In addition to human rights experts from ODIHR, more than 70 election monitors were sent to the USA by the OSCE.
Election observers were sent to seven states plus Washington, D.C. Leading up to Election Day, the ODIHR had been observing a broader scope of the election process as part of a long-term observation mission, including campaign financing, freedom of the press, and early voting operations.
Junnila, who is the chairman of the Finnish delegation to the OSCE PA, felt it was his mission to participate. He has observed elections in many countries, including those with fledgling democracies.
Junnila visited a dozen polling sites in Wisconsin, one of the battleground states that Trump won in 2016 against former Secretary of State and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, but that Joe Biden flipped in 2020. Trump has asked for a recount of population centres that had a high percentage of Biden votes in Wisconsin to dispute Biden’s victory. “My group concentrated on Kenosha, Milwaukee and Racine,” Junnila explains, “but of course we also met with a wide variety of different officials, researchers, and party officials.”
Junnila explained why he was particularly drawn to those sites: “The OSCE PA hand-picked the locations based on input from long-term observers, but I was able to influence our secretariat to consider Kenosha and Racine counties in Wisconsin. My group was the only one going there. Kenosha became known for the riots after the death of Jacob Blake and Racine is known as a bellwether county. They have voted for the president in every election except in 1988, well, until now.”
Junnila describes some of the rare individual problems that occur in the U.S. electoral process. “Dead people voted. Ballot-harvesting. People voted twice. People voted in a state they no longer lived. Party observers were not allowed inside some locations. There were errors in counting. Filling of missing addresses to some of the ballots after the polling station had closed,” he describes but concludes that these instances were not widespread enough to alter the outcome of the election. That is because it is not unusual to find individual instances of voting impropriety, however, these are not significant enough to change the outcome of elections wherein the margins are so large. “Problems and abuses were not detected on a scale that the campaigns suggest,” stated Junnila in a press release from the OSCE PA, “Voting on election day and the counting of advance votes has generally proceeded properly.”
Kauma visited three polling places in Washington, D.C, and six polling sites just outside of the city in Arlington, Virginia, and described that she had been in the nation of Georgia observing their parliamentary elections until 31 October 2020, which influenced why she ended up observing election offices there. “I decided to stay there in order to avoid too much heavy traveling. And I had been there also in the 2012 and 2014 elections as an observer. It felt like a good idea to make a comparison.”
When election observers from the OSCE PA arrive, she explained, they are briefed on a comprehensive report from the ODIHR, as well as members of the Republican and Democratic Parties, on their findings of what has occurred leading up to the election, as well as what they should pay special attention to when visiting polling sites.
Kauma has a keen interest in supporting democracies by serving as an election observer. “I think that the most important thing regarding elections that we do as politicians in Finland is to look outside our borders. Going to another country to observe their elections and learn about their political system gives you both an idea of what is happening in those countries, as well as food for thought about your own country.”
Biden won both the national popular vote and the majority of electoral college votes. The final electoral college tally was for President-elect Biden at 306-232, flipping Republican President Trump’s 2016 result against Clinton. Trump has refused to concede the election accusing election officials of vast voter fraud, claiming that he was the rightful winner of the election. Kauma disagrees, “I think it is wrong for Trump to challenge the results. In countries like the U.S., where the system relies on the rule of law, you have to bring proof if you claim fraud.”
Although the election was called by most news sources the Saturday following the election, after Democratic President-elect Joe Biden secured the electoral votes necessary to win the election, there is still a period of “canvassing,” which involves counting every ballot, verifying that each ballot is valid, and auditing the results of the election before the results are certified by each state.
Kauma explained that the exceptionally high number of absentee and mail-in ballots due to COVID-19 altered the attendance at polling sites she visited. “Normally, there would be a lot of people at the polling stations on Election Day,” she said, “but this time there were only a handful of people there because most people had already voted. That is perhaps why it is taking so long to count the ballots.”
Junnila described the stark difference between polling places in urban centres versus rural locations. “In the cities [polling sites] were orderly with not too many people in the queue, but in the countryside, it was very busy,” he said. “Of course, this was expected, since most of the Democratic voters voted absentee and the Republicans were expected to turn out to vote on Election Day.”
On the night of the election, Trump prematurely claimed victory in a speech fraught with lies and accusations. Strangely enough, he demanded that the counting of ballots be stopped in Michigan and Pennsylvania, where Biden’s lead slowly overtook Trump’s as mail-in ballots began to be processed and counted, but he asked that Arizona “count every vote,” where the remaining ballots were expected to be predominately voters registered to the Republican Party.
In stark contrast to Trump’s speech, Joe Biden refused to claim victory on the night of the election, instead calling for patience to allow that every vote be counted. This was a message echoed by Michael Georg Link, special coordinator and leader of the short-term OSCE observer mission: “Nobody – no politician, no elected official – should limit the people’s right to vote. Coming after such a highly dynamic campaign, making sure that every vote is counted is a fundamental obligation for all branches of government.”
8 December 2020 is the deadline for resolving election disputes at the state level, including all recounts and court contests, where Trump is currently hoping to change the outcome of the election. After that, electors in each state will cast their ballots in the Electoral College according to the winner of the popular vote in each state (with the exception of Nebraska and Maine, where a different approach is used with split electoral votes based on a “congressional district method”). This curious distinction resulted in Trump’s victory in 2016 despite losing the national popular vote to Clinton.
The U.S. does not have a national election standard—it varies from state to state and within each state, county to county, with election boards and commissions granted autonomy to determine their own voting standards.
Junnila spelled out how this might complicate the election process. “The biggest problem with their system is the decentralisation, but I am not sure there is enough political will from the main parties to make any drastic measure to improve it from that point of view. But I hope they do make small improvements to it, because the biggest problem is their lack of trust in the system. I would recommend that they pass a federal law about the registration of voters and improve their census system as well.”
The unique manner in which elections are conducted in the U.S. was acknowledged by Kauma but did not complicate her mission while observing the election process. “The process in the U.S. is very different than in other countries that I’ve visited,” Kauma explained. “If you talk to observers who visited Michigan or California, I’m sure they probably have a different impression based on the rules there. However, when you visit a polling place, it is your job to observe how the election workers are operating under the rules of their state.”
“In the U.S. you talk about elections in a plural sense—there are many elections happening at the same time, for example, for Congress, local elections, laws, school measures,” said Kauma. “When an American voter goes into a polling place to vote they have to take a stance on many things at once. In Finland, we only have to take a stance on one issue at a time.”
In an unprecedented move, Trump withheld millions of dollars in federal funds to Biden meant to aid the peaceful transition from one administration to the next, forcing Biden’s transition committee to seek private donations for their work. After elections officials in Michigan certified Biden’s victory in that state, Trump agreed to release the transition funds and to begin the process of a peaceful transition to the Biden administration, although Trump has expressed a goal of still reversing the election results in the courts.
Junnila does not believe that Trump’s initial refusal to work with the transition team amount to breaking the law. “There is no strict rule that the Trump campaign is actually breaking here. Of course, this is with the expectation of him respecting the firm deadline in December and the deadline given for inauguration.”
Further, Junnila explained that many recounts have yet to be completed. “States like Georgia are just now finishing and confirming their results, so it remains to be seen if [Trump] will make further statewide challenges. But it will be difficult to prove any widespread fraud, because it doesn’t seem to be there—at least not anything major.”
Trump has challenged the results in several states in a variety of lawsuits, attempting to reverse the outcome of the election in his favour, but no court challenge has of yet gained any ground. This has prompted President Trump to adopt a number of different accusations of fraud for each state.
In Pennsylvania, he has asked his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani to represent him in federal court to halt Biden’s certification as the winner of the state. In question in that lawsuit are a number of ballots in a number of Pennsylvania counties that allowed voters to “cure,” or correct, technicalities on their mail-in ballots such as forgetting their middle initial on their signature. Despite being fully legal under Pennsylvania elections law, their argument there is that the same option is not offered in counties that favoured Trump. Giuliani’s case was dismissed by the judge, and Pennsylvania certified its election results 24 November 2020.
In Georgia, officials finished a hand recount of 5 million votes and announced confirmation of Biden’s victory on 20 November 2020. The results were certified by election officials in the state.
In a bizarre turn of events in Wayne County, Michigan, which includes Detroit, which is traditionally a perfunctory vote by the local canvassing board to certify election results, two Republican members refused to certify the election in a move meant to support Trump. After backlash pointing out that they had singled out precincts with predominately Black voters, the two members reversed their votes and voted to certify the election. Later, they tried to rescind their votes to certify the results, claiming they felt bullied (their vote is still binding, however, and those results have been certified). One of those voters later admitted that Trump called her to thank her for her efforts to help him, which is a highly unusual point of contact intended to influence an election board member’s decisions. Trump invited Republican leaders of Michigan’s state legislature to the White House to discuss reversing the state’s popular vote, although they certified their results on 23 November 2020.
Many expected Trump to reject the results of the election after he stated that the election would be fraudulent if he lost beginning with the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic. As states began to change voting requirements to allow social distancing by voting by mail, Trump began to inaccurately characterise mail-in voting as inherently fraudulent, despite the fact that he himself votes by mail in Florida. This was because mail-in voting tends to favour Democratic candidates over Republicans.
Junnila acknowledges some of the worries but ultimately doesn’t feel they had a significant impact on the results. “Voting by mail in the United States is somewhat troublesome because states have different legislation and deadlines,” he explained, “and considering the registration and verification of voters’ eligibility is challenging. The United States does not have a proper federal identification process, nor do they have a reliable way to verify a voter’s address and so forth. So, yes, I do understand the concerns and this is something they need to address in the future. However, neither we nor the election officials or the party observers noticed anything wide scale that would affect the results of this election.”
Trump’s allegations of fraud leading up to the election did influence the mission of the election observers. “We knew that our task would be even more important because the President was claiming that there would be fraud,” Kauma explains. Kauma describes how eager election workers were to demonstrate the fairness and accuracy of voting when she visited their sites because of Trump’s inflammatory accusations. “We were welcomed at polling stations, said Kauma, explaining that their presence there brought them a sense of security, “The polling station workers welcomed us also in the sense that they felt it was a good idea to have an ‘outside organization’ to make sure that everything goes as planned and report if there is something wrong.”
Junnila did describe a bad experience at a polling site in Racine, Wisconsin. “There was a polling station that was run very strictly, and we were limited in terms of observation. We were also treated very badly and told not to ask any questions. While we still did, some of them turned to another observer from the Democratic Party for answers. It seemed very odd and we underlined it in our internal report.”
The election observers had specific things that they were looking for when visiting polling sites. One of the claims that Trump made was that people could vote twice with a mail-in ballot (he even encouraged his supporters to attempt to do this in North Carolina, which is a felony under US law). “When we visited a site, we would go to the chief election worker at each site and asked them to demonstrate to us how they would know if a voter had already voted,” Kauma describes. “In polling places, they would show us their voter registration list—in some places, it was a physical book, and in others, it was an electronic device like a tablet.” When a voter had voted, that would be indicated on that voter’s registration file. Kauma concludes, “I believe this is a fairly reliable system.”
Trump admitted that it was his goal to slow the delivery of mail-in ballots in an interview with Fox Business Network in August. Referencing two funding sources held by Republican lawmakers in Congress, he said, “If we don’t make a deal, that means they don’t get the money,” Trump told host Maria Bartiromo. “That means they can’t have universal mail-in voting; they just can’t have it.”
In addition to this, Trump used an ally that he appointed as Postmaster General of the United States Postal Service (USPS), Louis DeJoy, to slow the delivery of mail-in ballots. DeJoy made several moves that slowed mail delivery rates, including the removal of mail-sorting machines, ostensibly as a cost-saving measure. However, the backlash over the move was so great that DeJoy was asked to testify before Congress and eventually conceded that he would reverse the cost-cutting measures entirely.
Despite Trump’s efforts to undermine the results in the election, the groups are confident that the election went smoothly.
On a broader note, Kauma said, “No, democracy is not in jeopardy in the U.S. It was important that they didn’t try to postpone the elections. It is a good sign that they kept to their regular election schedule, and I would encourage other countries to find a way to have their elections safely in spite of coronavirus. If they don’t, democracy is at risk. Democracy requires that elections happen on schedule to survive. Those in power will have a tendency to abuse their power if they have the opportunity to.”
Regarding what happens next to the U.S., Junnila is not optimistic. “The Republicans are questioning the viability of the election process and the Democrats think Trump undermines democracy, so you can just feel how the political divide is ever deepening and there is not much either Trump or Biden could do about it—well, except add fuel to the fire,” Junnila said. “There won’t be unity.”
Kauma, however, has hope for Americans, “I don’t see the future as gloomy as Junnila. I think it greatly depends on the new president and his team as a whole, what will happen. Will the political divide grows even deeper or will people find their unity as Americans, not just as Republicans or as Democrats? I think it is possible for the new leader to unify the nation, but it probably will not happen overnight. It will happen gradually, as the world will find its way to recover from the global pandemic.”
Overall, based on the reports of more than 70 observers; the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) and the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA), the conclusion was that there were no problems on a large scale and that President Donald Trump’s allegations of widespread electoral fraud were unfounded.
President-elect Biden is expected to be sworn into office on Inauguration Day, 20 January 2021.
For a full list of election results certification deadlines in the United States, click here.
Helsinki Times: 25.11.2020