Competitive elections may be a hallmark of democracy, but in severely polarized political contexts they can exacerbate tensions that end up ripping apart democratic norms and institutions. They can trigger unfounded accusations of fraud, fuel claims of an election that has been stolen, and drive losing candidates and their supporters to reject legitimate results—sometimes violently. Those dangers are unfortunately evident in the United States as the country moves into what is likely to be the most divisive presidential election in decades. Political attacks across the partisan divide are conducted with an extraordinary rancor, and fights over basic procedural issues, such as voter registration and the purging of voter rolls, are intensifying. In a recent poll, nearly 40 percent of Americans said that if the candidate they supported lost, they would have little or no confidence in the integrity of the election process.
As part of its democracy promotion work over the past several decades, the United States has often helped polarized countries’ electorates navigate fraught contests. In contexts as diverse as Kenya, Malawi, North Macedonia, Sri Lanka, and Tunisia, U.S. election experts have crafted assistance efforts and diplomacy to de-escalate the drivers of division and bolster institutional safeguards to help keep democracy on the rails. The question then is how those same experts would attempt to fix problems within American democracy. Given the success the United States has had with supporting democracy around the world, why does it seem incapable of applying those lessons at home?
When confronting highly polarized electoral processes, U.S. democracy promoters typically respond with five types of action:
Strengthening key elements of election administration. The United States frequently helps election administrators in other countries to ensure that elections are conducted in an orderly and fair manner. In contexts of severe polarization, such assistance focuses on building trust by establishing transparent voter registration processes and accurate voter rolls. The process usually also includes guaranteeing airtight procedures for vote counting and reporting and clear processes of dispute resolution. U.S. diplomatic engagement complements this technical assistance by quietly urging electoral administrators to execute their responsibilities faithfully and emphasizing the negative reputational and practical consequences that may result from a flawed election.
Supporting observers. In countries around the world, when vote-counting processes are in doubt, the United States often helps domestic civic groups carry out a parallel vote count to provide an independent validation of the accuracy of results. It also supports international observers, who can help bolster the incentives for the electoral management body and key political actors to carry off a successful election. Ideally, international observer missions deploy as early as a year before the election to monitor critical inflection points of the process and then send a large observing team for the voting, counting, and the transmission of results.
Political party dialogues and dispute resolution. The United States and other external democracy supporters often work with the contending political parties in a fraught electoral context to alleviate tensions and foster cooperation over basic electoral procedures. Such efforts may include pushing the parties to agree on a code of ethics for the elections that establishes guidelines for fair campaigning and prohibits specific negative electoral behaviors such as hate speech and disrupting campaign events. In cases where contesting parties refuse to accept election results, the United States often steps in to bring actors together and mediate a resolution. This can also include encouraging the losing candidate, when election results are verified, to step aside.
Civic education campaigns. The United States frequently supports large-scale civic education campaigns carried out by the electoral management body or nonpartisan civic groups. In polarized contexts, these campaigns go beyond just informing citizens about how to register or what to expect at their polling station to include messages of nonviolence and conflict avoidance, as well as information on the appropriate channels to register electoral disputes.
Media training. Electoral assistance in polarized contexts often includes training for journalists, editors, regulatory bodies, and media organizations on how to report on elections in a fair and unbiased manner and how to avoid discriminatory or inflammatory language. It can also include support for media watchdog groups whose monitoring efforts can help reduce rumors, hate speech, and misinformation.
Each of these areas are clearly relevant in the United States, yet concerted and coordinated efforts to address them are strikingly limited. Partisan fights over election administration issues, such as voter registration and voter access, are a chronic problem. Some domestic and international election observation takes place, but its limited scale inhibits observers’ ability to make comprehensive assessments that could lessen public doubts about the integrity of the process. Dialogues between the main political parties to reduce tensions and underline agreement on basic campaign behavior are infrequent and inadequate. Civic education efforts sponsored by electoral administration bodies to address issues like intentional voter misinformation and the importance of nonviolence are weak, at best. So, too, is any governmental role in addressing the way various U.S. media organizations—and social media—are intensifying polarization.
The U.S. government has proved it knows how to tackle these issues through its extensive international record of help in other polarized electoral contexts. Why, then, does it struggle so much at home with the same challenges?
Part of the answer lies with the unique role that the United States and other democracy promoters can play overseas, as external actors within severely polarized contexts. If an external actor is credible in its pro-democratic intentions, it can exercise an “above the chessboard” arbiter function that is badly needed in severely polarized situations. U.S. democracy groups that work on foreign elections have built significant credibility over the years to function above the partisan fray in many challenging contexts. This is true even though they are funded by the U.S. government and deployed as part of Washington’s democracy policy.
At home, however, U.S. government actors are unable to play an unbiased role in core democratic disputes. The pull of polarization is simply too intense, a fact that was demonstrated by Congress in the recent impeachment process and by the Supreme Court in some key cases, such as Bush v. Gore in 2000. The U.S. Federal Election Commission, mired in partisan politics, has lacked a decision-making quorum for months.
Another part of the answer lies with the deep skepticism in large parts of the U.S. body politic about the value of strong central state institutions. The unusual decentralized nature of the U.S. election administration system (with thousands of separate bodies responsible for administering a national election) can work when cross-party trust and cooperation are robust. But when elections take place in a highly polarized environment and decentralized election administration infrastructure—with a multitude of different procedures, equipment, and training protocols and limited oversight and accountability—one gets a breeding ground for uncertainty and mistrust.
By contrast, in most developing democracies where the United States provides electoral support, including very polarized ones, there is usually significant acceptance across the political spectrum of the need for strong central election administration, even if it is a struggle to achieve it in practice. As a result, the United States is usually pushing on an open door when it provides assistance to strengthen central electoral processes—a path that is largely blocked at home.
Similarly, a pattern of weak institutional centralism works against the main U.S. political parties in playing any depolarizing role. The decentralization of political power within the Democratic and Republican parties that has taken place since the 1970s makes it difficult for them to take actions that might contribute to reducing the harsh division afflicting U.S. politics, such as choosing more centrist candidates, reining in the more extreme parts of their political bases, or avoiding the polarizing agendas of big contributors at the edges of the political spectrum. In contrast, when the United States works with political party systems in other countries to address polarization, the parties tend to be relatively top-down institutions. Despite their many other organizational shortcomings, these parties are sometimes able to cooperate effectively in assistance programs aimed at political dialogue and conflict de-escalation that require top-down action.
Additionally, because the United States has a deep tradition of rejecting political influence or judgment from abroad, and particularly now in the context of the increase in nefarious foreign influence on American elections, it is difficult to imagine the main U.S. political players accepting a non-U.S. actor or international body of standards and norms to help mediate differences between two competing sides.Civil society organizations could also learn from the coalition-building efforts successfully launched in other countries.
Of course, many nongovernmental civic groups in the United States—including national activist organizations, local community groups, and philanthropic foundations—are working valiantly all around the country to foster depolarizing reforms across these various issue areas. This community of civic democracy reformers is swelling in response to the growing sense of democratic crisis. They are winning some battles here and there, such as the fight to try alternative voting methods in some places or reduce gerrymandering, though they are often overwhelmed by the negative tide of polarization.
Given that it is unlikely one will see government-led electoral reforms in the short term, there are nevertheless ways to harness this civic energy into meaningful efforts to improve the upcoming presidential election. First, civil society organizations could deploy a targeted domestic election observation effort in highly competitive states. According to the Carter Center, at least 35 states have provisions that allow for nonpartisan election observers, including the closely contested states of Michigan and Wisconsin. A large observation effort could translate into greater public engagement across the electoral cycle to include scrutiny of voter registration, polling officer selection and training, media and campaign finance monitoring, tabulation and results transmission procedures, and dispute resolution. Boosting public confidence in the quality of the electoral process overall could help assuage voters who may be disappointed by the ultimate outcome.
Civil society organizations could also learn from the coalition-building efforts successfully launched in other countries, which can create bottom-up pressure on parties, candidates, and electoral bodies. In particular, a strong campaign from civil society across the political spectrum calling for party and candidate commitments against negative campaign behavior—hate speech or other negative rhetoric directed at political opponents—could help reassert rhetorical norms that were eroded in 2016.
Ironically, the folks who know how to execute these approaches—U.S. specialists experienced in navigating the challenges of severely polarized elections—are walled off in a part of the government that is only allowed to engage with other countries and not within the United States itself. And so, U.S. citizens may need to take the reins in applying some of these global lessons to domestic elections. The United States is a capable and consequential actor in helping to reduce the risks of polarized elections elsewhere. Now is the time to leverage that expertise at home.