Our Election System Isn't Perfect, But Accusations Of 'Rigging' Are Baseless

People cast their ballots for the 2016 general elections at a crowded polling station as early voting begins in North Carolin
People cast their ballots for the 2016 general elections at a crowded polling station as early voting begins in North Carolina, in Carrboro, North Carolina, U.S., October 20, 2016.

The first election The Carter Center ever observed was rigged.

We were in Panama in 1989. Election day reports indicated that General Manuel Noriega’s handpicked candidates were going to lose big. But as officials counted and tallied the ballots, observers started hearing about groups of armed men bursting into polling places and stealing tally sheets. The next day, national election officials began releasing falsified results.

President Carter went to the election commission to confront them with carbon copies of some of the original tally sheets:  “Are you honest men,” he asked them in Spanish, “or are you thieves?”

This kind of scenario could never play out in the United States, because there are numerous safeguards in place to protect the integrity of the election.

In fact, Noriega didn’t get away with it either. His men never took office, in part because Carter Center observers shone a spotlight on their misconduct.

The Center has now observed 103 elections in 39 countries. We believe in the power of credible, impartial election observation. The presence of observers can build confidence in elections because their independence reassures voters that their voices will be heard.  Observers also help by pointing out less-critical flaws that can be fixed to improve the next election cycle.

The Carter Center does not observe elections in the United States – our work is primarily international in focus – but there will be many observers on the ground for the Nov. 8 elections, from partisan observers representing candidates to international observers to nonpartisan domestic observers.

All have an important role to play. Partisan observers will watch and speak out on behalf of their candidate if they see something they think violates rules or unfairly disadvantages them. Nonpartisan international and domestic observers will work alongside them in some states. But rather than intervening if they see violations or irregularities, they will record what they observe and issue full reports after the election, along with recommendations for improvements.

What do nonpartisan observers look for?

That varies depending on the country, but generally they are looking at whether the election process complies with that country’s laws and the international standards set out in treaties the country has accepted or is otherwise subject to.

During polling, Carter Center observers typically look at things like:

  • Did the polls open on time and were opening procedures followed?

  • Were there enough ballots? Enough poll workers?

  • Did the poll workers seem to understand the rules?

  • Were people allowed to vote if they were in line before the polls closed?

  • Was the secrecy of the ballot upheld?

  • Was anyone not permitted to vote, and if so, why?

  • Were there accommodations to enable people with disabilities to vote?

  • What was the atmosphere in and around the station? Were there instances of intimidation? (This could involve the presence of policemen or soldiers, who often represent the ruling party. But it can also involve party supporters who are too close to the polls, or engaging in disruptive or threatening behavior.)

  • Did the counting and tallying process follow proper procedures? Were unusually high numbers of ballots rejected as flawed?

The groups observing the U.S. elections this year will be looking at many of the same things.

It’s important to understand, though, that to be effective, international observation missions begin long before election day. Typically, The Carter Center has a small team in-country several months before the election to assess voter registration, election-related laws, campaigning and campaign finance, voter education, and media coverage.

This kind of scenario could never play out in the United States, because there are numerous safeguards in place to protect the integrity of the election.

While we’ve occasionally seen evidence of gross irregularities on election days — ballot stuffing, voter intimidation, and results inflation in Nigeria in 1999, for instance — more frequently, problems occur much earlier.

In Zambia’s election in August, for example, the government temporarily shut down the leading opposition newspaper, claiming it owed back taxes. (Limitations on press freedom are a common problem in many countries outside the United States, with governments often owning the most important news outlets or using censors to keep the independent press in check.)

Sometimes, unfairness is baked into the laws themselves. In Myanmar, for instance, the constitution drafted by the military government included provisions designed to prevent local hero and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi from being a presidential candidate. In Tunisia, Indonesia and Democratic Republic of Congo, members of the military are legally barred from voting. Many countries have voting districts of wildly different sizes, violating principles of equal suffrage.

No election is perfect. There will always be flaws. There often will be accusations of voter fraud by the losing party.

But only rarely is there concrete, verifiable evidence of large-scale systematic manipulation of votes. Study after study in the United States has failed to find such evidence.

Following the 2000 election, President George W. Bush ordered the justice department to crack down on voter fraud. Between 2002 and 2006, the department uncovered about 120 cases, and convicted just 86 people. That’s an incredibly small number when you consider that over those four years, roughly 200 million votes were cast in federal elections.

In America, states set election laws, and counties administer elections. While this decentralized process is inconsistent with international good practice, one positive result is that it makes it very difficult to carry out widespread manipulation or rigging. 

Furthermore, our voting machines are not connected to the internet — and therefore virtually impossible to hack — and they are tested and retested for accuracy on Election Day. About 80 percent of American voters also use paper ballots, creating a paper trail that can be used to verify electronic results. (In fact, many states conduct post-election audits to spot-check results.)

And then there are observers keeping an eye on it all.

The Carter Center recently conducted a research project on access for observers across the 50 states. We found that while virtually every state makes provisions in its laws for partisan observers, only 30 states grant Election Day access to nonpartisan domestic or international observers (and sometimes this access isn’t enshrined in law). We believe that access for nonpartisan and international observers and the feedback they provide helps ensure that our elections improve.

This year, the two largest nonpartisan international groups observing U.S. elections are the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe and the Organization of American States. They’ll fan out across the country on Nov. 8, watching alongside a bevy of domestic observers, both partisan and nonpartisan.

Their reports should help build confidence in the integrity of the process, and their suggestions for improvements should be taken seriously if we want the U.S. election process to be among the best in the world.

David Carroll is the director of the Carter Center’s Democracy Program. He has been with the Center for 25 years and has been involved in about 70 of the 103 elections the Center has observed.

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