WASHINGTON — International election observers praised U.S. general elections as competitive and well-managed but concluded on Wednesday that U.S. President Donald Trump’s false claims of victory and calls to halt vote-counting are eroding public trust in American democracy.
“Baseless allegations of systematic deficiencies, notably by the incumbent president, including on election night, harm public trust in democratic institutions,” two small teams of observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the world’s largest security-oriented intergovernmental organization, said in a 24-page report on the November 3 elections.
Their report noted the elections for president, U.S. Congress and other state and local officials were marked by a great deal of anxiety, uncertainty and anger. The nation grappled with more than 400 lawsuits filed in 44 states, most of them involving serious health impacts of the coronavirus pandemic on the voting process, and with Trump’s repeated subversion of the democratic process with groundless assertions of voter fraud that undermined public trust and stoked potential election violence.
“On several occasions, President Trump created an impression of refusing to commit to a peaceful transfer of power, claiming that the electoral process was systematically rigged, particularly in relation to postal voting, without presenting any substantial evidence of systematic malfeasance and contradicting election officials at all levels,” their report said. “Such statements by an incumbent president weaken public confidence in state institutions and were perceived by many as increasing the potential for politically motivated violence after the elections.”
This was the ninth election observer mission to the United States taken on by the 57-nation OSCE, which counts the United States as a member. It has been monitoring elections in North America, Europe and Asia for two decades and first began observing U.S. elections in 2002, in the wake of the highly controversial and divisive 2000 presidential race in which Republican George W. Bush defeated Democrat Al Gore.
OSCE said it sent 102 people in two teams to observe U.S. elections. One had 50 observers and experts from OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, or ODIHR, to monitor U.S. voting in 28 states; the other had 52 lawmakers and staff from its Parliamentary Assembly to monitor U.S. voting in 10 states and the nation’s capital. The teams initially sought to include 500 observers, but the pandemic undercut recruitment and international travel.
Despite the many challenges posed by the pandemic, the U.S. general elections were “competitive and well managed,” the two teams said in a statement that accompanied the report. But the campaigning reflected “deeply entrenched political polarization that often obscured the broader policy debate and included baseless allegations of systematic fraud,” they said.
“Nobody — no politician, no elected official — should limit the people’s right to vote. Coming after such a highly dynamic campaign, making sure that every vote is counted is a fundamental obligation for all branches of government,” said Michael Georg Link, a German parliamentarian who was special coordinator and leader of the OSCE observer mission, referring to Trump’s unsupported claims of voter fraud.
OSCE teams reported that Election Day was conducted in a mostly orderly and peaceful atmosphere, without unrest or intimidation, and health measures against the pandemic were generally put into place and widely followed. Polling stations were suitable for independent access by persons with disabilities, the teams said, and equipment and materials were sufficient for the conduct of the polls, staffed with polling officials knowledgeable of the procedures. Only a few jurisdictions had problems with electronic poll-books or voting machines that caused interruptions, but those seemed to have been quickly addressed.
However, as many as 10 million voters received automated disinformation phone calls advising them to stay at home or to go vote the following day which would have been pointless, the OSCE mission reported. And, despite the inconclusive election results, it noted, the Republican incumbent president “again questioned the integrity of the process and declared victory” on election night.
Highly competitive #UnitedStates #Elections2020 tarnished by legal uncertainty and unprecedented attempts to undermine public trust, international observers say. Read our press release 👉 https://t.co/uR6JxMZOOL. pic.twitter.com/mVCSrv8yUn
— OSCE/ODIHR (@osce_odihr) November 4, 2020
Vital to count ‘every properly cast ballot’
Inside the White House early on Wednesday, Trump wrongly declared himself the winner of the election and falsely told about 150 campaign supporters that he had won several states that were still counting ballots. Neither he nor his Democratic challenger, former Vice President Joe Biden, had yet secured the 270 Electoral Eollege votes needed for victory. Despite that, Trump claimed a “major fraud in our nation” was occurring because the vote-counting continued.
“To me, this is a very sad moment, and we will win this. And as far as I’m concerned, we already have,” said Trump. Earlier in the evening, Biden said “we believe we’re on track to win this election” and he encouraged voters to patiently await the results. “It ain’t over till every vote is counted,” Biden said.
The voting this year included steps many states took to make it easier for voters to request a mail ballot, due to the coronavirus pandemic and worries about the health risks from crowded polls. Mail ballots usually take more time to process than ballots from walk-in voters, and are expected to take days to count.
However, some of the critical battleground states, such as Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin where Republicans control the legislatures, had decided that mail ballots should not be counted before Election Day. If they had not done that, the vote-counting there might have been completed on election night.
The OSCE teams reported that voter identification requirements in 34 states, including 18 that require a photo ID and 16 others along with the District of Columbia that check signatures or use other methods, had disproportionately affected — and disenfranchised — Native Americans, people with disabilities, homeless people, economically disadvantaged groups with racial and ethnic minorities, and transgender people. Another 5.2 million citizens were disenfranchised from voting, they noted, due to a criminal conviction, despite half of those people already having served out their sentences.
“The right to vote and to have that vote counted is among the most fundamental principles of democracy,” said Kari Henriksen, a Norwegian parliamentarian who headed the OSCE’s parliamentary team. “While the United States has taken great strides toward expanding the franchise, concerns remain regarding universal adult suffrage. Women’s participation in politics has also increased, but there should be greater attention paid to this. In the context of COVID-19 and the rise in mail-in voting, I am concerned about attempts to restrict the counting of legally cast ballots.”
The teams also expressed concerns about the estimated US$14 billion spent on political campaigns and a highly polarized media landscape, though they concluded that news organizations are pluralistic, diverse, broadly informative about election choices and generally respectful of freedom of expression.
Election officials won public confidence for their work under difficult circumstances brought on by the pandemic and a highly polarized political atmosphere, the teams said, but states failed to distribute enough emergency funding beforehand to help those officials deal with all of the extra challenges posed by a huge increase in online voter registration and postal voting.
“The enormous effort made by election workers, supported by many engaged citizens, ensured that voters could cast their votes despite legal and technical challenges and deliberate attempts by the incumbent president to weaken confidence in the election process,” said Urszula Gacek, head of ODIHR’s team. “But this election is not over, and we remain here in D.C. and in key states around the country until it is. It is vital that every properly cast ballot is properly counted.”