Washington, October 28, 2020 — With less than a week to go before the November 3 general elections, Freedom House is calling on politicians, journalists, and other public figures to take a series of precautionary measures that will help ensure a peaceful democratic exercise in which all eligible voters may participate, all valid votes are counted, and defeated candidates accept the final outcome.
For the past 80 years, Freedom House has worked to support the global expansion of democracy and human liberty. The organization was founded on the understanding that the United States, as the world’s most influential democracy, has an essential part to play in this struggle.
“A breakdown in the American democratic process would do irreparable damage not only to this country, but also to the cause of freedom in every country where people look to the United States for solidarity and leadership,” said Michael J. Abramowitz, president of Freedom House.
To support safe and fair elections, it is crucial that politicians, journalists, and other public figures take the following steps:
- Promote the rule of law: In public statements and reporting on the voting, counting, and certification processes, emphasize adherence to electoral laws and the proper adjudication of any disputes in the state and federal courts. Citizens should understand that rules and procedures are in place, that everyone must abide by them, and most importantly, that the system is equipped to address any violations without the need for extralegal intervention.
- Manage expectations: Do not declare victory prematurely. Candidates and campaigns should wait for ballots to be counted and results to be confirmed, or for their opponents to concede defeat. Media outlets should similarly refrain from declaring results based on exit polls, and hold off on calling outcomes until the share of votes still to be counted—including mail-in ballots—is smaller than the current gap between the candidates. Political leaders and journalists should consistently inform the public that final results may not be immediately available, that this was expected given procedural changes related to the pandemic, and that the extra time is being used to determine the people’s will according to the law. Americans should be reminded that a slower process does not indicate fraud or rigging, and that instances of fraud are extremely rare.
- Avoid incitement: Avoid using careless or inflammatory language that may incite violence, undermine the public’s faith in final election results, or have the effect of distorting, disrupting, or truncating the voting, counting, or adjudication processes. Local public officials should remain in close contact with their communities and prepare for responsible management of protests, with an emphasis on calming and deescalating tense situations. Peaceful demonstrations that do not violate electoral rules should be protected, and opposing groups of protesters should be kept at a safe distance from one another.
- Provide context: If there are cases of violence or electoral dysfunction, make every effort to provide appropriate detail and context when discussing and responding to them. Do not offer generalizations based on a limited or uncertain set of facts, and do not exaggerate the scale or impact of isolated incidents. Extreme or fringe developments and activities should be clearly identified as such and contrasted with prevailing conditions. Accounts of disturbances or irregularities at certain locations should not leave citizens with a false impression of widespread disorder.
- Check wayward colleagues: It is especially vital for public figures to speak out and correct those in their own political party, on their own side of the political spectrum, or in their own news organization or company who stray from the basic principles of democracy or otherwise err in ways that harm the electoral process. All must recognize that the integrity and continuity of the American democratic system takes precedence over any partisan or personal interests that may benefit in the short term from irresponsible speech or activity—or from silence in the face of such speech or activity.
Freedom House is an independent watchdog organization that supports democratic change, monitors the status of freedom around the world, and advocates for democracy and human rights. www.freedomhouse.org