Michael McFaul is director of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, a Hoover fellow at Stanford University and a contributing columnist to The Post. He was previously special assistant to President Obama at the National Security Council from 2009 to 2012 and U.S. ambassador to Russia from 2012 to 2014.
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has claimed that the U.S. presidential election is rigged. In other countries where free and fairness of elections are suspect, political and societal leaders often call upon international short-term and long-term election monitors to observe their polls and render an assessment.
I have served on multiple international elections missions, several times in Russia and once in Morocco, and have read hundreds of other election monitoring reports. I have some ideas of what I would write in my report if I were invited to join an international election mission observing the 2016 U.S. presidential election. My bottom line up front: Trump is right; there are irregularities in the American campaign and electoral process that require reform, but they are not the ones Trump usually cites.
First, compared to elections in other consolidated democracies, Americans spend too much money on presidential campaigns, a negative trend that accelerated after the Supreme Court’s 2010 rule regarding the Citizens United case. In this election, the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton, has benefited more from the flood of outside money, but the levels of spending both within and outside of the presidential campaigns would be a cause for concern for any election observer mission, especially the disproportionate amount of contributions given by the very wealthy.
Second, the quantity and quality of media coverage of candidates also figures prominently in many international election observation reports, and the United States would be no exception. In other countries, the government often directs media outlets to dedicate disproportionate coverage to government-friendly candidates. In the United States, the most striking feature of the 2016 election is the amount of free media that Donald Trump received compared to his opponents, especially in the primaries. For those dedicated to promoting free and fair elections, that’s a cause of concern. Trump’s threats against the media, at times invoking violence against journalists covering his campaign events, also would be noted in my report.
My assessment of media bias for my election observer report would be inconclusive. Making qualitative assessments about media bias is a tricky space, marred by subjectivity, though new big data analyses are improving our assessments. Mainstream media is not all liberal or anti-Trump, unless one codes the two highest-circulation newspapers, USA Today and the Wall Street Journal; the most-watched cable news network, Fox News; and two of the four most popular radio programs, “The Rush Limbaugh Show” and “The Sean Hannity Show,” as pro-Clinton. On social media, Trump himself has 12.8 million followers on Twitter.
My election report would underscore several non-democratic features of America’s electoral college. The most obvious one we all know: The candidate that gets the most votes should become president. When that does not happen, such as in the 2000 presidential election, the fairness of the system comes into question. The electoral college also distorts the democratic process by empowering voters in certain battleground states and weakening the influence of voters in non-battleground states. In addition, the Electoral College also creates easier opportunities for voter fraud. If a hundred votes in one battleground state can determine who becomes the next president, actors (foreign and domestic) might be tempted to change votes in a handful of polling stations. If the president were selected in a direct national election, the margins of victory are much less likely to be measured in the hundreds, making fraud much harder to execute.
In addition, I would cite the distorting effects of our primary process, which assigns inordinate electoral power to a small number of states voting first in the process. Long-term international election observers also would be disturbed by the weakening of America’s two major parties, both of which allowed outsiders — Trump and former socialist Bernie Sanders — to play major roles in their nominating processes.
My elections assessment also would bring attention to the nearly 6 million American citizens who cannot vote because of a criminal conviction, half of whom already have completed their sentences.
In the section of my report about Election Day, I would first criticize the American presidential election for not allowing international election monitors unhindered access to polling stations or vote count rooms. My report also would cite inefficiencies in the security of computer systems used for the presidential election, especially regarding voter registration lists. And all states should have paper ballot backups to their electronic vote-counting systems. I would also note impediments to voter registration and ease of voting, as well as long lines on Election Day in the past, as a real flaws in our election administration, though I would praise the U.S. government for investigating and taking measures to try to alleviate these problems. Many of these shortcomings result in part because of our federal system. The federal government cannot force states to allow foreigners to observe elections, mandate greater cybersecurity of our election machinery or override state voter ID laws.
At the same time, I also would highlight in my election observer report that the probability of outright fraud on Election Day is next to zero. That’s the upside of our decentralized, federal system. Fifty different legislatures establish their individual rules for the conduct of the presidential election in their states, making coordinated national efforts to falsify ballots nearly impossible. Previous election fraud has been negligible.
The possibility of voter intimidation on Election Day, however, is real. Trump’s call for citizens to monitor the vote, without any training or coordination, could precipitate havoc at polling stations and thereby suppress voter participation, especially if these poll watchers come armed with guns.
Observation missions also assess the actions of governments and their resources in trying to influence electoral outcomes, especially close to Election Day. FBI Director James B. Comey’s letter to Congress on Oct. 28 announcing the reopening of the investigation of one of the major presidential candidates did just that, clearly aiding one candidate and undermining the neutrality of the U.S. federal government just days before the presidential election. This blow to a free and fair electoral process is especially blatant given long-standing FBI traditions of avoiding actions close to elections that could influence voting outcomes.
Finally, my election monitoring report would include one last worrisome observation. For the first time since the U.S. civil war, a portion of the population has threatened to not recognize the election results if their candidate, Trump, does not win. Trump himself is leading this movement. Accepting the results of a free and fair election is one of the central components of the minimalist definition of democracy. That a candidate from one of the major parties would refuse to abide by this core democratic principle would suggest to outside election observers that American democratic institutions and commitment to democratic values are not as deep as was once assumed. That part of the election observation report would be scariest section of all.