The main challenge to observation was the incapacity to deploy any of our observers to the United States in person. This meant we had to readjust our usual methods of operation and team interaction. Meetings were held remotely, and weekly sessions were set up for the entire team to meet and discuss aspects of the election with the wider team. At other times the state-based teams were given the task of observing their own states.
This worked well but limited the capacity of the team to assess certain aspects of the voting process which are traditionally associated with election observation. However, in reality, this form of remote access actually allowed observers the capacity to attend several events which would have been very challenging on the ground. Whilst we do not think this is necessarily a long-term solution to the problems that the pandemic has caused election observation, remote attendance at interlocutor meetings and online events added greater scope to our work outside the USA and could so in more normal times as well.
We should make it clear that this remoteness did restrict our capacity to conduct a normal observation of the United States of America. We hope to remedy this in future using both of these resource methods to improve the quality and scope of our work.
60 remote observers were registered by Democracy Volunteers, comprised of 34 men and 26 women. They came from 15 separate countries, including the United Kingdom, Canada and New Zealand as well as many continental European countries. Traditionally, our observations would take the form of two observers entering a polling station together and observing the electoral process. It was decided early in the process that a physical deployment to the United States would not be practicable. As such, these observers were split into teams of two and allocated states and/or territories to ‘observe’. These teams were asked to conduct four tasks. These were:
- Conduct media monitoring of state-based media.
- Attend online campaign, party, and academic meetings.
- Attend interlocutor meetings where possible.
- Conduct a review of state law and local practice and write a state report for each US state which allows electoral observation.
The core team also decided to:
- Conduct online training for all the team to familiarise them with the necessary research skills required for a virtual observation.
- Conduct a nationwide research project to assess trust in US elections.
- Conduct interlocutor meetings with electoral staff and experts.
- Briefly report on those states that do not allow election observation.
- Our team was split into several areas of responsibility: state observation, media assessment, social media assessment and interlocutor engagement.
The core team generally engaged with interlocutors in the United States, but when a specific interlocutor was engaged in their work within one state, we also invited those allotted a state to be part of those interviews, where possible.
Media was split into two sections, the evidence collected in person by our media expert being one part of this and the media analysis being conducted by all participants and analysed by our statistical expert. This part of the report appears in two sections, the section researched by online interviews followed by the statistical analysis.
The social media analysis then follows this. This research was conducted electronically by analysing Twitter and software which is explained in that section of that report.
We also have sections, based on evidence in the annex and other sources, to inform other areas of this report specifically on election-related violence and gerrymandering. Neither of these were in our original intended areas of observation but became aspects which required comment, partly through the work undertaken by our teams and partly due to the events in and around the 6th of January 2021. We had not expected to write a section on election related violence, but it became necessary to do so.
Finally, as an annex to this report we also publish three state reports as case studies of the work our teams undertook. These state reports differ in depth and degree of research but add valuable extra information for those states which welcome observers and those where we had especially busy observers. We feel these will add to the evidence-base we offer as part of this report.
Our Recommendations are as follows:
As this election observation was conducted entirely online, we have not been able to make detailed assessments within polling stations that we would normally make. As such we have limited recommendations for legislators and elections administrators, though there is extensive commentary in the annex about specific observations in the states that welcome election observers.
Recommendation 1 – Election Observers
Many states allow election observation, in various forms, but many do not. Often this ‘observation’ is conducted by party-affiliated representatives who are not observers. We recommend that all US states and territories welcome independent, non-partisan observers, whether domestic or international. This should be formally legislated for and a clear process of accreditation and limitations of access should be simple and explained.
Recommendation 2 – Redistricting
So-called gerrymandering is a significant challenge in US elections. It is something that voters are concerned about and delegitimises the electoral process. We recommend that independent panels in each state, with no influence by party, should be created to ensure that boundaries are drawn up without the effect of party bias.
Recommendation 3 – Mail-in Ballots
Several states extended the use of mail-in ballots, in some cases to create a system where this was the only method available to voters. Whilst in the circumstances of a pandemic this might be considered reasonable, we would recommend a review of this situation ahead of future elections and the eventual conclusion of the pandemic phase of the Covid-19 virus. Mail-in ballots constitute an unsupervised form of voting where voters, in a household environment, could be unduly influenced by other family members, and this is not something that can be observed or managed by electoral administrators. In-person voting continues to be the most robust form of voting to ensure the legitimacy of elections.
You can download the full report from the reader below.