Given the unprecedented circumstances leading up to Election Day and President Trump’s efforts to undermine the election’s integrity before it took place, many feared widespread violence on Tuesday. Certainly, the country has a long history of election violence that continued more recently with widespread efforts to keep citizens in general, and Black and minority citizens in particular, from voting, including disinformation, disenfranchisement and intimidation.
But Election Day was uneventful. Official international observers noted the “orderly” election, the “peaceful atmosphere without unrest or intimidation,” and the “professional” conduct of election administration.
Americans often are surprised that foreign organizations send observers to U.S. elections. Here are three things worth knowing.
Yes, international observers regularly monitor U.S. elections
International observers have monitored U.S. elections regularly since 2002. Observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) participated in the organization’s ninth U.S. mission this fall. The United States and all 57 OSCE member countries have made the same commitment to invite international observers under the Charter of Paris and the 1990 Copenhagen document.
This year, after the customary invitation from the Department of State, the OSCE conducted an assessment mission in early 2020 and initially called for a delegation of around 500 observers, citing a number of concerns at that time about potential problems with U.S. elections. Although the pandemic curtailed the size of the mission, OSCE still deployed a combination of high-level experts and short- and long-term observers for the fall election.
The OSCE preliminary conclusions on Wednesday included a list of criticisms: political polarization eclipsed substantive debate; access to voter registration was unequal; U.S. campaign finance laws are easy to circumvent; and 10 million voters received “automated disinformation” phone calls.
U.S. democracy suffers when officials undermine trust in the election
The OSCE report pointedly criticized “the incumbent” who “repeatedly used his official capacity for political advantage,” cast doubt on mail ballots despite “negligible” evidence, declared victory on election night before the winner was clear, used “discriminatory and pejorative statements against individuals on the grounds of their gender and origin,” engaged in the “misrepresentation of facts” that exacerbated negative campaigning — which the report criticized both campaigns for — and repeatedly attacked the news media.
The preliminary report concludes:
Despite the fact that the results of the election were still inconclusive, the incumbent president again questioned the integrity of the process and declared victory... Baseless allegations of systematic deficiencies, notably by the incumbent president, including on election night, harm public trust in democratic institutions.
A peaceful election is not the end of the story
Many countries endure isolated incidents of election violence carried out by frustrated supporters. But research suggests widespread election violence can be difficult to predict, in part because pre-election attention to concerns can help to prevent violence, as can respected election administration.
For example, in 2007, Kenyan election violence left an estimated 1,300 dead and 500,000 internally displaced. Afterwards, Kenyans supported significant institutional reforms. Despite widespread concerns that the 2007 violence would be repeated, Kenya held a peaceful high-turnout election in 2013. In the 2020 U.S. election, preventive measures appear to have helped keep the calm.
But incumbents usually sponsor the most destructive election violence, trying to use violence to bias election results or undermine the integrity of the process in the pre-election period, to disrupt election day, to intimidate specific types of voters, to disrupt the vote count, or retaliate against opponents after the election. Election violence is often unpopular, and is more likely from incumbents who fear defeat.
Democracies depend on the loser’s consent — especially in close elections
Political Science 101 explains that democracy depends on the fact that those in power can lose elections — and that losers allow the winner to assume office on the assumption that they’ll potentially fare better in the next election.
The OSCE report highlighted concerns over Trump’s apparent disregard for this fundamental tenet of democracy: “On a number of occasions, when asked whether he would commit to a peaceful transfer of power, the President refused to do so, thereby raising concerns among election stakeholders about integrity of this central facet of the democratic process.”
U.S. voters are not accustomed to uncertainty about whether the losing side will accept the results peacefully. But canonical research on democracy highlights this requirement for democracy to exist. In his book Why Bother With Elections? Adam Przeworski puts it this way:
In the end, the miracle of democracy is that conflicting political forces obey the results of voting. People who have guns obey those without them. Incumbents risk their control of governmental offices by holding elections. Losers wait for their chance to win office. Conflicts are regulated, processed according to rules, and thus limited. This is not consensus, yet not mayhem either. Just regulated conflict; conflict without killing. Ballots are ’paper stones.’
Przeworski reminds us that elections do not solve societal conflict; they merely give citizens a chance to experience societal divisiveness with fewer deaths and less violence. Indeed, intense electoral competition may make election violence more likely.
Of course, no violence is desirable — but there’s a surprising potential upside if the U.S. sees some post-election violence. Although scholars still debate the relationship between elections and political violence, some scholarship suggests that elections — even violent elections — reduce the possibility of more general forms of political violence, including but not limited to civil war.
Local election officials adapted heroically to extremely challenging circumstances. One feature of democratic institutions is that they can survive leaders with authoritarian impulses -- primarily because they can bend pretty far before they break, even if their flexibility sometimes gives us whiplash.
Susan D. Hyde (@dshyde) is professor of political science, the Avice M. Saint Chair in Public Policy, the interim co-director of the Institute of International Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of The Pseudo-Democrat’s Dilemma: Why Election Observation Became an International Norm.