A monitor shows news updates on the 2020 U.S. presidential election. Photo by: Kim Kyung-Hoon / Reuters

NEW YORK — Based in Atlanta, Georgia, The Carter Center typically monitors three to five international elections each year, but 2020 marks the first time it has turned its attention back home. Up until this divisive election, there had been no need to engage in the U.S., according to David Carroll, director of the organization’s democracy program.

But this year, with disinformation spreading, President Donald Trump discrediting the electoral process, and voter suppression in full force, The Carter Center decided to offer journalist training and public service campaigns.

“The major issue is a lack of public trust that the election would be trustworthy, credible, and tested by the population as a whole. Now, this year, we have major candidates questioning whether the election results will be accepted,” Carroll said. “Very clearly here, there is fear of these issues. So that's what led us to think, ‘Maybe we should be trying to engage this time.’”

The election polls closed Tuesday night in the U.S. At the time of publication on Wednesday, there was not yet a clear winner as some states were still counting mail-in ballots, a process that is expected to vary in time for each state.

Election monitoring is a norm in many countries with fragile democratic processes. It is also customary in the U.S., which has long hosted election monitors from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe and other groups.

The OSCE mission found that the general election was well managed despite challenges caused by the pandemic, and uncertainty caused by late legal challenges, according to its preliminary conclusions released Wednesday. It also found that the campaign was deeply polarized and included baseless allegations of systematic fraud.

“Nobody — no politician, no elected official — should limit the people’s right to vote. Coming after such a highly dynamic campaign, making sure that every vote is counted is a fundamental obligation for all branches of government,” Michael Georg Link, special coordinator and leader of the short-term OSCE observer mission, said at a press conference Wednesday. “Baseless allegations of systematic deficiencies, notably by the incumbent president, including on election night, harm public trust in democratic institutions.”

But the fraught lead-up to the election between Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden has left an indelible mark on the country’s reputation as a beacon of democracy and promoter of free elections. Election experts say Trump’s baseless claims about electoral fraud, local efforts at voter suppression, and fears of political violence that impacted the 2020 election campaign will likely reverberate internationally long after the results are fully tallied.

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“It seems quite clear that what happens in the U.S. has a ripple effect around the world, that notwithstanding our own flaws, the U.S. has been a beacon and a model and a standard-setter. When it slides and it doesn’t play a leadership role and hold others accountable, we see that contributes to a decline in the rule of law globally,” said Elizabeth Andersen, executive director at the World Justice Project.

‘Flashing warning signs’

A central premise of The Carter Center, Carroll said, is that “no election is perfect, that elections can always be improved, and that people should continually strive to make them better.”

For years, though, partners in other countries regularly approached the organization to say, “Oh, great that you’re coming here, but why aren’t you looking at problems in your own country?” according to Carroll.

While the organization “never disagreed” with that line of thinking, “the problems in this country maybe didn't rise to the level of concern that they have now,” he said.

Instead of election monitoring, which would be a logistical challenge due to the fragmented voting process in the U.S., The Carter Center has been conducting online training for journalists covering the election and public information campaigns on “aspects of the election that we think might be a bit less understood,” Carroll said.

Foreign election monitors, meanwhile, are fewer in number than usual. OSCE and its Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights initially recommended 500 observers. Scaled down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, around 100 were on the ground in the lead-up to Nov. 3. The Organization of American States, which also conducts election monitoring and in 2016 sent 41 observers and experts, reportedly did not receive an invitation from the U.S. to monitor this year’s results.

Like many other countries, the U.S. has been declining in the rule of law over the last five years, according to an index by the World Justice Project — which recently co-issued an appeal to protect the rule of law during the election. U.S.-funded democracy and governance programs have also been on the decline in recent years, according to Eric Bjornlund, co-founder of Democracy International.

“The more problems that we have in the U.S., the more difficult it is for us to engage in this [democracy] work in other countries.”

— Eric Bjornlund, co-founder, Democracy International

While Bjornlund said the election was plagued by “flashing warning signs,” he was less convinced it will have a direct impact on U.S.-supported governance programs abroad. But the overall lack of adherence to democratic norms will harm the country’s reputation as a promoter of democracy, he predicted.

Trump has repeatedly cast doubt on the validity of mail-in voting, which has been shown to be a secure process, and repeatedly said he might not accept the election results. Republicans in different states have also sought to discount absentee ballots, which reached record levels this year because of the pandemic.

“Obviously, it makes it somewhat harder for American organizations to engage in those kinds of issues in other countries. We've never claimed that the U.S. was a perfectly functioning democracy,” Bjornlund said. “But the more problems that we have in the U.S., the more difficult it is for us to engage in this work in other countries.”

Recovering from an election

Long after a single election cycle has passed, the introduction of disinformation and threat of violence during voting can become difficult for a country to bounce back from, according to John Paul Lederach, a peace-building and conflict expert who has worked on elections in Colombia, Nepal, and South Sudan. This is no less true for the U.S.

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“It absolutely becomes extraordinarily difficult to extricate yourself from it, particularly when violence becomes far more rampant. That's a much more difficult thing to gain control of, because not only do people have fear for their life and survival, but they've indirectly experienced a great deal of loss and trauma,” Lederach said.

Strategies to prevent future violence often include advance public messaging campaigns, from the top levels of government down to local officials and elections, according to Lederach.

“It's not always an easy task by any means, because there are these periods where people are not wanting to be particularly seen as compromising with or in direct relationship with people that they are competing against, especially when it's been violent. So it's not an easy strategy, but it's often a kind of a quiet effort behind the scenes,” Lederach said.

Andersen said that she remains “cautiously optimistic” about how the U.S. will respond to this “stress test for our system.”

“After the election, we should probably roll up our sleeves and do some repair,” she said.

“I think what is important — and everybody should know and acknowledge — is that no country is immune from these kinds of challenges and the rule of law is a never-ending project to perfect, to develop and strengthen. It is important for Americans and for the U.S. to acknowledge that and to be modest about that,” Andersen added.

Adva Saldinger in Washington contributed to this article.

Update, Nov. 4, 2020: This article has been updated with new comments from OSCE.

About the author

  • Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is the U.N. Correspondent for Devex. She covers the United Nations and reports on global development and politics. Amy previously worked as a freelance reporter, covering the environment, human rights, immigration, and health across the U.S. and in more than 10 countries, including Colombia, Mexico, Nepal, and Cambodia. Her coverage has appeared in the Guardian, the Atlantic, Slate, and the Los Angeles Times. A native New Yorker, Amy received her master’s degree in politics and government from Columbia’s School of Journalism.