How Fair and Free Are Our Elections?

Whenever a nation in the Global South is going to the polls, the headlines here in the United States usually make a point of mentioning the use of poll monitors to ensure the election is fair and free. Pundits and politicians alike in the United States talk about how important it is for true democracy to flourish, to allow every citizen to have a chance to participate in the electoral process. Sometimes I am reminded as a reader that the United States even assisted with this process, provided supports intended to promote fairness at the polls.

Strangely, I never see such headlines when we’re going to the polls. There’s no discussion of poll monitors looking out for intimidation, misleading ballots, and other tricks used to keep people from the polls, make their votes worthless, or manipulate them into voting for the wrong people. The United States widely advances the idea that our elections are fair and free; so much so, in fact, that we’re authorities on other people’s elections and should send people to assist. We are supposed to be a beacon of democracy, lighting the way for other nations who should follow in our footsteps if they want to run their elections well.

Yet, there are many deep flaws with the US electoral system. Felon disenfranchisement and a flood of other voter suppression tactics limit the right to vote, drastically in some communities. Low-income people, older adults, people with disabilities, people of colour, and nonwhite people have been targeted by such measures, creating an inherent instability in the electoral system. You cannot say a system is fair and free when certain people do not have access to it and when widespread legislation against their right to participate passes without comment.

And you cannot say a system is fair and free when intimidation, ‘lost’ ballots, problems with voting machines, and other election day issues contribute to further inequality. These are issues that would merit poll monitors in other nations, and they would be neutral third parties without a vested interest in the election. Here, poll monitors are often volunteers, and they are typically from US-based organisations and have less authority than international monitors would. They can report problems and encourage voters to report them, but they can’t take direct action. When ballots are lost or spoiled, they can start a slow process of investigation, but there’s no guarantee those voters will have their votes counted.

How fair and free are our elections? Not everyone in the United States who should be eligible to vote can vote, and this means our elections are not fair. Intimidation keeps people away from the polls, and that means our elections are not free. Surely the international community is aware of this and may even have discussed it, and yet there’s been no attempt to force poll monitors on us. This is something reserved for the Global South.

We are a Western power, and thus considered untouchable; can you imagine the humiliation the United States would experience if United Nations representatives came in to monitor our polls? If advocates from the international community worked in vulnerable communities to educate them about their rights and accompany them on election day to ensure everyone got to vote?

Yet, this is essentially what the United States is starting to need, because this country is straying far from democracy. One person, one vote simply doesn’t apply, and until it does, we should be subject to the same standards we hold other nations to. Standards that should include transparency and aggressive action to promote voting rights, along with acquiescence to interventions if it’s clear that we can no longer manage our own electoral process. That might include election monitors as well as third-party overviews of election law, poll worker training, and other aspects of voting, from registering to vote to hitting the polls on election day to requesting an absentee ballot.

It is a bit galling to see this nation positioning itself as an authority on electoral freedom and voting rights when it cannot even keep its own house clean. No wonder some nations resent the imposition of monitors and overseers from the United States: Because it is humiliating to be told you aren’t doing democracy right, to be told that you are not treating all citizens equally, to be told to go sit at the children’s table because you are obviously not adult enough to sit with the big kids. And it’s doubly so when the person telling you isn’t exactly a paragon of good behaviour.

And that’s a humiliation the United States will never experience, because we are too large for it.

Eric Holder’s Department of Justice has taken voting rights extremely seriously, launching a number of investigations into the matter. In return for its focused efforts, an attempt to bring the problem in check, it’s been roundly punished by conservatives, and even some more liberal politicians have joined in. Holder’s maintaining his ground, but for how much longer? How long can he hope to go up against a tide of sentiment that says voting rights are not important, especially when that sentiment is backed in the knowledge that third-party oversight is something that is never going to happen in the United States, and thus attacking the DoJ won’t have direct and immediate consequences?

The international community may be less than impressed with the way we conduct our elections, but it is also largely powerless to do anything about it, at least in a clear, loud, and public way. Negotiations and comments may be happening behind closed doors, but the bulk of the people who live here are not party to these. What we see is what’s happening on the ground, the slow squeeze of voters from the rollbooks, the growing knowledge that there are a lot of obstacles between our desire to vote and our vote being counted.