IRLS Discussion on Causes of and Solutions to Electoral Violence in the U.S. and around the World

Jacob Kostrzewski. Jacob is the International Rule of Law and Security and Washington, D.C. programs coordinator at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law.

Following a contentious election and post-election period in the United States, many Americans find themselves asking how their country arrived at a point where its “symbol of democracy,” the U.S. Capitol, was breached and ransacked, and the lives of legislators hiding within were threatened by a violent mob. The International Rule of Law and Security program’s director, Professor Julia Fromholz, convened a panel of experts on U.S. and international elections and U.S. constitutional law to examine the history of efforts, violent and not, to curb voter participation in the U.S. and the circumstances that led up to the January 6 insurrection. Panelists Dr. Stefanie Lindquist, Professor Joshua Sellers, and Mr. Vasu Mohan also analyzed examples of electoral violence abroad and how other countries have tried to deal with these challenges, and what could be done to decrease voter suppression, prevent further electoral violence, and strengthen electoral systems.

Significant democratic backsliding has taken place over the past two decades, and democracy around the world is in worse shape now than at any point this century, noted Dr. Lindquist,  ASU’s Senior Vice President for Global Academic Initiatives, and a professor of constitutional law at ASU Law. She highlighted growing disillusionment with democracy and frustration with political parties and institutions in the United States and around the world. These feelings are largely due to rising inequality, deindustrialization, and the collapse of communities in many of the world’s leading democracies. Democracies have struggled in their responses to many of the twenty-first century’s most destabilizing events, including the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Second Iraq War, the 2008 global financial crisis, and the COVID-19 pandemic.

It is against this backdrop, Dr. Lindquist argued, that an ever-increasing number of people living in democratic states have turned to support for authoritarian figures and beliefs in farfetched conspiracy theories. Conspiracy theories further undermine citizens’ trust in government and faith in democratic institutions, and provide a sort of sanctuary for adherents in tumultuous times. A large and increasing number of Americans turned to the QAnon conspiracy theory that arose during the tenure of former president Donald Trump; belief in this baseless theory, which alleges that horrifying crimes are being committed by top Democrats, has resulted in violence, including during the January 6 insurrection.

Dr. Joshua Sellers, professor of election law, constitutional law, and civil procedure at ASU Law, was quick to note that electoral violence is not new in the United States. Countless African-Americans have been lynched over the course of American history while attempting to vote. What differentiates the voter suppression and violence surrounding the 2020 election from past cases, Dr. Sellers noted, is the extent and magnitude of the attempts to undermine and delegitimize the 2020 election. Much of this blame lies with former president Trump, Dr. Sellers argued, as Trump was brazen about his assault on the democratic process.

Many of Mr. Trump’s supporters turned to outlandish (dis)information sources, conspiracy theories, and extremism to find validation for Trump’s allegations. A “mainstreaming of extremism” resulted, Dr. Sellers noted, and previously obscure groups such as the Proud Boys, Boogaloo Bois, and Oath Keepers became near-household names as they participated in the January 6 insurrection.

The situation is looking increasingly dire. The percentage of Americans on both sides of the aisle that believe violence is sometimes necessary to advance political goals has skyrocketed over the last four years, Dr. Sellers noted. Several newly elected members of Congress have openly advocated for violence or promoted dangerous conspiracy theories. These developments indicate that the electoral process is no longer the chief means of expressing political disagreements; extralegal and extrajudicial measures are being used both when voting will not achieve the desired result and simply to destabilize a society, Dr. Sellers warned.

Mr. Vasu Mohan, the Regional Director for Asia-Pacific at the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), agreed with the concerns raised by Drs. Lindquist and Sellers. He noted that the dangers of conspiracy theorists using social media to advocate for and plan physical violence was particularly concerning, as social media companies have little financial incentive to crack down on such groups.

Given IFES’ extensive overseas work, Mr. Mohan presented a case study outlining Indonesia’s recent efforts to prevent what could have been large-scale electoral violence fueled by disinformation on social media. A highly diverse country, Indonesia began to experience an uptick in hate speech and disinformation on social media targeting different groups and alleging electoral interference. In response, the Indonesian Broadcasting Commission, the General Election Commission, and other government bodies collaborated with civil society groups and community and religious leaders to debunk the disinformation. While there were limited allegations of fraud, widespread violence was avoided before and after Indonesia’s 2019 elections.

What can be done to prevent future political violence in the U.S.? Mr. Mohan believes that the solution is a longer-term one, starting with improvements to civic education. People need to be taught from a young age what democracy, citizenship, and active engagement entail and why they are important to the functioning of a democratic society. This education should continue through pluralistic discourse and increased media literacy in everyday life. In addition, electing more people of color, young people, and women as representatives to more accurately reflect a country as vast and diverse as the U.S. would build trust in institutions and government.

Dr. Sellers agreed with the need for civic education and noted other solutions, such as removing hate groups from the megaphones of social media. Social media allows extremist groups to build large audiences, raise money, and spread their ideologies widely and in a largely unchecked manner. He also stressed the importance of visible achievements by governments, restoration of norms, accountability for those who seek to undermine the election, and mass civil resistance. Dr. Lindquist warned that “cancel culture,” or the widespread ostracization of a person or group due to them holding objectionable beliefs, may backfire if it is not used carefully, however.

Democracy is not a point you arrive at, but a process you commit to, Mr. Mohan said during his presentation. Democracy is an experiment, and it is fragile, Dr. Sellers noted. We were fortunate that the 2020 election went as smoothly as it did, despite significant efforts to undermine it. Too many Americans today are not committed to democracy, for many of the reasons discussed by the panel. Rebuilding this commitment and faith in institutions is crucial to maintaining and advancing the democratic experiment in the United States.

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