Over the past four years, a familiar refrain has emerged among President Donald Trump’s critics: “If this were happening in a foreign country, the United States government would condemn it.” It’s used to call attention to actions by the president that would alarm Americans if we were observing them in, say, Belarus, Burundi, or Brazil, but are gradually being normalized here. The appointment of Trump family members to White House “advisory” roles, Trump’s refusal to divest himself of businesses that receive money from U.S. taxpayers and foreign dignitaries, and his unwillingness to condemn his most violent, anti-democratic supporters—all of these fit the bill. Still more ominous is his call for his supporters to serve as self-appointed poll watchers.
At last week’s presidential debate, the moderator, Chris Wallace, asked Trump, “Will you urge your supporters to stay calm during this extended period, not to engage in any civil unrest?” President Trump refused to say “yes.” “I’m urging my supporters to go into the polls and watch very carefully … I am urging them to do it,” he said. That answer was deeply alarming.
In the days since, Trump has tested positive for the coronavirus—a development that adds to the uncertainty of the presidential campaign. In such a fluid climate, the notion that political partisans should flock to polling places is all the more worrisome.
I have served on multiple international election-observation missions in countries such as Russia and the Republic of Georgia, and I worked for several years at an organization that provided training and other assistance for election observers in dozens of countries. One thing election observers look for when we are visiting polling stations in foreign countries is large crowds that are clearly present to agitate for one party or another. This is an indication that something is very wrong, that one group is trying to keep another away from the polls. Trump’s answer to Wallace’s question sounded more like an incitement to voter intimidation and violence than an endorsement of the role election observers play in protecting democratic norms. Indeed, if a foreign leader made such a statement, observers would be worried.
Election observation is not an ad hoc process. One cannot simply show up and do it. The missions are systematic and tightly restrained efforts that begin well before Election Day. Typically, they include a preelection assessment mission and the dispatch of long-term observers across the country. They usually conduct their work over the course of four to six weeks. The mission will follow the news; meet with candidates, campaigns, and election administrators; follow preparations of voting infrastructure; and monitor local conditions to determine whether the overall election environment meets international standards—under which citizens must be able to cast their vote without obstruction or intimidation.
A mission assessing the United States in 2020 would note violent incidents at protests in Portland, Oregon, and Kenosha, Wisconsin. It would describe the public confusion surrounding COVID-19-related changes to voting procedures. It would take note of Trump’s role in spreading misinformation about mail-in balloting and baseless insinuations of widespread voter fraud. Election observers visiting the U.S. would most certainly sound alarm bells about the groups of Trump supporters showing up outside polling places during the early-voting period. These groups, decked out in Trump paraphernalia, were not assessing whether citizens could vote without obstruction, but they did rattle some voters who showed up.
My experience has been as a short-term election observer—someone who is deployed to monitor Election Day and the week surrounding it. When we hit the ground, we aren’t immediately dispatched to our turf; we undergo a detailed training that includes the long-term observers’ preelection assessment, as well as a tedious but necessary explanation of the local election laws and procedures. What do the seals on ballot papers look like? What is the procedure for opening and closing the polls? Who is legally permitted in the polling place? How are ballots counted and results certified? Crucially, we are also briefed on the “Code of Conduct for International Election Observers,” which has at its core strict impartiality and nonintervention in the process. That is: Even if we see ballot-box stuffing, voter intimidation, or other clear electoral violations, all we can do is make notes for inclusion in the final report. Our job is not to stop violations, but to shed light on them.
With that understanding, we’re sent to our area of observation, which the mission delineates to ensure that our reports are representative of the broader picture in the country. Only after spending several days orienting ourselves, meeting regional election officials and representatives of local party offices, do we observe the balloting itself. Election Day is long; we are up before the sun, and if we’re lucky and the count goes quickly, back in our beds 24 hours later. We spend the day traveling to 10 to 15 polling stations asking the same questions over and over: How many people have voted so far? Has anyone been denied a ballot? Is the station and process accessible to those with disabilities? Are campaign materials posted close to the polling station? Have any signs of unusual tension been evident?
Because most visits to polling stations are quite routine, that tension can be as simple as a large group of people gathered outside a precinct if they’re not in line to vote. On a 2017 mission to monitor municipal elections in the Republic of Georgia, my team piled out of our car outside a local community center in a region not far from the border with Azerbaijan. Around the polling station, chaos prevailed; the street was packed with cars parked at all angles and kids tearing around, and plastered with campaign materials inside of the allowable radius. As we walked up to the precinct, I was acutely aware that our interpreter and I were the only women around. A dense group of at least a hundred men stood near the station’s entrance and lined the hallways of the building, smoking and engaged in heated conversation. We noted something peculiar: No women voted during our 30-minute visit. That pattern and the restive mood at the polling place were at odds with the dozen or so other precincts we visited that day. In these situations, observers register the potential for irregularities or unrest, but they never arrive spoiling for a fight.
Even as he declined to urge his own supporters to stay calm, Trump described the role they might play as poll watchers in anodyne terms—as “a very safe, very nice thing.” Yes, American political parties are entitled to have agents inside polling stations to ensure the process goes smoothly and according to the law. They are usually trained on many of the same principles that international observers are, exercising the same restraint. They cannot interrupt or slow down the voting process; in most places, that is illegal. In short, party poll watchers’ goal should be to ensure voters’ democratic rights. But the president’s call to his supporters—especially in the context of recent politically motivated violence and his own misleading rhetoric raising the specter of fraud—seems like an invitation to voter harassment.
Confrontations between unorganized, self-appointed poll watchers and individual voters are a recipe for trouble—and a threat to a fair election. If voters encounter any group discouraging or preventing others from casting a ballot, they should immediately inform a poll worker and call a nonpartisan election-protection hotline (866-OUR-VOTE is one example). Election officials across the country should know they have the right to eject poll watchers for disruptions and intimidation, and can call the police if unrest develops outside the station. And police themselves should be reminded that their job is to protect people’s ability to vote, no matter their personal political preferences.
As a former colleague in the international election-observation community succinctly told me after the debate, mobilizing irregular forces to go to polling stations or vote-counting centers isn’t poll watching; it’s a form of thuggery. And on Election Day in the United States or any other country, that’s exactly how it should be treated.