The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump’s attacks on our election are straight out of the despot’s playbook

President Trump gestures on the balcony outside of the Blue Room as he returns to the White House on Monday after leaving Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. (Alex Brandon/AP)

If the U.S. election were happening in another country, the State Department would condemn it.

That’s the reality we face less than one month before Election Day in the world’s most powerful democracy. As headlines focus on President Trump’s health, a growing White House outbreak and an administration that seems determined to allow more Americans to die from the coronavirus, coverage has drifted away from electoral malfeasance. But the dangers to the election remain real. If they were happening elsewhere, international election observers would be issuing alarming reports about the looming authoritarian threat.

I know because I’ve helped to author such reports as an international observer who has scrutinized deeply flawed foreign elections. If Trump were the president of Nigeria or Belarus or Venezuela, his actions would be swiftly and unequivocally condemned by the international community.

The most worrying activities fall into five urgent categories of concern: voter intimidation, voter suppression, encouraging political violence, spreading false information about election procedures and instructing supporters to commit voting fraud.

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First, voter intimidation undercuts democracy because it causes people to fear exercising their democratic rights. When I was an election observer in Madagascar, we noted every instance in which someone with a gun got close to a polling station. Meanwhile, in the United States, Trump has asked his supporters to join the “Army for Trump” and go to the polls to “fight” for the president on Election Day. Those who show up are unlikely to be properly trained or accredited poll watchers. Some will be armed. And they’re being primed to think of themselves as soldiers, which could be a recipe for disaster.

Second, voter suppression damages democracy because it discourages or prevents citizens from casting their ballots. Trump has admitted that his refusal to fully fund the U.S. Postal Service is related to his attempt to block mail-in ballots. That’s alarming partly because it could create delays, suppressing legal votes that should be counted but weren’t because they arrived late. But it’s also worrying because Trump’s strategy has deliberately undercut public trust in the Postal Service. Now some voters who could have safely cast their ballot from home have to worry about the health risks of in-person voting.

To make matters worse, even though election law clearly stipulates that all legal ballots must be counted regardless of whether they are processed on election night, Trump has suggested that only ballots from Election Day should matter.

Third, political violence throws elections into chaos and undercuts confidence in electoral results. In Kenya’s 2007 elections, political leaders encouraged violence, which led to roughly 1,500 deaths. Trump, who has encouraged violence against his opponents on several occasions, recently told the Proud Boys, an armed, right-wing extremist group that has been implicated in violence, to “stand by,” which it has taken as a cue to be ready for Election Day. For some time now, the warning lights that election scholars like me pay attention to have been blinking red in the United States. Trump’s recent rhetoric only makes those warning lights brighter.

Fourth, when incumbents spread false information about elections, it can undermine the legitimacy of the election. For example, in sub-Saharan Africa, I’ve seen leaflets distributed in opposition areas that provide the incorrect election date, hoping people will show up on the wrong day. Trump’s steady drumbeat of attacks about mail-in voting is similar, as he’s using the world’s largest bullhorn to tell people lies about election procedures. The aim is obvious: to sow doubt in the result. But just because it’s blatant doesn’t make it any less dangerous.

Finally — and I can’t believe I’m writing this — the president of the United States has directly told his supporters to commit felony voter fraud. He has, on multiple occasions, told people to try to vote twice, which is illegal. His defenders argue that he’s just telling them to test the system, but that logic is akin to telling people to rob banks just to see whether the local cops are up to the job. It’s unacceptable — and it warrants unequivocal condemnation.

A small number of international election observers do monitor U.S. elections. But most missions pull their punches for geopolitical reasons, hoping not to anger the most powerful government on the planet. Still, they routinely chronicle flaws in American democracy, from gerrymandering to long lines for voting to opaque campaign financing. But this year, it’s much worse. Several organizations aren’t sending any observers because of the pandemic. Others have drastically pared back their missions to a few dozen people. With the election under unprecedented threat from the president himself, there will be fewer eyes watching.

Despite these horrifying flaws, the only way to overcome Trump’s attacks on election integrity is to vote. Voting is overwhelmingly safe and secure in the United States. The president’s lies don’t change the fact that the country has a robust system for ensuring that legally cast votes are properly counted. And while Trump’s efforts could prove the difference in a narrow contest, they won’t be able to overcome a landslide of voters standing up to protect democracy.

Read more:

The Post’s View: Local officials should prepare against Trump-inspired voter intimidation

Christian Caryl: Don’t play into Trump’s hands. Vote in person.

Katrina vanden Heuvel: Step one is turning out the vote. Step two is protecting it.

Edward B. Foley: Three easy steps to help prevent a calamitous election failure

Tom Daschle and Bill Frist: Counting the votes will take longer this year. That’s okay.

Michael Gerson: Trump’s strategy is not to win. It’s to invalidate the election results.