America is moving through the final phase of the 2020 election with a grim sense of foreboding. Political strategists and former government officials have gathered to game out worst-case election scenarios, which include unsubstantiated allegations of a stolen election due to voter fraud, large-scale protests and violence, and confusion around executive authority should U.S. President Donald Trump lose but refuse to leave office.
Voters are anxious too. A recent poll shows 61 percent of Americans worry the United States is on the verge of another civil war. A separate YouGov poll found a majority of Americans expect to see violence in this election. Only half believe that Americans will agree on who is legitimately elected president of the United States. Pundits and politicians feed these fears by fostering a public narrative of chaos and uncertainty around even the most basic mechanics of voting and whether the losing side will concede to the legitimate winner.
A Movement to Preserve Trust
There is, however, another defining feature of this election: a movement to support and protect the quality of the election, rather than the outcome. In recent weeks, an unprecedented number of civil society groups, including public interest organizations, business associations, and faith-based organizations, as well as political leaders, have mobilized around ensuring an inclusive, credible, and peaceful election. It is a uniquely broad movement that spans the political spectrum and crosses religious, racial, and ethnic lines. It is distinct from traditional get-out-the-vote and voter protection efforts. This emerging universe of actors is aware of the need for independent oversight and advocacy around the quality of the electoral process—from voting to counting ballots to announcing results. They are beginning to build momentum in three key ways.
Shaping Norms That Promote Nonviolence and Electoral Integrity
Norms can be powerful tools for conditioning group or individual behavior. The most credible voices for shaping such norms are often respected community leaders, church pastors, or other sources of relatable authority. This is why a recent statement by over thirty faith-based organizations urging “leaders across the political spectrum . . . [to] call on their supporters to refrain from violence” is significant. In a similar effort, a bipartisan, multi-denominational group of faith and community leaders from churches, seminaries, and synagogues around the country has issued a statement arguing that all constitutional freedoms, including religious freedom, depend on the integrity of elections.
As well as encouraging positive messaging around nonviolence, both statements prioritize the need for all voters to participate free from intimidation and ask leaders to avoid spreading misinformation that could sow doubts about the election outcome. Such statements could have a significant impact in religious communities if these norms trickle down to individual religious leaders who model and reaffirm them.
Business and industry have also jumped off the sidelines in an unprecedented way to affirm election integrity. With signatures from over 500 major U.S. corporations, Civic Alliance, a nonpartisan business association, issued a statement in support of maximizing voter participation in the election process. Simultaneously, the Business Roundtable, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, and other industry associations issued their own joint statement in support of the integrity and the fairness of elections. Acknowledging the risks that could surround a delay in results as votes are counted, the statement urges “all Americans to support the process set out in our federal and state laws and to remain confident in our country’s long tradition of peaceful and fair elections.” These efforts follow a statement issued weeks ago by more than fifty business leaders from the finance, technology, retail, and hospitality industries calling for all votes to be counted and for patience and restraint during the vote counting period.
In another first, a bipartisan, multi-dimensional group of senior political leaders and former government officials have formed a National Council on Election Integrity. This group also urges election officials to ensure the integrity of the election by maximizing voter participation and by galvanizing grassroots support around a pledge to “count every vote” through a $20 million public education campaign.
Each of these public messages by leaders from different sectors is helping to establish expectations about the need to value to each individual vote by being patient throughout the counting and tallying process. In turn, such norm-setting is helping to shape the broader environment in which elections take place and reassure public confidence in the process.
Responding to Misinformation and Preventing the Incitement of Violence
Researchers, journalists, state and local election officials, advocacy groups, and social media companies are finding a common cause in concern over electoral integrity and nonviolence, and they are increasingly collaborating to address it. For example, the Election Integrity Partnership supports real-time exchange between universities, election officials, government agencies, civil society, and social media platforms to detect and mitigate election-related misinformation and disinformation. The coalition is providing weekly public briefings in the lead up to the election, and in its first two weeks, it successfully escalated twelve unique misinformation narratives to social media platforms for review and potential intervention.
Recognizing the role of media coverage to inflame tensions and amplify incomplete information, other civil society efforts such as the National Task Force on Election Crises, Election SOS, and Over Zero are providing training and tools for journalists on how to cover the election period. These resources provide guidance on the role of the media in educating the public about the electoral process, how to cover misinformation that would seek to discredit the electoral process, and the importance of covering electoral disputes with context and in ways that don’t normalize violence or dehumanize either side.
Preparing the Public for Nonviolent Civic Action
Civil society groups are also developing training and tools for the public that shows how individuals can actively shape the pre- and post-electoral environment. Dozens of organizations are conducting free virtual training on nonviolent civic action, de-escalation, and mediation. These skills are meant to empower people to engage in peaceful civic action around the election, particularly in the event of contested results.
As a fitting complement to nonviolent civic action, a group of national and international conflict experts have focused efforts on violence prevention through establishing early warning and response mechanisms. Known as the Trust Network, these practitioners focus on monitoring violence risks in advance and on developing relationships with local officials, such as mayors and chiefs of police, as well as with trusted local institutions, such as mediation centers or religious organizations.
The United States Is Learning From Other Countries’ Experiences
Though many of these efforts are new in the United States, the engagement of independent civil society as a watchdog over the quality of each phase of an electoral process is common in other democracies. Most often, civil society networks organize election monitoring missions to observe and document irregularities during voter registration, voting, and vote counting and tabulation. For example, in Colombia, Misión de Observación Electoral mobilized and deployed nearly 4,000 election observers to areas most at risk for violence and fraud for the country’s 2018 presidential election. Likewise in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Catholic Church regularly organizes massive election monitoring efforts and is a deeply respected voice that forcefully advocates against actions that would undermine the credibility of an election or its results.
What may be surprising, however, is the degree to which international experience with contentious elections is shaping the growth of this homegrown movement in the United States. In addition to the work of Trust Network, the Carter Center is using its decades of experience of observing international elections to help civil society and election officials in the United States better understand best practices, both to build public confidence in the election process and protect the integrity of election results. Numerous other domestic efforts focused on electoral integrity and violence prevention, such as Uphold Our Democracy and the Bridging Divides Initiative, have been informed by the experience of global elections experts and peacebuilding practitioners, as well as many other domestic networks.
But Will It Help?
Can these activities and actions prevent the worst-case scenarios? This cross-pollination of domestic and global election crisis experience is putting more tools at the disposal of concerned actors. The emergence of broad-based networks focused on election integrity and nonviolence has helped rapidly spread and amplify information about tools, training, and public messaging to a range of actors around the country—from election officials to state attorneys general to journalists and civil society. Nevertheless, the ability of these various efforts to make a difference in the face of a sharp negative turn of events on election day or immediately thereafter is uncertain. This nascent movement is untested, and the power of potentially disruptive events and actors remains considerable. In any event, this new architecture being built in the waning weeks of the 2020 election will last beyond this election cycle and become a permanent part of the U.S. electoral landscape.