America Needs International Observers to Monitor the 2020 Elections

The global democratic community should treat Trump no differently than other autocrats.

Authoritarian nations, semi-legitimated dictatorships, and dying democracies are regularly subjected to international observers whom they grudgingly allow into their countries to monitor elections. The United States sends teams of former government officials and private-sector volunteers around the world to certify—and sometimes condemn — election practices and results. They bear witness to vote tampering, citizen intimidation, ballot stuffing, polling place irregularities, and outright stolen elections. They also often get to watch inspiring people power and real democracy at work.

It’s now America’s turn.

This year, the global democratic community needs to gear up and step in to oversee, monitor, and judge the fairness of November’s U.S. presidential election. Germany, Sweden, Japan, India, Australia, Canada, Costa Rica, Chile, Ethiopia, Tunisia, Israel, and other nations all need to up their game. They should immediately train and send new volunteers to conduct sweeping election monitoring across America, mostly in tough battleground states.

The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) already has a 500-person delegation slated to monitor America’s process. It should crank up those numbers significantly, especially since OSCE recently raised concerns around November’s “most challenging” election.

America’s 2020 presidential election process is in question at home, too. Even before the first vote has been cast, both parties are challenging the outcome.

President Trump regularly raises the specter of mail-in fraud and illegal votes. Hillary Clinton has warned Joe Biden not to concede on Election Night, when exit polls, overzealous pols, or online reporting might declare a premature or pre-emptive Trump victory.

Clearly, the stage is set for one of the nastiest post-election moments in U.S. history. Even—especially—during a pandemic. Now is the time for all good nations to come to the aid of our country.

America has actively engaged in this nonpartisan work abroad, with both the International Republican Institute (IRI) and the National Democratic Institute (NDI) upholding high electoral expectations. International election observers coming to the United States this year should closely follow IRI and NDI standards and practices.

Atlanta’s Carter Center is frequently on the international election monitoring circuit, having observed 111 elections in 39 countries since 1989. Its check on foreign electoral behavior brought to light, for example, issues in the “deeply flawed” process in Nicaragua’s 2011 elections.

As a foreign correspondent, I, too, have been an overseas election observer. First, in Hungary in 1990 and later that year in Czechoslovakia. In Prague, I followed presidential candidate Václav Havel’s campaign during that country’s first free elections in 44 years. I met voters in the capital and in the less glamorous countryside, far from Prague’s medieval castle-and-storybook Old Town, in places with polluting heavy industry and few employment prospects.

It’s not glamorous work. Urban centers are easy to cover, but second cities and rural areas are tougher. I would show up unannounced, often unwelcome, with a permit, ID and an interpreter. I noted the length of lines and if voters looked anxious, animated or scared. The polling places were school classrooms and gyms or local offices. Those venues became sacred for a day. Old men and women approached these buildings with solemnity. They were mostly unwilling to share how they voted, trained over time to keep their opinions and preferences private.

The democratic experience there was new for most. It was humbling to see what people sometimes endured to make their voices heard. In 1990, they went to neglected public buildings with peeling paint and redolent with the smell of wet wool, stale cigarette smoke and the lingering piquancy of sustaining hot meals.

I talked to domestic and foreign monitors who tracked voters, checked registers and followed locked ballot boxes from guarded tables to counting sites. This was all done before the era of webcams and citizen journalists. Poll workers and outsiders were counted on to spot irregularities. Foreign observers like myself added a layer of security to elections.

International election monitoring is not perfect, but it is a lot better than nothing—and some countries, like Belarus, prefer nothing.

Belarus just went through a sham election. Official “results” gave President Alexander Lukashenko a final tally of nearly 80 percent. He did not allow foreign press or OSCE election monitoring. Lukashenko “won” his sixth term by using the power of incumbency to leverage the symbols of state power while denigrating and punishing his opponents. He expertly gamed a system he controlled, and now thousands of street protesters want to overturn this electoral travesty.

America is not Belarus, of course, but every country should welcome a belt-and-suspenders approach to clean elections.

Other nations need to follow America’s historically important role in guaranteeing free and fair elections worldwide. They need to assure that America practices what it preaches. Democracies everywhere must certify this year’s election was above board. After all, every democratic country has skin in this game.

Please come soon. Consider this an open invitation.

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Markos Kounalakis

Markos Kounalakis is McClatchy’s foreign affairs columnist, a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution, and the author of Spin Wars and Spy Games: Global Media and Intelligence. He is president and publisher emeritus of the Washington Monthly.