Real vs. imposter: manipulation of election integrity

A group in Colorado conducted a so-called “audit” of voters for the purpose of proving fraud in the election process there. Volunteers signed up to ask voters a series of questions to verify their existence and compare with official public records. According to reporting, these canvassers could be aggressive and unprofessional. Though the organization claims to have an “objective” survey script, its aims certainly appear otherwise — examining the quality of elections after having already come to a conclusion. The group’s mission statement states it was “established in response to overwhelming evidence of election irregularities and fraud in 2020.”

Like many efforts we have seen in the U.S. lately, the initiative purports the laudable and popular mission of transparency and of defending democracy through election integrity tools, like audits. Adopting the veneer of professionalism, the website is peppered with scientific language — praising the value of statistical samples and using terms like “forensic research.” Similar groups are forming to conduct independent election observation, a tried-and-true method used worldwide, but now coopted and misused.

This detracts from, and muddies the water for, needed and legitimate election oversight by civic actors.

For 25 years, I lived overseas working for organizations promoting democracy, a key component of which was organizing election monitoring, audits, and watchdog programs. These activities can expose shortcomings in order to develop ways to mitigate against them. Equally importantly, however, they build public trust in the election process and the legitimacy of the result, and thereby build trust in democratic governance.

We must distinguish between the legitimate and the imposter.

Legitimate election integrity efforts follow basic principles. Does the organization declare its financial supporters and possible conflicts of interest? For example, partisan observation is a legitimate and important part of election exercises around the world, but they need to be clearly labeled as such. Similarly, non-partisan observation must disclose their team, donors, methodology, and data.

Legitimate election monitors follow codes of conduct, such as the Declaration of Principles in Observation, that emphasize non-interference and do’s and don’ts. This is in sharp contrast, for example, with Republican state legislation to eliminate restrictions on observers’ actions in polling stations, allowing observers to record individual’s data and authenticate voters’ signatures. Those restrictions on observation were in line with best practice to prevent interference and harassment — and even conflict — at the polls.

Audits based on citizen surveys to verify election records, as the Colorado group claims to do, can be a valid exercise and serve as a critical check on the election process, particularly in places with low trust or problematic election administration. I conducted a months-long Voter Registry Audit in Cambodia in 2013, which is a systematic, scientific, and independent assessment of the quality of the voter registry. We used two statistical tests: one to ensure that every name on the voter list belongs to an actual person who is eligible to vote and the other to determine what proportion of people eligible to vote is listed on the voter registry.

This program differed from the Colorado effort in several important ways. First, it was not a partisan effort with the explicit aim to prove the election was stollen under the guise of “objectivity.” I was leading an international organization and working with non-partisan civic groups with the mission to strengthen and build trust in elections. Second, all our funding, methodology (including our survey sample and locations, selection process and training for surveyors, questionnaires, etc.), and data was publicly available and verifiable. Third, we engaged regularly with the election management body to ensure we were working off accurate election records.

Civic election oversight, such as the tools used around the world for decades, would be valuable in the United States — if done right.

No election is flawless, and oversight can help identify and correct mistakes. For example, to ensure public trust in the election process and the legitimacy of the result, the U.S. should welcome domestic and international nonpartisan election monitoring. Nonpartisan observers can serve as needed referees by rebutting false claims and neutrally presenting the facts.

An independent voter list audit also could be a useful exercise in the United States. It could test the accusation by many politicians that there are dead people or “ghost voters” on the list. Such names are not problematic, of course, unless they are used for voting — but it could help identify the need for safeguards and procedures for removal. It could also identify the percentage of people wrongfully removed from the voter list. The aim of this exercise would be to remedy problems — if any — identified, ground the public with the facts in a hailstorm of rumors, and support and build trust in the work of our election administrators.

We cannot let election oversight be captured by partisan-driven, disingenuous actors.

We need more legitimate, independent civic engagement — following international standards and best practice — to both build trust in our elections and expose and drum out the frauds.

Laura L. Thornton is director and senior fellow at the Alliance for Securing Democracy at the German Marshall Fund. Prior to joining ASD, she worked for 25 years in Asia and the former Soviet Union for democracy-promotion organizations.