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Let the world watch the 2020 election

The United States should give access to international election monitors to fully evaluate our electoral process.

A poll worker processed ballots from this week's primary election in Washington state.Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

For decades, the United States has created and funded international organizations to monitor the electoral processes in democratizing countries in order to ensure that their elections are both free and fair. And yet despite America’s history of exporting this practice around the world, many jurisdictions within the United States itself have shied away from allowing international observers to fully monitor their own elections. Especially now, with a president actively sabotaging the integrity of the 2020 vote, it’s time to end that hypocrisy and open up the American electoral process in its entirety to international scrutiny.

One of the key elements of a stable democracy is upholding the legitimacy of elections in the eyes of the public. But in a remarkable move for a sitting president of the United States, President Trump has used the bully pulpit to undermine public confidence in the election, alleging — with no evidence — that 2020 is going to be the most “inaccurate and fraudulent election in history.” While that statement alone will likely lead some of his supporters to lose faith in the US electoral process, he has also taken steps to make his opponents question the legitimacy of the election by deliberately hindering the US Postal Service’s ability to deliver mail on time in an election that will rely heavily on mail-in voting.


This is unacceptable and, frankly, dangerous behavior on the part of the president, and it must stop. “Normally, the US government would go out of its way to assure the public that elections are going to be free and fair, that they’re going to be credible, and that they’re going to be secure,” said Judith Kelley, the dean of the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University. But what the Trump administration is doing is “just completely unheard of. This is the kind of stuff that [international election] observers would go to countries and write up huge reports about and say, ‘Red flag! Red flag!’ ”

That’s why in order to restore Americans’ confidence in their elections, every part of the United States should give international observers full access to polling sites and election data. And though the United States does have many domestic observers — from political parties and activist groups to independent academics and journalists — to deter any potential fraud, international observers can offer a more impartial, nonpartisan review that can both verify the legitimacy of American elections by international standards and recommend steps that the country can take to improve its electoral system. “If we wanted to try to assure voters that we are going to have a fair and credible election, that’s the kind of tool you can use,” Kelley said. “You can invite credible external organizations to come in and observe.”


Since 2002, the United States has invited the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which observes elections around the world, to monitor its elections. (The invitation isn’t voluntary; it’s an obligation for member states like the United States in an effort to encourage more countries to allow this kind of observation.) But in spite of the invitation — and the United States’ interest in observing other countries’ elections — international election monitors face many limitations in their efforts to evaluate the fairness of the American electoral process. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 11 states restrict or prohibit observation of voting, including big states like Florida, Ohio, and Texas. “If they’re not allowed to go to so many states, then they can’t do the job right,” Kelley said.


The need for international observers is exacerbated by the 2013 Supreme Court decision that gutted the Voting Rights Act, restricting the Department of Justice’s ability to monitor elections and voting laws in jurisdictions with histories of voter suppression and racial discrimination. Since then, some states have made it more difficult to vote, disproportionately disenfranchising Black, brown, and poor people.

In its report assessing whether the 2020 US election needed international observers, the OSCE wrote, “Elements of the electoral process that... merit specific attention include voter rights, registration and identification, security of election technologies, legal framework for and implementation of alternative voting methods, campaign finance, and the conduct of the electoral campaign, particularly online and in the media.” That’s a long list of processes that require attention, and the organization should do its best to monitor our election despite the obstacles to observing polling places imposed by some state laws.

The United States touts itself as the democratic model that nations around the world should emulate. But if America really wants to be the exemplar of democracy, then it should prove its elections are, in fact, free and fair, and let the world watch.

Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.