I am a longtime voting rights advocate. Under the auspices of the National Endowment for Democracy, I monitored elections in Ethiopia and Nigeria, and led voter education workshops in Angola and Kazakhstan. The American democracy is the gold standard for free and fair elections. As votes are counted in the 2020 presidential election, it feels like déjà vu.
When the polls closed in the 2000 presidential election, the race between Al Gore and George W. Bush was too close to call. The winner would be determined by Florida’s electoral votes. For 36 days, the streets were filled with protesters chanting “Count Every Vote” and “Stop the Count.” At the same time in the suites, partisans on both sides were filing lawsuits. Gore asked for hand recounts in Democratic-leaning counties only. Bush took his case all the way to the United States Supreme Court. In a 7-2 decision, the Supreme Court stopped the recounts on the grounds they violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. With that decision, Bush won Florida by a margin of 537 votes out of six million cast.
Punch card voting machines have since been replaced by electronic voting machines. But then as now, the perceived loser is cherry-picking election results. President Donald Trump is challenging the vote count in selected states. Then as now Roger Stone is engaged in dirty tricks. Also then as now, partisans are spreading conspiracy theories. As in 2000, the absence of evidence of a conspiracy to “steal the election” is evidence of the conspiracy.
Trump’s baseless claims of “vote tabulation irregularities” undermine confidence in the integrity of the election. The machinery of our democracy has changed over the years. For instance, in 2000 I cast my vote on an 800-pound lever voting machine in Brooklyn. Now living in Philadelphia, I voted by mail and tracked my ballot status online. What remains unchanged is that public trust in the electoral process separates the American republic from, say, a banana republic.
Since 1989, The Carter Center, founded by former president Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn Carter, has monitored more than 110 elections in Africa, Latin America and Asia. For the first time, the Carter Center will monitor a U.S. election. CEO Paige Alexander said in a statement:
What we’re monitoring is what many people have been calling the hand recount. Because the margin in the presidential race is so close, this sort of audit essentially requires review of every ballot by hand. This is unusual, but it provides an opportunity to build trust in the electoral system prior to the state’s certification of results.
Voter trust is the bedrock of our democracy. The 2020 presidential election is yet another reminder that the right to vote and to have that vote counted cannot be taken for granted. As Pennsylvania and other states certify the election results, the whole world will be watching.