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.