A growing number of Americans understand that our magnificent experiment in democracy is under threat. Participating in the November presidential election was always going to be a challenge because the crippling coronavirus pandemic has the potential to drive many voters away from voting in person.
But that’s a logistical challenge, and one that states are proving capable of managing. Many states have voted by mail for decades, and military members deployed all over the world regularly vote by mail. The question now is what people of integrity will do to ensure that citizens register to vote — and cast their ballot early, by mail, or in person — and that the media, the public, and leaders across the political spectrum affirm patience after Election Day so that every vote can be fairly counted and reported.
The stakes are real. Our democracy depends on free and fair elections and the peaceful transfer of power to ensure its survival. Citizens don’t have to rely on this president or any other elected official. They have the power to insist that every vote is counted, which is why the two of us joined together with more than 40 other former congressional leaders, former Cabinet secretaries, retired military officials, and leaders of civic organizations — spanning party, ideology, and geography — to establish the National Council on Election Integrity.
Here are four things the council will do to help ensure a fair, democratic outcome to the election.
▪ Those who have a voice and a platform don’t have the luxury of staying on the sidelines. The conventional approach of giving private counsel but staying publicly circumspect doesn’t work. Former high officeholders — Republicans and Democrats; veterans of Congress, the executive branch, and the military — need to come together in a robust nonpartisan voice to make clear our expectations for the election.
▪ We are organizing a national advertising campaign to drive the messages home. There is a choice between candidates on the ballot this year, and billions of dollars are being spent on those campaigns. But just as real is a choice between democracy — free, fair, and legitimate elections — and a concerted effort to discredit the results before they’re even determined. That’s a choice between order and chaos, and this must be campaigned against just as vociferously as any choice between candidates. Our state-of-the-art public education campaign — with broadcast, cable, and digital ads — will counter conspiracy theories and provide public service announcements promoting patience with vote-counting. A country that galvanizes billions of dollars in research on consumer products should be able to find millions of dollars to bolster democracy itself.
▪ We’re consulting with election experts to inform and guide us as we navigate complex rules and legal challenges in 50-plus states and territories. This work is starting now and will continue as results come in after the election. We will leverage data through an independent and comprehensive effort to track expected turnout across all methods of voting and answer questions of how many votes might still need to be counted.
▪ We are building a grassroots movement — a “citizen firewall.” We will organize a pledge that brings the American people — especially in swing states — together to say, “Count me in, count every vote.” We will recruit people with large social-media followings to sign the pledge and encourage their followers to do so. And we will encourage organizations from across the ideological spectrum to endorse this pledge, so that all Americans — no matter who they vote for — can trust that their votes are counted this year.
Even during the Civil War, the 1918 flu pandemic, and World Wars I and II, the country was able to have valid, successful presidential elections. A failure of logistics or a brutal act of politics is no excuse for America to have its first broken election in our 240-year history. Americans must do whatever we can to preserve American democracy. We both have been to Normandy. We visited the cemetery that honors young Americans who hit the beach knowing their chances of survival were slim. History is asking comparably little of us today to preserve freedom. Surely we will respond to the call.
Dick Gephardt, a Democrat from Missouri, is a former House majority leader. Tom Ridge, a Republican from Pennsylvania, is a former governor of Pennsylvania who served as the first secretary of Homeland Security during the George W. Bush administration. Both are members of the National Council on Election Integrity.