Some Lessons for America in How Elections Go Off the Rails

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During 10 years as a foreign correspondent, I covered presidential elections in 17 different countries, including very rough ones in Afghanistan, Congo, Nigeria, Uganda and Zimbabwe. This is my first time covering one in the U.S. and —though the specifics are very different— the pattern has begun to feel eerily familiar.

This is a precarious moment. A pandemic, the challenge of a surge of mail-in ballots, heightened racial tensions and fears about contested results are putting our voting system at risk like never before.

Overseas, I’ve witnessed flagrant voter intimidation, ballot-box stuffing, clashes at polling stations and months-long fights over who won. And I’ve seen how quickly things can go very, very badly. Violent splits can open up in seemingly stable countries and unscrupulous leaders can manipulate uncertainty to stay in power. As many people who’ve lived in more fragile democracies have noticed, some of those situations feel possible in the U.S. right now — not to the same extremes, but enough to be deeply troubling.

Americans aren’t used to the idea that they’re facing the same problems as younger and less stable nations, but the parallels have already gripped the expert community. There’s now a cottage industry of democracy specialists — academics, election observers and diplomats — who have turned their focus from places like Africa or Latin American to the U.S. itself.

What are they seeing? Every election breakdown is different, but some offer closer parallels than others. And they all raise an unsettling question: In overseas crises, the U.S. has often played a major role in pulling countries back from the brink. Who could do that for the U.S.?

Based on my coverage and the patterns already unfolding, here are a few scenarios that offer closer parallels than we might like to think—and the expert lessons Americans may be able to glean from them.

Kenya: A stable democracy suddenly fractures

In Kenya in 2007, the chaos came as a shock. The country had long been a center of stability in turbulent East Africa, with strong multi-party politics and a history of peaceful transitions of power going back decades.

But the 2007 vote was a close one. As the results came in over four days, the advantage shifted first toward one candidate, then the other, while outside observers surfaced evidence of fraud. Both the challenger and the incumbent declared they’d won. The electoral commission called the election for the sitting president, and violence erupted across the country within hours.

That moment ripped Kenya apart. In a country where many vote along ethnic lines, the anger at the election quickly turned into ethnic attacks. Gangs of armed young men supporting the rival candidates stormed neighborhoods and villages. In a matter of weeks, more than 1,000 people were killed and some 600,000 driven from their homes.

I spent weeks interviewing people who had fled the fighting, and found that they spent very little time talking about the electoral dispute between President Mwai Kibaki and challenger Raila Odinga. Instead they were gripped by the shock of the sudden breakdown of their country. No one had expected that literal neighbors would turn on each other, or that the usually tourist-filled road through the Rift Valley would become too dangerous to drive. They worried Kenya would never be the same again.

In the end, there was enough evidence of fraud to put the results in doubt. Heavyweights from the U.S. and the African Union joined former U.N. chief Kofi Annan in negotiating with the candidates to form a coalition government. They solved the immediate political problem, but more than a decade later, there are still Kenyans who haven’t returned to the villages they fled in the days after the election.

The U.S. is different, of course: The threat of widespread violence is remote in November’s vote. But the sense of worsening tribalism is strong. “We’re loaded for violence. We’re highly polarized. We have armed groups on one side that have already shown a penchant for violence. We’ve had, in this past six months, significant tensions between conflicting groups,” says Thomas Carothers of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a foreign-policy think tank.

Carothers has researched democracy issues in regions ranging from Latin America to the Middle East to the U.S., and sees many of the ingredients in place here. “We have a president who’s priming people in some ways for violence by talking continuously about a manipulated or fraudulent election,” Carothers told me, adding that he has seen it doesn’t take much for fighting to break out. “Whether violence occurs usually has to do with triggering events. You have a flammable pool of liquid, and the question is whether somebody throws a match into it.”

Congo: A messy vote and drawn-out counting raise doubts

Congo’s 2006 presidential race was the country’s first multi-party election in 40 years, and as many had expected, it was rocky and marked by violence. Polling stations changed location at the last minute, election officials left ballots unattended and the rules for who could vote kept changing. No candidate won more than 50 percent of the vote, triggering a run-off between the top two candidates. When that run-off was announced, forces loyal to the two men — incumbent President Joseph Kabila and challenger Jean-Pierre Bemba — battled in the streets of the capital city. More than 20 people died.

And yet, officials were optimistic about the runoff where voters would make their final choice. Administrators worked to fix the logistical issues at the polls. Election officials, trying to set expectations, stressed to voters that a full count would take weeks. Both Kabila and Bemba said they’d accept the results.

I arrived a few weeks ahead of the runoff and interviewed Congolese hanging out at bars and outside churches about the upcoming vote. Overwhelmingly, they told me they wanted this to be a turning point toward peace—but that was always followed by the pessimism of people who had been screwed over by their leaders so many times. On Election Day, I visited polling stations in Kinshasa and watched people take their spots in orderly lines and cast their ballots. I’d ask who they voted for and many would demur, proud they had the freedom to keep their vote private.

There were problems, of course. In a few towns, rioting mobs destroyed ballots and polling stations. Even in peaceful areas, issues with registration lists blocked some from voting and there was evidence of ballot-tampering. Even so, international observers said the issues weren’t widespread enough to affect the outcome.

But then there was the waiting, for days and days. Political parties gathered reports of a polling station opening late in one area or extra ballots in another and used that to claim the vote had been rigged. The election commission released partial results as it counted, an effort at transparency, but Kabila and Bemba’s supporters then used those figures to declare victory prematurely in certain provinces. And it was difficult even to access the results, posted on a website that kept crashing. I sat on my hotel-room bed with my laptop in the middle of the night, refreshing the browser and cursing at my screen.

It wasn’t until two and a half weeks after the vote that election officials finally announced President Kabila as the winner—and when they did, Bemba changed his mind about accepting the results, saying the vote had been rigged. But with international observers confirming the vote as largely fair, he lost credibility. Bemba took his challenge to Congo’s Supreme Court and lost. But while Bemba said he’d abide by the ruling, he never fully accepted it and let the accusations of fraud linger. Four months later, his forces clashed with Kabila’s again in the streets of Kinshasa and more that 300 people were killed. A precedent had been set, and the next two presidential elections were just as disputed.

In the U.S., similarly, officials are trying to prepare Americans for a drawn-out count if there’s no clear winner on Election Day. But we’re already seeing how battles over the logistics of mail-in voting can sow distrust, and how isolated issues at polling stations could be used to call into question the larger result. Hundreds of lawsuits have already been filed ahead of Nov. 3 over how ballots can be counted and processed. President Donald Trump has already said he believes there will be fraud.

Eric Bjornlund, who has overseen observers for some 40 elections in 22 countries, says it’s a common issue in disputed elections: Local issues spiraling out into larger doubts in the process, especially in situations where it takes a long time to get final results.

“That is the kind of thing we’ve seen in country, after country, after country — where people just get upset and anxious about what they perceive as having been unfairness, or fraud, or cheating or whatever,” said Bjornlund, president and co-founder of Democracy International. “And we know that that’s going to happen.” He said in Pennsylvania, for example, a close race and the time it will take to count absentee ballots could leave a large window for people to cast aspersions on the process.

Unlike Congo, of course, the U.S. has generations of orderly elections to that have set a norm. “The thing that we’re hoping,” Bjornlund said, “is that the contestants, the parties, the candidates, the media and the public will have enough patience to allow the authorities to sort it out.”

Afghanistan: The incumbent rejects the result

In Afghanistan in 2009, I watched a government organize an almost impossible election. The Taliban were gaining in power and they did everything they could to disrupt the vote, from leaving threatening letters on people’s doorsteps to attacking polling stations on Election Day.

Even so, people turned out to vote in much of the country. Ballots came in on trucks, helicopters and on the backs of donkeys traveling from mountain villages.

It was only in the following days and weeks that a massive number of suspicious ballots surfaced, most of them cast for President Hamid Karzai. But an electoral board led by Afghans and independent foreign officials managed to identify and exclude the fraudulent ballots. The final result: no candidate had won enough votes to avoid a runoff.

Karzai refused to accept that he hadn’t won outright. He rejected pleas from the U.N. and across the international community to accept a second-round vote — even though he was favored to win.

It was only after then-U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry flew to Kabul and spent an afternoon walking in the palace gardens with Karzai that things changed. I remember harassing anyone I knew at the State Department to try to get a readout of their conversation that day, and each time they told me the two men were still talking, walking in and around the palace for hours as Kerry emphasized the need to accept the verified results. Karzai listened. It was soon after that meeting that he agreed to stand for a second-round vote, which he then won by default when his challenger pulled out.

Karzai was so unwilling to consider the possibility of losing that he was willing to ignore all the evidence that a vote hadn’t gone his way. This has not, up to now, been a threat in the U.S., but President Trump has repeatedly said he believes he can only lose the election through fraud. This worries Joe Brinker, who has spent years assisting, managing and observing foreign elections, including for the U.S. and U.N.

“In my decades of experience on international elections, the refusal of an incumbent leader of a country to commit to accepting the results of an election is one of the most prominent indicators of election day and post-election violence,” he said. “Such examples almost never arise in established democracies, so the fact that President Trump has repeatedly crossed this democratic red line puts us in a situation without much precedent.”

Brinker said he hopes and expects that U.S. institutions are strong enough to pull the country through such a situation, but the very fact a sitting president is making such claims puts the U.S. in new, and less stable, territory. “You’re sort of opening Pandora’s box if you start to develop a culture where you can make such claims without proof,” Brinker said.

America: Who will the U.S. listen to?

In each of these elections I spent more time covering the aftermath than the vote itself. As a reporter, I often struggled to get straight answers from government officials with a vested interest in the results. I regularly turned to delegations of international observers, many from the U.S., to provide an unbiased view of whether the election had been fair. When candidates refused to accept results, it was foreign officials — often heads of state from ally countries, or U.N. diplomats, or U.S envoys — who so often stepped in to broker a deal.

There’s no country more powerful than the United States. If things go awry, who will we turn to? The American electorate seems unlikely to put faith in outside observers. “There would have to be a big leap in order for any of the institutions that normally get looked to, to have that kind of voice,” Brinker told me. And there aren’t that many of them, anyway. Europe’s Organization for Security and Cooperation has scaled back its planned observer mission to 30 people from 500 because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Finding those with the sway to force a political resolution is difficult as well.

“There isn’t an authoritative body, or group or senior individual that has credibility with both sides that everybody would listen to,” Bjornlund said. A large part of the electorate already mistrusts the Supreme Court, he argued, following the 2000 decision in favor of President George W. Bush, to say nothing of the GOP Senate’s recent hardball nomination tactics. It might require an ad hoc group of national leaders with the confidence of the electorate, he said: “You could have something like a bipartisan commission of former office holders — gray-haired, respected people on a bipartisan basis — command some respect.”

In the elections I covered abroad, technocrats and diplomats were key to getting a country through the crisis. And while some of those with the most power were foreigners, they often worked hand-in-hand with election administrators, respected domestic politicians and civil society groups who made their voices heard.

Some have begun trying to lay that sort of groundwork here in the U.S. The Carter Center, which has spent decades monitoring elections in struggling democracies around the world, has turned its attention to a U.S. election for the first time.

“This election, it just became obvious that the things that we look at as indicators of something that we should prioritize — all the red flags were there, in terms of the key characteristics of a place that we as international observers would look at as a place that needs some kind of support,” David Carroll, the director of the center’s democracy program, told me. The Carter Center is not dispatching formal election observers, but instead working to get information out to voters about the process, and to stress that delays in the result don’t necessarily mean there’s a problem.

There are others — coalitions of academics, election experts and politicians —having discussions about how to curtail problems if Tuesday’s vote goes down a dangerous path. A group called The National Task Force on Election Crises includes in its membership former Bush administration officials as well as representatives from liberal groups like Public Citizen.

“The idea is to give people a bipartisan, believable, serious source of information,” said task force member Michael Chertoff, secretary of homeland security under George W. Bush.

Chertoff is also involved in two other groups, both formed in early October, that bring together big-name Republicans and Democrats to speak with a unified voice. He and three other former DHS chiefs lead one called Citizens for A Strong Democracy. The other — the National Council on Election Integrity — also counts former Senate majority leaders Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and Tom Daschle (D-SD) as members, along with former Trump administration Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats.

Kyle Murphy, a former National Security Council staff director who coordinated U.S. support for nine African elections, told me one key indicator will be what happens in the GOP. He’s seen a real impact when members of a ruling party break away from efforts by an incumbent to reject results. “We should not discount the importance, potentially, of a Republican leader in Pennsylvania saying ‘I’m not going to do this, and we need to respect the democratic process’,” Murphy said.

If that doesn’t happen, another possibility would be civil society groups banding together en masse, he said. In Gambia in 2017, the national bar association successfully led such an effort against an authoritarian leader. If something goes gravely wrong, and the president loses but doesn’t hand over power, Murphy said: “I do think this idea of thousands of civil society organizations saying, ‘We reject this,’ that would be quite powerful.”

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