Protecting American democracy: a conversation with Larry Diamond

Aug. 26, 2020, 9:23 a.m.

This article is the second in a series on how Stanford faculty, students and community members are preparing for and taking part in the 2020 election.

Some Stanford election experts worry that the American right to a free and fair election is in jeopardy. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to ravage the United States, there is a growing consensus among experts that the ongoing and escalating effects of the pandemic have the potential to devastate the upcoming U.S. election and American democracy at large. 

“We are at greater risk of an unhealthy election than at any time in decades, probably in my lifetime,” said Stanford political science professor Larry Diamond B.A. ’75 M.A. ’78 Ph.D. ’80, who is also a Freeman Spogli Institute (FSI) senior fellow, a Hoover Institution senior fellow and the former director of the Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law (CDDRL). The Daily spoke with Diamond about his concerns for the 2020 election and the potential for a post-election crisis.

“Unfortunately, we are at a point this year in American democracy where our system of electoral administration is severely challenged,” he said, “not only by the COVID-19 pandemic, but by the growth of disinformation and distrust in general, by the decay of voting machines and by the lack of adequate funding and technological modernization of the electoral administration in the United States.”

Diamond expressed concern regarding a combination of factors beyond just the effects of the pandemic — including political polarization, the declining trust in public officials and public administration and the transition of many voting systems to new machines and untested new technologies — that put much more pressure on the state, county and local electoral administrations to oversee an unprecedented number of mail-in ballots. 

“We’ve never faced this kind of test before,” he said.

Among the biggest obstacles to voter turnout are voters’ fears of going to a physical polling station and the possibility that there will be some sort of effort to hinder the delivery of mail-in ballots. With increasingly worrisome reports about the health of the United States Postal Service (USPS) and its ability to process the expected increase of mail-in ballots, many states are appealing to the Supreme Court to extend the deadline by which votes must be tallied. Opposition to mail-in voting from the Trump Administration has further complicated the conversation. In addition, the newly-appointed postmaster general has recently called for the removal of mail processing machines across the country.

Diamond repeatedly emphasized that there is no evidence that mail-in balloting is systematically vulnerable to fraud. He added that there are a lot of precautions taken to secure mail-in balloting that have been established over time, and “it’s very important that people vote and let the electoral administrators do their job.”

The threat of an unhealthy election goes beyond Nov. 3, as experts are increasingly concerned about a post-election crisis, which could be “unprecedentedly dangerous if there’s a close and disputed election,” according to Diamond.

Diamond warned that the extra time necessary to count the significantly higher number of mail-in ballots could lead to charges of fraud. He emphasized the importance for political leaders to behave responsibly and to encourage trust in the electoral process — in contrast to the behavior of the current president, whom Diamond believes has an inclination to foment distrust and division surrounding the integrity of the election.

Diamond noted that “the ambiguities of election law for the presidential election are so serious that there is very real scope for a post-election crisis unlike anything we’ve seen in modern times, with the level of intolerance, distrust, misinformation, disinformation, anger, polarization, mobilization in the streets, and now violence, including state violence that we’re now seeing in the United States.”

“If you lay on top of that, a post-election crisis wherein each candidate is claiming to be the next president of the United States, I really fear for our country,” he added.

Diamond sees cause for concern because, at a superficial level, Americans say they support democracy and think it’s important to live in a democratic country. That said, when you ask Americans “whether they would reject the results of an election whose outcome they don’t like, whether they would be willing to use violence to protest the election if their candidate loses, then it becomes much more alarming.”

Diamond co-authored a study, “Democracy Maybe: Attitudes on Authoritarianism in America,” which found that 57% of Democrats and 29% of Republicans would support a re-vote in the event of foreign interference and claims of illegal voting, respectively. These facts become more concerning when considering that a fifth of both Republicans and Democrats say that they think that violence would be “justified at least a little” if their candidate loses the presidential election, and one in 10 say that there would be “a great deal” or “a lot” of justification for violence in this event. Diamond noted that this data was collected in November and December, “before we reached the even more feverish pitch of polarization and distrust of the whole electoral process that we’ve already arrived at — and that we expect to get worse.”

To ensure that the 2020 election can proceed with integrity, safety and equal access, Diamond believes the most important thing the federal government could do would be to allocate more money and more technological assistance to the states and counties. Diamond believes that the federal government needs to give the state and county election officials three billion dollars in financial assistance to ensure that states have the best possible voting machines, tested and proven to be functionally efficient. In the first economic relief bill, only 400 million was appropriated.

Other solutions, according to Diamond, would be for the federal government to ensure the Department of Homeland Security scans the internet for disinformation about the election; to have a vigorous disinformation countering campaign to combat misleading or false information about the election; and to work with social media companies to promptly remove blatantly false information from their platforms. This would manage foreign and domestic cyberattacks and disinformation in ways that could maintain the United States election process. Other election experts have also been proposing strategies for preserving electoral integrity.

Diamond believes that, “ultimately, what sustains democracy is a deep and unconditional belief in its legitimacy,” and that a key to this belief is that its country’s citizens are dedicated to their political system more than their partisan desires. Diamond is concerned about a loss of faith in our democracy’s legitimacy, given the current national situation: “We have a lot of work to convince people that the election will matter.”

Diamond added that “we have to work together to calm people down, shoot down disinformation, promote patience and trust in the system, encourage people to register to vote and vote early where possible, and ensure that we have enough healthy poll workers on Nov. 3 so that the polls can be managed and staffed securely and effectively.”

Those planning to vote can confirm their eligibility on their state’s Secretary of State website. California voters can obtain additional voting information online. Information on volunteering as a poll worker on Election Day can be found on the U.S. Election Assistance Commission site.

Contact Jack Murawczyk at dmurawczyk23 ‘at’

Jack Murawczyk is a high schooler writing as part of The Daily's Summer Journalism Program.

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