gangs” were a feature in some South Asian countries, such as Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan.
“There’s a huge tradition of these armed thugs that are affiliated with parties that go around and try to prevent people from voting,” he said. “They would say they’re providing security.”
Bjornlund said he now fears their emergence in the US political arena.
"It’s pretty likely that in another country, if people who are not official police or security forces or rather militia or self-appointed election monitors that are armed and going to polling places, it’s pretty clear we would have a problem with that as the international community and we would call it out,” he said.
Kelley, the Duke Sanford dean, said it is possible that some Trump supporters may see his comments as a call to arms, given the presence over the summer of armed, right-wing, self-described militias at political demonstrations. This included the Proud Boys group, whom Trump told at the debate to “stand by” and whose members have been charged with violent offenses at such protests.
Trump’s illness and hospitalization for COVID-19 was also seen by Trump supporters who believe in the QAnon mass delusion as a signal from Trump that he was being sequestered in a safe place so that masses of Democratic politicians, beginning with Hillary Clinton, could be arrested, and that they should prepare for a battle against his political opponents.
Amnesty International USA on Tuesday put out what they said was unprecedented advisory, warning of the threat of gun violence and armed voter intimidation at the polls. Georgetown Law School experts have even prepared 50 fact sheets — one for each state — “explaining the laws barring unauthorized private militia groups and what to do if groups of armed individuals are near a polling place or voter registration drive.”
Even if those self-described militias don’t actually materialize on Election Day, if many voters fear that they could, that is a form of voter suppression, Kelley said.
“You may have voters saying, ‘I don’t feel safe going to the polls. I don’t know who is going to be there.’ And that’s classic voter intimidation,” Kelley said. “And he’s indirectly urging his supporters to engage in that kind of conduct and that’s worrisome.”
Robert Lloyd, the dean of Palm Beach Atlantic University’s school of arts and sciences and who worked as an elections observer in Nigeria, Libera, and Mozambique in the 1990s and 2000s, urged caution. He said any individual incidents of intimidation at polling places should be taken seriously but also had to be put into perspective nationally.
“In terms of [supporters] yelling and screaming at people, that would not be considered appropriate. Can you stop it in a country of 330 million people? Probably not,” he said. “That’s not to dismiss it, but you have to look at the overall picture.”
Still, Lloyd said, his work monitoring heated elections in Africa had taught him leaders should be careful not to use inflammatory language, because ”others may interpret it in ways they don’t mean.”
In another sign of just how unprecedented this election is, the Carter Center, the nongovernmental organization founded by former president Jimmy Carter that monitors elections around the world, is for the first time in its 30-year history turning its attention to the US.
The nonpartisan group announced in August that they were preparing an initiative, which may yet include some election observation, because they feared US democracy was “backsliding.”
“We’ve often thought about this and knew the US could improve or benefit from observation,” Carter Center Director of Democracy David Carroll told BuzzFeed News, “but we never really thought seriously we’d be asked in a serious way to observe in the US as a country that would need observation.”
Carroll said the last five years have seen a marked increase in political polarization and doubts about the credibility of the electoral process in the US. “The sense that people think the election might be stolen, that’s not something that was a widespread concern 20 years ago in the US,” he said. “It’s much more like countries where we work internationally.”
The unnamed former elections observer who spoke with BuzzFeed News cited Trump’s refusal to commit to a peaceful transfer of power as a particularly worrying sign for US democracy and one that would tarnish America abroad.
“If America uses the same formula that we use overseas to see what countries are backsliding in their democracy,” she said, “then we are backsliding fast.”
In a report prepared ahead of their visit, the OSCE group mentioned their “concerns over potential use of intolerant rhetoric during the campaign, including inflammatory speech targeting ethnic and racial minorities coming from high level officials.”
It comes two years after the last crop of OSCE observers wrote a report on the 2018 US midterm elections, in which they found that rhetoric used in that campaign to be “often divisive, confrontational and intolerant, with much of it emanating from the national level.”
They recommended that all candidates and supporters refrain from language that incites hostility, discrimination, or violence.
On Wednesday last week, the morning after watching the debate, the president’s performance had done little to reassure Kelley, the Duke Sanford dean, that Trump’s confrontational rhetoric would diminish.
“We’re all getting tired of the word ‘unprecedented,’” she said. “You can only use it so many times before it’s no longer unprecedented.”