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Much has been written and said in the past weeks and months, within the U.S. general election cycle, on a long journey that seemed to bring out the worst in many people. In fact the sentiment was strong, not just unhappy were voters with the tactics and demeanor witnessed but “disgusted” as a New Times/CBS poll found.
Across social media and traditional print and other mass media, concerns have been raised about the lack of civility and the loss of meaningful debate, leaving many U.S. citizens as well as the global audience in states of anxiety triggered by the possibility of dysfunction and gridlock as well as market volatility, further amplified by the risk of a recession and impaired growth . Not to speak of severe reputational damage to the whole nation which had grown used to bask in the world’s envy, an aspect I had discussed also in my article on Iceland’s parliamentary election 2016 and reputation risk.
Much heated debate around corruption and fraud has contributed very little to a civil and well informed debate on the value, mechanisms and potential remedies to voters concerned of such. Instead we witnessed extensive ridicule, media theatrics and wide dismissal of the notions – just to learn that today’s election is marked by vigilantes, by a “call to action” to “hunt down signs of fraud”, by extensive mistrust, a fear of hacking and a pervasive lack of confidence in fair and free elections.
This is going to gnaw at the American democratic foundations and reputation for a period beyond the election process and it is going to leave scars which will not be wiped away by either presidential candidate winning (or losing). The damage done and what is to come evokes comparisons to the most unfortunate Brexit Referendum.
What has been emerging from this claim of voter fraud is a range of aggressive voter oppression tactics, with counter-measures of activists, civil rights groups and election monitors.
While voter fraud – fairly narrowly defined – indeed may not be very widespread but rather used as political weapon in the rhetorical armory of an election campaign that only knows winners and loser (but has little appetite to solve, improve or look at meaningful discourse and negotiation). Voter suppression and intimidation as well as voter manipulation may be the real and much more dominant and pressing issues here.
Voting, to begin with, on a Tuesday (ever since 1845) may be the least questioned but most powerful factor in voter suppression. In addition, legislation and rules ranging very widely across the 50 states of the federal nation, meaning that a whole host of vital aspects differ among states. For instance, whether voters will receive pay for the time they spend queuing and voting at polling places plays a key role in voter turnout. Clearly every low-paid worker and every parents with an ill child on the day is facing a dilemma. This has nothing to do with voter fraud but is a subtle indirect way of voter suppression.
These considerations aside, what can citizens actually do when they suspect voter fraud or voter suppression? A range of tools and sources are available in order to arrive at meaningful and constructive means which entails establishing facts and engaging critically and relatively independently at a fact-based conclusion.
The plethora of studies, media outlets and influences on social media plus time constraints leave many citizens in a state where it appears impossible to check the facts. In particular, citizens lacking an effective strategy to quickly and efficiently check the facts.
What questions help a responsible citizen to cut through the jungle of information?
- Who conducted the study and how is the individual or the organisation linked to the presidential candidate? That means: was there an endorsement or is there non-partisanship?
- Who funded the study (on voter fraud or on the near-absence of such)? Was it independently financed?
- Has a conflict of interest been declared?
For instance, a media outlet that has endorsed one candidate or the other is likely to support the endorsed candidate’s view. Check carefully for potential bias and consider whose agenda you may be buying into.
- Does the study or the report/summary of the study/studies appear to be balanced? For instance, does it discuss the findings from several angles and show the limitations of the studies? Does it refer to alternative studies and findings which do not support the purported view?
- Check statistics and keep in mind:
– that there are studies which find significant voter fraud and there are studies which argue the opposite Ballotpedia.org on Voter Fraud
– the fact that any factual findings can be interpreted and that researchers, think tanks and even governmental agencies are rarely as neutral and objective as we have been encouraged to believe – this is rooted in the fact that any research, report or polls need to be financed (for instance Factcheck.org is sponsored by the Annenberg Public Policy Institute which is not neutral but belongs to the liberal spectrum)
– that simple answers are often tempting but tend to be too limited or wrong. In the long run, it is more sustainable to embrace the complexity of things and that people tend to have agendas. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as long as citizens are clear about it and can make informed choices. This way, it can even strengthen trust in the system whenever transparency and accountability are given higher priority than obscuring such agendas and intentions.
Actions that can be taken:
- Report voter fraud and voter oppression (in its form of intimidation) if and when you observe it, use your national hotline (see links below).
- Check the Federal Election Committee for more details on how to identify voter fraud and voter intimidation and how to report it. Remember that reporting fraud is an act of loyalty to your country, you support the democratic process by blowing the whistle on misconduct.
- Become active and inform yourself thoroughly on the legislation, the facts, the statistics – and help others to become better informed, using word of mouth, traditional means of interaction with others, including your community and constituency district.
- Remind others, and remember, democracy is best served when citizens engage in fact-based respectful discourse, arguments are healthy and a diversity of views is no threat. Spreading inaccurate information and misleading others is severely harming your well-being and sense of safety. Aim to avoid it and discourage others from doing so – no one wants to live in a world where nothing and no one can be trusted.
Sources and a range of selected further readings, spanning the political spectrum:
- Judicialwatch.org (2014) Voter Guide Book (24 pages)
- American Civil Liberties Union: Voter Intimidation Guide (2 pages)
- Very Quick Guide by Inquisitr.com (founded by TechCrunch)
- Bureau of Justice Statistics: Identity Theft
- Brennan Center (non-profit, non-partisan) on Voter Fraud
- Watchdog.org (right-leaning) on Undocumented Migrant Voters
- Wikipedia.org on Rights of Foreigners in the U.S.A.
- Washington Post: investigation of voter impersonation
- Major newspapers Presidential Candidate endorsements