Joe Brinker is a Cincinnati native, a graduate of Saint Xavier High School and a fellow with the Truman National Security Project. He has been involved in U.S. elections, and has observed, supervised or managed voting operations and programs throughout Europe, South Asia, the Middle East and North Africa.
My life has been steeped in international elections management of one sort or another for 20 years across four continents. You could say I’ve seen a few things. More importantly, hundreds of colleagues and former colleagues have seen things too. We talk elections. We study elections. We do elections.
So, Donald Trump’s unsubstantiated allegations bashing the integrity of our electoral process ring particularly false and alarming to me based on deep and broad experience.
Here’s some context. The Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2015 Democracy Index puts the U.S. at No. 20 out of 167 nations, the last country to make the cut for “full democracy.” (Other credible lists are out there and give the U.S. a similar ranking.)
The positives underlying that ranking rest in part on how hard it is to rig an election in the U.S., particularly one spanning many constituencies. Funny business happens on the margins in every country, but two fundamental tests are whether any of those actions have a real impact on outcomes and whether adequate checks and balances are in place to constrain cheating.
The fact that countless elections boards, not the federal government, run elections sites in the U.S. is just one of a litany of checks and balances in the electoral process that anyone can point to and debunk Trump.
Importantly, linked to that strength is not just tradition, but the sacred expectation that candidates do not wantonly make unsubstantiated claims of fraud. If you cry foul, you had better have detailed evidence that you submit through official channels to substantiate your allegation, or risk sanction.
Why? In part, while elections themselves are rough and tumble, and never perfect, the outcome has to be respected. It is that respect that allowed a country of 300 million people to move on from a presidential election in 2000 that ultimately was decided by 537 hotly-contested votes in one swing state. Dozens of countries with weaker institutions would not have fared as well.
Gratuitous, irresponsible accusations undermine respect for our electoral institutions and threaten one of the fundamental pillars of democracy. Trump’s undisciplined statements would be recognizable in countries low on the Democracy Index list, not in the ones on the top.
Conversely, some may ask why the US only ranks 20th on the list. Instead of making reckless conspiracy allegations about those parts of our system that help get us near the top of the Democracy Index, Trump should consider that he represents many of the reasons we do not receive a higher score.
Where are we weak?
Campaign finance is one glaring area, and Trump’s refusal to fully disclose his finances without consequence is something that would not fly in most of the more highly-ranked countries. Financial disclosure is an important transparency tool for constraining corrupt or otherwise unacceptable candidates from gaining office.
Trump’s penchant for banning disfavored media from his events would also raise red flags in many countries higher up on the list. And if anything is rigged, it’s not the voting process, but the gerrymandered congressional districts that make most of them demographically impossible to contest no matter how free and fair Election Day might be.
Many Americans think we are the uncontested greatest democracy on earth. While we remain one of the best for the moment, the reality is that many come in ahead of us in the top tier. And either way, the last thing we should be doing is playing fast and loose with our system.
By claiming fraud without offering a shred of proof months and then weeks before we have even reached Election Day, and while banning media and refusing to disclose his finances, Donald Trump is completely and dangerously backward on the strengths and weakness of our democracy.
Our electoral institutions are too precious to be abused in this way, and the perpetrator, Donald Trump, should be relentlessly called out for it.