Voters cast ballots at the Fairfax Government Center on Sept. 18, 2020 in Fairfax, Virginia.
Johannesburg CNN  — 

2020 is the year where the unlikely, even the unthinkable, can happen.

And election observers, organizers and commentators in Africa, Europe and the US fear that there are significant warning signs for the upcoming US elections.

With a pandemic shifting the nature of balloting and US President Trump and his surrogates relentlessly prejudging the result, questioning the fairness of the polls without evidence and rallying his hardcore base, they worry that a protracted poll could lead to a constitutional crisis and even violence.

Words matter

For months now, Trump and his campaign surrogates have questioned the integrity of the upcoming elections.

The President has encouraged voters to vote twice to test the system (it is crime to vote twice), he has claimed that foreign countries will print mail-in ballots to rig the election and called on his supporters to go to the polls and watch out for “thieving and stealing” on Election Day – and that’s only a partial list.

His claims about the vulnerabilities in the US voting process have little grounding in reality, as CNN’s fact checkers have repeatedly pointed out. But observers with experience in challenging elections abroad say the rhetoric itself is dangerous.

“I think that Trump is preparing us for the narrative of a rigged election. That has happened in other jurisdictions I have worked,” said Dren Nupen, a South African election expert.

Nupen has organized national and party elections throughout Southern Africa for decades and worked with a team preparing South Africans for their historic 1994 ballot.

“(Trump) is planting the seed in the mind of voters that this thing is not going to be fair. His ammunition is basically the voters. If he loses, then he can say that he knew there were issues with the vote and can mobilize them,” Nupen said.

Nupen cites Zimbabwe’s 2008 presidential election, where in the runup to a runoff with his main rival, supporters of incumbent Robert Mugabe violently targeted suspected opposition voters. Mugabe also allegedly used the military to lead some attacks, an intervention that appears inconceivable in the US – but the hyper-partisan atmosphere in America remains a cause for considerable concern.

In highly contested elections, it is not just the mechanics and fairness of the ballot, but also the political context of the election that matters.

“When you have armed citizens who now buy into this idea of an armed militia protecting the vote and when you have people on the other side saying they can’t take this anymore, there are all the ingredients for a very volatile situation,” said Ory Okolloh-Mwangi, a Kenyan political commentator and investment professional at the Omidyar network.

Okolloh-Mwangi has long pushed for greater transparency in election processes and her opinion about the US election is shared amongst several notable African political scientists.

Ken Opalo, a Georgetown University political scientist, has also raised the specter of “armed post-election violence” after seeing clashes over policing protests in the US this year.

Democracy’s gold standard?

There is, perhaps, no small amount of schadenfreude from international observers who, for years, were told by US officials that their country represents democracy’s gold standard.

“During elections I have run, African political analysts always thought that US observers had massive chutzpah to sit in judgment of our systems,” said Nupen.

The sentiment was likely reinforced when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted on Thursday that the US would consider consequences for those that “undermine democracy” across Africa, a continent with more than 50 nations.

South Africa’s Independent Electoral Commission has run six general elections including the historic 1994 vote with remarkably little fuss, given that many outsiders believed that the country would descend into anarchy ahead of its democratic transition.

The US electoral system, by comparison, is incredibly complex, with a highly decentralized election spread over more than 10,000 jurisdictions, making its success with elections notable. Despite the complexity, state and local officials in the US have succeeded in running highly contested elections since the country’s inception. Still, the behavior of the incumbent is widely seen as a caveat.

“I think you are starting to see a lot of what has preserved US democracy is decorum, not necessarily strong institutions, just good behavior,” said Okolloh-Mwangi. “I think Trump has pulled back the curtain,” she said.

Who will watch the election?

One key ingredient in contentious elections outside of the US are the neutral election observers representing countries or organizations like the Carter Center.

“If we were observing similar trends in another country, we would be concerned about this election and the tone of the election, the tone of the campaign and the pre-election environment,” says Avery Davis-Roberts, who manages the Carter Center’s Democratic Elections Standards project.

Started in 1982 by former US President Jimmy Carter, the center has observed 111 elections in 39 countries as part of its democracy program. An endorsement from the center is considered an important stamp of approval for a poll, particularly in a highly partisan environment or a recently democratized state.

In their ideal form, election observers assess the fairness of polls and are present before, during and after the election, where they sometimes assist with dispute resolution. In many developing countries, their assessments are seen as key factors in funding decisions by donor countries.

The Carter Center had never gotten involved in a US election – until this year. Citing polarization, lack of public confidence, obstacles for minority groups along with continued racial injustice and Covid-19, it is embarking on a program to increase transparency and public information. Even by its own admission, these are modest proposals, however, not poll watching.

While she credits local and state officials with taking extraordinary measures to give Americans confidence in the fairness and safety of their vote, Davis-Roberts laments the recent rise of doubts about the process, fueled from the very highest government offices.

“There is such faith in US democracy here and faith in the election process. It is such a cornerstone of our national identity, the fact that we are even having this conversation is distressing to many Americans,” he said.

Civil society, Republican and Democratic party officials and volunteers do routinely observe US elections with rules of engagement varying from state to state. International observers are few and far between, though one exception is the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) that does send observers to the US for presidential and midterm elections. Observers need to be invited by a government to participate and membership to the OSCE requires it.

This year will be a little different, though. The OSCE’s monitoring group, the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), had planned to send a record number of observers for an election it calls the “most challenging in decades.” But because of Covid-19 restrictions, it will have a reduced observer presence to cover a vast and complex election.

Do they matter?

Scale is just one of the obstacles for observer missions.

Primarily, as guests of the government, they are prone to being ignored or turfed out when an election gets controversial – particularly if an incumbent is accused of election shenanigans.

Marietje Schaake knows this firsthand. A former member of European Parliament and now a director at Stanford University’s Cyber Policy Center, she has been part of EU observer missions to Kenya, Nigeria, Lebanon, Kosovo and Kyrgyzstan.

In the case of the highly contested Kenyan elections of 2017 that were annulled by the Supreme Court because of alleged irregularities and rerun later that year with the opposition boycotting – Schaake’s team was barred from even entering the country to deliver its report.

Schaake said that it is important not to overplay the impact of Trump’s rhetoric, and that the United States’ historical precedent of highly contested, yet peaceful, elections is critical when evaluating November’s election.

But she says voting, vote counting, and a peaceful and accepted result, should never be taken for granted – especially for someone from a continent that has suffered through two world wars. “As a European, you have to be realistic. Everything is possible if you don’t defend what is precious. I do believe that democracy needs permanent defending and advancing,” she said.