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Elections Are Under Threat—How Can We Protect Them?

Sept. 28, 2021 | Lindsay Morgan interviews Lauren Prather

Elections are a core component of democracy, but the integrity of elections is under threat—globally and in the United States. In the latest episode of Talking Policy, Lauren Prather discusses U.S. efforts to promote democracy globally through election monitoring; considers whether international election monitors could strengthen U.S. elections; and answers questions on the threat of meddling. Lauren is an assistant professor of political science at UC San Diego’s School of Global Policy and Strategy and author of the forthcoming book Monitors and Meddlers. She is also part of an IGCC project looking at the rise of authoritarian international organizations.


news_portrait-prather.jpgForeign interference in elections is generally regarded as a bad thing. But in some cases, foreign engagement can be helpful, like when monitors help countries track the integrity of their elections. Tell me more about this kind of foreign interference—what do election monitors do?

Election monitors are typically individuals who are sent by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) or intergovernmental organizations to other countries at the invitation of those countries’ governments to monitor the execution of the election. They'll come before the election to monitor the media environment and how the campaigns are going. They set up local offices, visit campaigns and party organizations, and observe the voter registration effort. And then on election day, larger groups will circulate throughout the country to visit polling stations to observe how the vote is carried out. Afterwards they frequently observe the counting of votes.

Election observers are supposed to be neutral and they're supposed to evaluate the election according to international standards. In many new democracies, election monitoring is quite pervasive, but election monitors also monitor elections in established democracies, including the U.S.

How do election monitors strengthen the legitimacy of elections?

The academic research on whether the presence of monitors deters fraud is mixed. Some folks have found that it does deter some fraud, while others have found that it merely displaces where fraud occurs. In my research with Sarah Bush, we came at this question from a different angle, which was: what do election monitors do to the perceived integrity of an election? When voters go into polling stations and see international monitors, does that reassure them or does that make them even more suspicious?

In your 2018 paper with Sarah, you talk about there being a proliferation of election monitoring—how big of a proliferation?

The statistics suggest that 80 to 90 percent of elections around the world are being observed by some sort of international presence.

Wow. Why do so many governments invite monitors?

Partly because the signal of governments allowing their elections to be observed has been rewarded by the international community. It can be a way for governments to attract more foreign aid and international press. The more these governments have become aware that inviting election monitors could be in their self-interest, the more demand there is for election monitors. And that demand has been met with supply.

But there's a second component to the proliferation, which is the phenomenon of governments that intend to cheat, that actually don't have a strong interest in holding elections with integrity, inviting monitors in order to sell an election as legitimate to the domestic populace. In this case, we're seeing authoritarian organizations mimicking the democracy promoting activity of election monitoring. They send very small teams. They don't go to many places around the country. And then they issue a positive evaluation of the election.

You conducted research following the 2014 presidential election in Tunisia, looking at the degree to which different monitors were more or less trusted by the local population. You found that the Arab League, which is not perceived internationally as being particularly effective at monitoring, was more trusted by the local population than the U.S. election monitors, who are highly professionalized and experienced. What's driving that discrepancy?

Peoples’ trust in monitors depends on two key characteristics: their ability to detect and deter fraud, and their will to do so. We call that the capabilities and biases of the monitors. So, if the government invites monitors that have no ability to actually detect and deter fraud in my country, then I'm not going to update my views on the integrity of an election. Conversely, even if I think they are able to detect fraud, but I think they're biased—that they support one side in the election over the other—then I might be skeptical about the integrity of the election, because I don't trust that they are observing the election in a neutral way.

What was interesting in Tunisia was that some of the monitoring groups—the United States, the EU—were perceived as capable. But they were also perceived to be biased. In Tunisia, the elections were competitions between Islamists, who want to see Islam reflected in the laws of the country, and secularists who want a bigger separation between mosque and state. Tunisians are very aware that the United States and EU have taken sides in that debate, so it makes perfect sense that they were perceived to be biased.

You’re working on a project with IGCC, looking at circumstances in which election monitors come to a country, ostensibly monitor the election, and then essentially rubber stamp fraudulent elections, which is what you call “zombie” monitoring. First off: why call it zombie monitoring?

It's not my term, but it has kind of become a term of endearment. The idea essentially is that you have organizations that have the bones of a reputable international organization, that mimic the structures of other organizations that have good reputations, but that are in reality, vacant on the inside.

Why’s it happening?

Again, it's these competing priorities. In order to get international aid from Western countries, you have to hold elections—you have to show that you have a commitment to democracy. But, as a leader, you don't want to be removed from power. So how do you balance those two things? Well, you have an election, you cheat at that election, and then you get an official body to say it was legitimate.

Your colleague on the project, Christina Cottiero, wrote a post for Political Violence At A Glance about zombie election monitoring in Chad and Benin. She said: “When the U.S. allows biased regional election observation reports to go unchallenged, it implicitly accepts the compromise these organizations have made between full democracy and managed stability.”

Yes. I fully agree with that. In some sense, zombie monitors give the international community cover for continuing to give countries aid because they hold elections, even though those elections aren't really that risky to the leader because they can cheat.

Another kind of perversion of election monitoring, and something we're seeing increasingly in the U.S., is poll watchers. These are people who purport to monitor the integrity of the polls, but are actually there to harass, intimidate, and discourage people from turning out. Trump encouraged thousands of people to show up at the polls to observe the elections and Texas recently passed new voting restrictions that allow partisan poll watchers to have free movement in polling places.

Is this something you're worried about here in the U.S.?

One of the challenges for U.S. democracy is how decentralized it is. States make a lot of their own rules about how to execute elections within their states. It's different from other countries, which usually organize elections at the national level, and are very professionalized, with permanent election authorities and institutions that make rules for the entire country.

Now, with the way the United States is going, you could say that our decentralized system is a good or bad thing. If we had national governance of elections, and we didn't have politicians who were committed to democracy, then they could do a lot of damage to U.S. democracy very quickly.

One of the rationales for federalism was that states would be laboratories of democracy. They could make their own rules, and we could see how they play out before they actually become big national laws. Jake Grumbach, who's a professor at the University of Washington, has a really fabulous new paper on this called Laboratories of Democratic Backsliding, which is essentially flipping the idea of the decentralization of American democracy as something good for democracy and showing that it is now being used to test different ways to limit democracy.

Some of the research we've published actually suggests that monitors have pretty limited effects on people's perceptions of the credibility of elections. Poll watching is happening in places that are already pretty skeptical of elections, places dominated by the Republican Party, which has now shown themselves to be skeptical of American democracy and tried to limit democracy in various ways around the United States.

But there's a well-known phenomenon that winners of elections have much more trust in election results than losers. If you support a losing candidate, you're more skeptical that the election was free and fair.

Right—in your research on the 2016 election, you show that prior to the election, Clinton and Trump voters had almost the same amount of distrust, and then after the election, the Trump voters were like: actually, we trust this election.

Exactly. Trump voters were even a little bit less trusting than Clinton voters. And then the pattern flipped once Trump won. We saw the same thing going on in the 2020 presidential election: Biden voters were pretty skeptical about the integrity of the presidential election until Biden won.

All of this is to say: we're not really worried about winners and their beliefs about the election. We're worried about losers. A hallmark of democracy is that the losers of elections believe it was a fair process and wait for the next election to try to promote their ideas and candidates. Peaceful turnover, peaceful transfer of power—that's a hallmark of democracy. We've seen that really challenged in the United States.

Could international monitors strengthen perceptions about the integrity of elections in the United States?

To be effective it would have to be more widely publicized. But the issue is almost beyond that because elections themselves have become so polarized. If international monitors were allowed to come in, if they had full access to places and the ability to issue reports that were publicized, that could help. But I don't see that happening. Both sides would have to have a commitment to allow that to happen. And I'm pessimistic about that.

Meddling is another form of foreign inference in elections, and many Americans were concerned about Russian meddling in 2016 and 2020. Why do countries meddle?

With Russia, you could say that the immediate goal was potentially to get Donald Trump elected so that there was a friendly U.S. politician in government that Putin could work with or who wouldn't sanction him. I would be remiss if I didn't mention that the United States is one of the biggest election meddlers in the world, and has done so for exactly this reason. A lot of election meddling occurred during the Cold War and involved helping candidates who were aligned with the U.S. to come to power.

But I think a secondary goal was: even if Trump isn’t elected, we can still cause chaos, which is useful domestically for Putin, who can go to his domestic constituency and say: our elections may not be perfect, but look what's going on in the United States, the paragon of democracy.

What do we know about the impact of foreign meddling in 2016 and 2020?

Researchers are still trying to get a handle on it. It’s pretty clear that there was no actual tampering with the ballot box. The Russian intervention was more about persuasion and information, which is harder to assess. Certain information was given to the Trump campaign, potentially, by foreign actors that was then used in the campaign to help persuade voters to vote for Trump, or at least not to vote for Clinton. There were also social media disinformation campaigns happening at the same time. Both of those things are really hard to quantify in terms of impact. But it's clear that it probably had some effect.

Is meddling a substitute for political violence?

If we think about international political violence as being a part of the bargaining relationship between two countries that have a dispute, whether or not they actually end up in conflict depends on whether they can solve that bargaining issue. Cyber warfare and meddling are tools in the toolkit, just like any other method of political violence, to achieve your goals in a dispute.

Russia and the United States have obviously had many years of international conflict and disputes. Russia could threaten us, but their threats are kind of empty, because the U.S. has a large advantage in terms of military power. You could try diplomacy to get the U.S. closer to Russian preferences. But that might be ineffective as well. But one thing that can be really effective is if you just change the leader of the country and install a leader whose preferences are closer to yours.

Should we expect more election meddling going forward? What are some appropriate countermeasures?

This is the next project for Sarah Bush and I—the politics of anti-meddling policy. We're trying to understand what states are doing to counter the threat of meddling. State sovereignty is a well-established norm—the idea that states have the right to govern their own domestic affairs—although it's broken in all sorts of ways. But there doesn't seem to be as much international attention to anti-meddling laws or norms. I think part of the reason is because the United States and other countries do some meddling themselves. They don't want to be victims of meddling, but they might want to leave that policy option open.

The Library of Congress did a really great study looking at the anti-meddling policies of eight countries. A lot of this is done through election laws in countries, so for example you're not allowed to accept foreign donations, things like that.

I was struck recently reading research from Pew that trust in government in the U.S. is at a historic low:

“When Pew’s National Election Study began asking about trust in government in 1958, about three-quarters of Americans trusted the federal government to do the right thing almost always or most of the time. Today only about one-quarter do.” And the problem is worse among Republicans: “36% of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents say they can trust government, compared with 9% of Republicans and Republican-leaners.”

It's sobering to think about, because it suggests problems with the fundamental structure and nature of the society we live in—the idea that we have representative government, that there's a social contract. The idea that these foundations are dissolving, is extremely concerning. And it's not clear what we're supposed to do about it.

You've devoted your professional life to these questions. What worries you most, and how do you grapple with this stuff in your own life?

Well, I think I finally understand how my colleagues who study climate change feel. We're living in an age where we've documented several challenges to the human species. Scientists have pointed to what would mitigate potential climate disasters, and political scientists and historians have pointed to the ways to build healthy democracies. But we're bumping up against collective action problems.

For me, that's where the real despair comes in. Many of us who study climate change, or who study democracy—we can see what's happening. And it feels like you're screaming into the void. We know ways to mitigate climate change, we know ways to build healthy democratic institutions, and people are refusing to take those steps. Some for reasons of ignorance, some for reasons of self-interest.

I didn't use to understand how much being a citizen of a democracy was integral to my identity. There's been many questions about whether we ever did live in a democracy. But growing up in Kansas City, I was brought up to believe that the United States has always been a leader of democracies. It's really kind of amazing just how much that has crumbled.

On an ever so slightly hopeful note, despite meddling in 2016, and despite the obstacles to voting created by the pandemic, Americans have been turning out to vote in really high numbers. Scholars had, pre-2016, thought that when people lose confidence that their vote is not really going to be counted, they're going to turn out to vote less. But we haven't got there yet.

That is a potentially hopeful sign—that Americans who feel like their vote is threatened will fight back.

That's reminds me of a quote from Sasha Frere Jones, in a piece he wrote after the Trayvon Martin verdict. He wrote:

“However thick the darkness, we drag ourselves into arguments, up to lecterns, because we have not let go of each other yet.” 

We're still going to elections. We're still casting votes. We're not there yet. So, if we're in this space, where we haven't let go, this feels like a really important moment.

Yeah, I think it is. I don't see Americans letting democracy go without a fight.

What is the one thing you want every American to know, if you could tell them anything? And what is the one thing you would want policymakers to know?

Supporting the Voting Rights Act is key. The right of every citizen to vote, protecting that right should be up there with other protected rights. It's shocking that it's not. Now that the right to vote is under attack, it's important to institutionalize it at the highest levels. The Biden administration has talked very recently, about how to grapple with the filibuster, as it pertains to voting rights. Whatever you can do to get that passed, and to protect the right to vote at the highest levels, is the highest priority.

To citizens in the United States, finding ways to execute your voice and make your voice heard is the most important thing. Hopefully we can take this moment and use it to strengthen political participation in the U.S. Just as an example, I was a campaign volunteer in the last election—I called people for the first time and went door to door.

Even as someone who's as interested in politics and political science, I've never gotten actively involved in a campaign. This last election got me off the couch.

Learn more about The Rise of Authoritarian Regional International Organizations