Claims of widespread fraud are baseless, but policymakers should nevertheless seize the moment for electoral reform
By Michael Georg Link (MP, Germany) and Kari Henriksen (MP, Norway)
With all that has transpired in recent weeks, it feels like ages ago that we led the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE)’s international election observation mission to the United States, concluding that the elections were well managed but characterized by deeply entrenched political polarization. We also stressed that allegations of systematic deficiencies levelled by the incumbent were baseless. Yet since that time the outgoing President has continued to allege widespread fraud even while the courts consistently rejected his legal challenges attempting to overturn the results.
Despite a lack of credible evidence, President Trump’s continued allegations have apparently resulted in an overwhelming majority of his supporters — as much as 88% according to one poll — believing that Joe Biden’s victory was illegitimate. This mistrust over the electoral outcome fed into one of the ugliest displays of political violence seen in the United States in modern history — the appalling assault on the Capitol Building on January 6, which left five people dead, including a US Capitol police officer.
As parliamentarians ourselves, we stand in solidarity with our colleagues in the US Congress and echo the words of Senator Ben Cardin, who serves as the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism and Intolerance. As he wrote in an op-ed last week, bigotry must not be allowed safe haven nor used by politicians to advance their agendas.
But the outgoing President’s statements are only one small part of the fake news that has radicalized a large segment of the population. Crazy conspiracy theories have been promoted through sophisticated and well-funded online media propaganda outlets to profit from fear, hate and resentment. Throughout Europe and around the world, similar division and polarization can be found. As policymakers we must work together towards countering disinformation while upholding the highest principles of freedom of speech.
With the inauguration of President Joe Biden, the country now has an opportunity to put these ugly events firmly in the past, and take a leading position in this fight. Most notably, to counteract such fake news and the weaponization of mistrust, policymakers should now take a serious look at reforms that can actually contribute to increased confidence in American democracy.
The electoral system is supposed to ensure the voters’ individual rights, not enable parties to get votes at any cost. From our post-election statement of November 4 it is clear that political polarization has placed strains on US elections, with hundreds of lawsuits filed on issues such as the expansion of early voting, placement of drop boxes for absentee ballots, and limitations on those qualifying for absentee ballots.
With the winners now confirmed and in office, it is time for them to take action through serious reforms that can build an electoral system that works better for the American people. The widespread application of gerrymandering, which enables politicians to choose their voters, rather than the other way around, is not in the interests of a representative democracy. Would voters not be better served by the establishment of independent redistricting commissions free from political interference? Similarly, the widespread limitations on voting rights for persons with criminal convictions are clearly not in line with the principle universal suffrage, and neither is the lack of full representation in Congress of citizens in the District of Columbia and US territories, 90% of whom are ethnic and racial minorities.
With no federal body mandated to oversee the electoral process and few national standards, states are responsible for administering elections with duties often delegated to some 10,500 jurisdictions across the country. While we found that the work of the election administration at all levels enjoyed general confidence, chief election officials are often elected as party candidates, at times in elections they themselves administer, adding to a general climate of mistrust.
OSCE observers have regularly highlighted these issues since the first major election observation mission deployed to the United States in 2004. When the OSCE observed those elections more than 16 years ago, one of the main conclusions was that “the way in which election administrators are appointed may raise questions of possible conflict of interest.” The OSCE also noted that the 2004 elections were marred by widespread “allegations of electoral fraud and voter suppression.”
A decade and a half later, while the US has made some strides towards improving its elections, including some expansion of the franchise and removal of some barriers to voting, we regret that greater efforts have not been made towards comprehensive reform. With so much focus now on the legitimacy of US elections, we call on our colleagues in the US Congress and in state legislatures to address these many long-standing issues.
As international observers, we have no mandate to implement any recommendations. We can only offer our observations — the rest is up to the American people.
Michael Georg Link and Kari Henriksen served as Special Co-ordinator of the OSCE short-term observer mission and Head of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly delegation of observers, respectively, for the general elections in the United States on Nov. 3, 2020.