Public officials and the news media have broken through the public consciousness with the message that the results of the election may not be known on the night of Nov. 3, potentially helping to ease tensions in the immediate aftermath. There has not, however, been sufficient messaging about what the voting and counting period will look like specifically in each state. This lack of groundwork creates a dangerous potential for misunderstanding and malfeasance — and by extension, for dangerous disinformation.
As tense as things feel in the United States, countries all over the world have held elections in far more contentious contexts. Civil society groups in those countries often independently monitor their elections, to help people discern truth from fiction, build confidence in the electoral process, and document if things go wrong. At this unprecedented moment in the United States, leaders and other public voices would be wise to take lessons from the experience of these groups abroad, in particular by identifying and taking action to prevent the most common triggers of election-related violence and unrest.
While most Americans may associate election night with results flowing in through flashy cable news holograms and interactive maps, “calling the election” has historically been partly a modeling exercise. Absentee and mail-in ballots in some states are counted days after the polls close, but in prior years the volume of ballots voted in a form other than in-person on election day paled in comparison to what we are already seeing this year. By Oct. 30, Texans voting early already had swamped the numbers of total voters in 2016.
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, states scrambled to adapt the election processes they oversee to keep people safe by reducing crowds and expanding modes of voting. This led to an explosion of “vote-at-home” or “vote-by-mail” options. While this expanded and safe access to the ballot was essential, it also created two mis- and disinformation openings. The first has received a good amount of attention: that the vast differences in each state’s existing electoral laws and procedures made these changes in process particularly confusing, and as a result, provided an opening for those seeking to stoke confusion and cast doubt on the potential integrity of results.
A Common Spark
The second mis- and disinformation opening, however, is ahead of us. One of the most common triggers of election-related violence and unrest is related to the counting period. Any unexpected pause in the release of results, or in the tally process itself creates a moment of confusion and mistrust ripe for abuse.
Ghana in 2008 provides a case in point. The country conducted its election just a year after an extremely violent Kenyan election in December 2007 and just months after a chaotic Zimbabwean presidential runoff in June 2008. Everyone was on edge because in both Kenya and Zimbabwe, things had fallen apart during the counting process, and the resulting violence in Kenya was deadly and shocking.
In Ghana, the electoral commission was tallying the results of the Dec. 28 presidential runoff in the capital city, and supporters of both political parties were outside the center, waiting. At one point, the issuing of results slowed and people were getting antsy, making claims of fraud. It was a potentially explosive situation, with each party at some point claiming the whole thing was illegitimate.
The election was extremely close, coming down to one constituency that had developed serious logistical issues, making it impossible for everyone there to cast their ballots in the presidential runoff. Election officials were trying to figure out what to do, needing to likely re-run the vote in that one constituency to be able to determine the outcome of the election.
Election officials provided clear enough information to reassure political leaders, who helped maintain calm among the crowds with encouragement to stay patient and with even simple actions to lighten the mood, like youth leaders passing out ice cream. The commission then announced a rerun to be held in the one polling location on Jan 2. The rerun was conducted, the ballots tallied, and the final results confirmed afterwards. No violence occurred, and though the opposition contested the rerun, everyone eventually accepted the results.
The Ghana example illustrates that sometimes counting pauses for legitimate reasons, and officials need time to figure out how to get it right. In addition to clear communication, even small, tactical actions can make the difference between violence and peace.
While officials in the United States have been messaging that counting will take longer than usual, they have not provided sufficient guidance that sets expectations on when and how results will be released, despite some coverage in the news media. Pauses in counting, or confusion over how often state or local officials should communicate results could create a dangerous vacuum in which misinformation from well-intended actors, as well as disinformation from those stoking unrest, can spread.
Proactive Messaging Now
The good news is that proactive messaging in this case can do a lot. As the election fast approaches, public officials and the media should immediately take several steps to help shrink the space for electoral malfeasance.
- Leading up to Election Day, state and local election officials should provide and aggressively publicize information on how often results will be released, by which official or office, and through what modes of communication.
- If a change in the schedule or process is necessary for any reason, the appropriate officials should explain the reason for the deviation and the fact of it immediately through official channels. They should further offer information on when subsequent updates will be provided.
- Members of the news media should report on these processes and expectations before Nov. 3 as well as during and after the election, and ensure their coverage of any counting delays or irregularities are contextualized within these expectations. Doing so will help ensure that voters worry when they should worry, while remaining patient when delays are due to necessary diligence rather than malfeasance.
- Political officials should refrain from commenting on any counting delays until checking against these state-specific commitments.
Those recommendations, in turn, fit into a broader context of messaging that helps voters stay focused on what matters in the election period. Any communication about the counting process should also emphasize the following:
- Americans should be urged to be calm, patient, and vigilant about election results. This frame of messaging urges people to prioritize accuracy of results over speed, but doesn’t minimize the potential for election interference and voter suppression.
- Americans should be reminded that election irregularities do not mean the election itself is illegitimate. Things will go wrong. What is important is whether the combined instances of voter suppression or other issues could credibly be believed to change the outcome of the election itself. Any media reporting on incidents such as voter intimidation, ballot delays, long lines, incorrectly requiring voters to cast provisional ballots, turning voters away from particular polling locations, and so on, should include information on the scale of the incidents, and whether they could affect the eventual outcome of the election itself. Doing so helps to counter provocative messages from those whose primary goal is to cast doubt on the possibility of a free and fair election.
The Risks of Deploying Police to Polling Locations
Another common mode of voter intimidation globally is the deployment of police or other law enforcement officials to polling locations. In the United States, far-right actors have taken advantage of the racial justice movement’s criticism of police to mobilize violent militias in the name of a reactionary but mythical idea of “law and order.”
This complicates the potential role of the police on Election Day itself. Concerns over the threat of armed citizens showing up at polling places means there may in fact be a need for police to deploy to polling sites while voting is ongoing. In a political climate where police can be seen as political actors themselves, what might routinely be considered a clear-cut responsibility for law enforcement can become a complicated and politicized event. This is already in the context of long-running voter-suppression efforts using law enforcement to discourage Black voters from voting, and amid threats of federal immigration enforcement at polling sites to dissuade new American communities from showing up.
There are few easy answers to address this weakness in our election preparedness. There are, however, some helpful lessons for local officials, organizations, and others working to ensure that public-safety measures are not inadvertently or intentionally politicized to discourage voters from showing up.
First, where there is information that armed citizens, “militia groups,” or other potentially violent actors may target a polling site, any proactive deployment of police or other law enforcement should be kept as low-profile and measured as possible. If the goal of the violent actors is to prevent people from voting or voting a certain way, deploying an aggressive preemptive force in response could end up achieving such suppression on its own.
As word of heavy police deployments to a polling location spreads on social media, voters may over-interpret the scale and extent of threats to their own polling sites, even in other states or parts of the country. For this reason, any public reporting on such threats should place the scale and impact of the events in context, and the general public should be careful about sharing sensational-sounding plots and incidents or even the presence of police.
This is not to say that police presence at the polls is always well-intentioned. There is a long history of some local police forces or individuals in uniform deploying to a polling location for the purpose of intimidating voters. In the most egregious or sustained cases, quick, high-profile publicity and denouncement can go a long way toward resolving the situation with limited damage. But more often than not, the general public and the news media will need to be thoughtful about whether the value of calling attention to police action designed to suppress the vote outweighs the risk of amplifying the suppression itself.
The results of the 2020 election are uncertain. That domestic and international actors will seek to exploit every possible opening to cast doubt on the process, create chaos, and undermine this checkpoint of American democracy is unquestionable. But citizens, local officials, and news media have the ability to reduce tensions and stay vigilant against these efforts. Each plays a role in protecting the vote.