ARGUMENT: Election tensionsEasing Election-Related Tensions: Lessons for the U.S. from Elections Abroad

Published 2 November 2020

Public officials and the news media have broken through the public consciousness with the message that the results of the election may not be known on the night of 3 November, potentially helping to ease tensions in the immediate aftermath. Rose Jackson writes that there has not, however, been sufficient messaging about what the voting and counting period will look like specifically in each state. “This lack of groundwork creates a dangerous potential for misunderstanding and malfeasance — and by extension, for dangerous disinformation.”

Public officials and the news media have broken through the public consciousness with the message that the results of the election may not be known on the night of 3 November, potentially helping to ease tensions in the immediate aftermath. Rose Jackson writes in Just Security that there has not, however, been sufficient messaging about what the voting and counting period will look like specifically in each state. “This lack of groundwork creates a dangerous potential for misunderstanding and malfeasance — and by extension, for dangerous disinformation.”

She notes that as tense as things feel in the United States, countries all over the world have held elections in far more contentious contexts. Civil society groups in those countries often independently monitor their elections, to help people discern truth from fiction, build confidence in the electoral process, and document if things go wrong. “At this unprecedented moment in the United States, leaders and other public voices would be wise to take lessons from the experience of these groups abroad, in particular by identifying and taking action to prevent the most common triggers of election-related violence and unrest.”

She adds:

While most Americans may associate election night with results flowing in through flashy cable news holograms and interactive maps, “calling the election” has historically been partly a modeling exercise. Absentee and mail-in ballots in some states are counted days after the polls close, but in prior years the volume of ballots voted in a form other than in-person on election day paled in comparison to what we are already seeing this year. By Oct. 30, Texans voting early already had swamped the numbers of total voters in 2016.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, states scrambled to adapt the election processes they oversee to keep people safe by reducing crowds and expanding modes of voting. This led to an explosion of “vote-at-home” or “vote-by-mail” options. While this expanded and safe access to the ballot was essential, it also created two mis- and disinformation openings. The first has received a good amount of attention: that the vast differences in each state’s existing electoral laws and procedures made these changes in process particularly confusing, and as a result, provided an opening for those seeking to stoke confusion and cast doubt on the potential integrity of results.

The second mis- and disinformation opening, however, is ahead of us. One of the most common triggers of election-related violence and unrest is related to the counting period. Any unexpected pause in the release of results, or in the tally process itself creates a moment of confusion and mistrust ripe for abuse.

Any communication about the counting process should also emphasize the following:

Americans should be urged to be calm, patient, and vigilant about election results. This frame of messaging urges people to prioritize accuracy of results over speed, but doesn’t minimize the potential for election interference and voter suppression.

Americans should be reminded that election irregularities do not mean the election itself is illegitimate. Things will go wrong. What is important is whether the combined instances of voter suppression or other issues could credibly be believed to change the outcome of the election itself. Any media reporting on incidents such as voter intimidation, ballot delays, long lines, incorrectly requiring voters to cast provisional ballots, turning voters away from particular polling locations, and so on, should include information on the scale of the incidents, and whether they could affect the eventual outcome of the election itself. Doing so helps to counter provocative messages from those whose primary goal is to cast doubt on the possibility of a free and fair election.

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