Timothy Garton Ash is professor of European studies at Oxford University and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.
Democracies everywhere must prepare for the contingency of a contested result in the most important U.S. election in living memory.
Learning from the disarray around the disputed 2000 election, they should have an informally co-ordinated stance. Listening to international election monitors, they should calmly wait as long as it takes for the extraordinarily complex, decentralized U.S. system to produce a clear outcome. Measured clarity from fellow democracies may contribute, at the margin, to a more civilized U.S. process, and, more substantially, calm the international environment around this febrile contest.
Back in 2000, foreign leaders were all over the place. Among others, the German President initially congratulated candidate George W. Bush, then withdrew his congratulations. It took five weeks and the Supreme Court ruling in Bush v. Gore to achieve clarity.
The situation today is much worse than in 2000. Because of COVID-19, more than half of all voters are considering voting by post. That would make things difficult even if the U.S. had a climate of Buddhist calm. But its political and media landscape is now so hyper-polarized that each side has its own facts, which for the other are not facts at all.
U.S. President Donald Trump has been furiously sowing distrust of the legitimacy of the electoral process, and especially of postal votes. “This will be the most corrupt Election in American History,” he tweeted recently. And he has refused to distance himself from violent groups such as the Proud Boys.
The international context is also less favourable. In 2000, it seemed the U.S. was the sole “hyperpower,” and democracy was triumphing around the globe. Now, the U.S. is globally challenged by an authoritarian China, and around the world, there is a democratic recession.
If current opinion polls translate into votes in battleground states, there may be no need to activate these contingency plans. If Democrat Joe Biden is seen to have won key swing states already on election night, responsible Republicans should promptly tell the President that he must accept the result.
But given that more Democrat than Republican voters are requesting mail-in ballots, it is quite possible that Mr. Trump could be leading on the night and then Mr. Biden moves ahead as postal votes are counted. That “blue shift” scenario could mean days or even weeks of furious disputes, from polling stations, through county, city and state electoral administrations, to state and federal courts.
In a still-worse case, the result could end up hanging on a decision of a Supreme Court, whose composition is itself the subject of fierce partisan disagreement – a repeat of Bush v. Gore, but on steroids. In the worst case of all, controversy could stretch into January 2021 amid political violence, market panic and worldwide dismay.
A calm, considered approach by the world’s other democracies will be most relevant in the “blue shift” scenario. These countries will have thousands of diplomats and journalists on the ground. The U.S. and international media will be reporting intensively on this event, and Facebook and Twitter are going to great lengths to stem misinformation. Although the facts will be disputed, that does not mean there will be no facts. A vital task of liberal democracies is to stick to and stand up for those facts.
In doing this, they can rely on an election-monitoring mission from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which includes the U.S. among its 57 members. It has conducted some 370 election-observation missions over 30 years and has, with U.S. help, developed benchmark best practices for rigour and impartiality. The OSCE mission has just presented an interim report and will hold a press conference in Washington on Nov. 4.
If, as in 2000, the dispute is decided by the Supreme Court, the world’s democracies will surely have to accept its verdict. But my Stanford colleague Nathaniel Persily argues that long before any such judicial high noon, what will be decisive is the actions of innumerable local and state officials in the more than 10,000 jurisdictions involved, and of lower-court judges. Some will be biased, but the majority will be Americans committed to ensuring that this time-honoured if somewhat ramshackle process is as free and fair as it can be in a time of COVID-19, populism and paranoia. They deserve our quiet support.
The stakes are so high, for us all. At worst, this election could mark a further downward turn in a worldwide democratic recession. At best, it could be the beginning of a wider, global democratic renewal, so that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the Earth.
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