Elections in the United States — and in West Virginia — are free and fair. I have researched elections around the world for over two decades, and I have seen with my own eyes how elections can be falsified through voter intimidation, ballot box stuffing and other types of manipulation.
Large-scale fraud is hard to hide and rarely occurs in the United States. When it does, we know — because the perpetrators are caught.
Will we see evidence of fraud in the November election? Yes. In an election with tens of millions of voters, someone will try to cheat. But, a few cases of cheating don’t make an election fail.
It’s especially important to avoid a mistake that social media has made rampant: finding an example of fraud and concluding that it is happening everywhere. A Pendleton County mail carrier altered absentee ballot applications in the 2020 primaries and was caught, but we shouldn’t conclude that all mail carriers are behaving in this way. An ineligible out-of-state resident cast a ballot in the Harpers Ferry municipal election and was caught, but we shouldn’t conclude that large numbers of out-of-state voters are illegally voting in West Virginia or elsewhere. In the United States, when fraud occurs, it is most often isolated and small-scale. It is also detected.
While American elections are free and fair, it does not mean they are not flawed. The patchwork of election laws that differs from state to state, and sometimes county to county, makes it hard to tell voters how to register to vote and complete their ballots accurately.
Although Election Day is a holiday in West Virginia, it is a work day for many of our state’s citizens and for most Americans, making it harder for people to cast their ballots. This problem is especially acute if polling places are located far away from where voters work or live. The officials processing our ballots are humans, and they may make inadvertent mistakes.
Rules — or the deliberate misapplication of rules — sometimes disenfranchise voters. Our current political climate also raises concerns about the return of problems that used to be more common in American elections: efforts to intimidate voters and keep them from the polls.
The real challenges with our elections might make voters skeptical about the process. These challenges have been amplified by disinformation that calls into question the legitimacy of our democratic system. But, the good news is that our elections are run by elected and appointed officials — Republicans, Democrats and Independents — who are dedicated to making sure the only people who vote are those with the right to cast a ballot, and that every vote counts. Poll workers in every precinct are trained to carefully issue ballots and to ensure that voters are able to cast secure, private votes that accurately represent their viewpoints. Secretaries of State and county clerks nationwide stake their professional reputations on getting the vote count right and will be working tirelessly in November to do so.
As an international election observer, I have watched vote counts 15 times in five countries. Sometimes, those elections have been marred by widespread and systematic fraud that prevents citizens from holding leaders accountable. Voters and election officials have expressed their frustrations to me and other observers, hoping that we can help make their voices heard.
A great thing about American elections, admired by people in undemocratic societies, is that we don’t know who will win the election until all the votes are counted. For them, the outcome is determined by corrupt leaders before their votes are cast.
This year, the process of determining the winners might take longer than we are used to because of the coronavirus pandemic and the complications it presents. We might not know who won on Election day — or even that week. If it takes longer than normal for all the votes to be counted, it’s important to remember that this is a feature of the system — not a bug. Our election infrastructure is designed to make sure that every valid vote counts and not to declare a winner until we are sure we have it right.
This election season, just like everything else in our lives in 2020, will require extra effort and patience.