As an American diplomat, I helped secure elections in Africa. Here’s what the US can learn from that experience.

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Women wearing masks pose behind a voter registration table in Union Square in New York City.
  • The 2020 US election's legitimacy is constantly under fire by President Trump.
  • As an American diplomat in Africa, I spent a lot of time defending democracy and helping to secure elections.
  • There are things I learned in my time there that would be helpful to secure our election here.
  • Brett Bruen was the director of global engagement in the Obama White House and a career American diplomat. He runs the crisis-communications agency Global Situation Room.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

During my stint as an American diplomat posted in Africa, I spent a lot of time defending and reinforcing democracy.  It never occurred to me that the lesson I learned in combating conspiracies and ensuring free elections might one day be applied in my home country.  But President Donald Trump is forcing me and many across our nation to rethink that faith in our system.  

Over the past few months, Trump has used the tactics of despots to try and undermine faith in our upcoming election. He has suggested he will send police to polling sites and threatened to ignore the will of the voters if he doesn't like the results.

In such a situation, we could find ourselves plunged into a chaotic, constitutional crisis. To avoid such a scary scenario, let me share how we attempted to disrupt the undemocratic designs of despots and disgruntled politicians in Africa.

Establish a baseline of legitimacy

The first lesson I learned about ensuring faith in elections was you have to start long before Election Day.  You cannot wait for the conspiracies to take hold.  It's too late when the candidate falsely claims victory and sends their most fervent followers out into the streets.  The clarity of expectations needs to be set far ahead of the attempts at clinging onto power.

Get people of influence on the record.  While this president may be unwilling to accept the outcome, there are many in his party that can help step in should he try to delegitimize the elections. 

During my time in Ivory Coast, Liberia, and Guinea, we used to get politicians and other prominent voices in the country to sign a pledge that no matter the victor, they would recognize the results.  Whether it's a formal statement or just a junior journalist asking, every effort ought to be made to get every local, state, and national leader to make that commitment.

What happens if there is a dispute?  There needs to be a well-defined plan and process.  Not only that allegations will go before the courts, but that parties and their candidates will refrain from incendiary statements and aggressive actions.  This can be one of the most critical steps.  

Providing time to properly investigate any issues reduces the likelihood they can be easily exploited or exacerbated.  It helps lower the temperature.  This needs to be part of the pledge made by a wide range of officials from both parties.  More than a vague promise, it needs to involve a set of specific commitments.

We don't have to depend entirely on others to secure such statements.  There is a lot that can be done by average citizens, civil society groups, and the press.  Those seeking and serving in public office should be asked at every event, in every interview, at each debate, if they will respect the outcome of the elections and resolve disputes through the courts.

It becomes much more difficult to cry foul when overwhelming evidence to the contrary exists.  There need to be robust, organized campaigns to observe every step of the election.  But, each of us can also be vigilant and record both what is working well, along with anything that goes wrong.

Getting elections right

In Africa, we used to support lots of training programs and resources on how to effectively observe elections.  It's about more than just empowering and equipping people to find fraud.  They also helped to serve as a very powerful deterrent against attempts to manipulate or claim manipulation of the process.

In the United States, we have simply grown too accustomed to letting someone else manage our elections.  We are overly confident that the process will be free and fair for all.  

Our democracy is now under an unprecedented assault.  We each have a solemn responsibility to stand up a strong defense.  The more Americans who stand watch over the voter rolls and registrations, voting process, as well as counting, the harder it will be to discredit the results.  But, our engagement shouldn't stop on Election Day. 

We can also just help educate our neighbors, friends, and family about how the process works.  The more they understand about how it should work, the more difficult will be the task of incorrectly convincing them that something went wrong.  Something as simple as recording yourself completing and sending on a mail-in ballot takes on increased importance.  It is also important to quickly address rumours and disinformation, as well as setting a clear, calm tone.

I will never forget the extraordinary spectacle of watching Liberians stand in long lines patiently waiting to vote in their first free election.  They stood outside in the oppressively hot, humid West African weather for hours.  In some cases, they waited longer than twelve hours.  There were also the local election observers who stayed on late into the night, even for days, until every last ballot was counted.  It is that deep dedication to democracy, no matter the personal difficulties, that we too must muster this year.  

It is a defining moment for our country that demands more from each of us.  We must not only support politicians, we must insist they support the process.  We must not only contribute our money, we must contribute our time and talents.  We must not only educate ourselves, but ensure we enhance the knowledge of others.  We must not only exercise our vote, but be extremely vigilant over the process. We must ensure that the political progress we inherited is not lost.

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