Larry Garber, an election law expert who spent his career advising emerging democracies on how to hold democratic elections, taught a course on U.S. and International Election Law to ASU Law students spending fall 2021 in Washington, D.C. Professor Garber also taught the course during fall 2020 amid the U.S. elections that year. The IRLS Dispatch sat down with Professor Garber to discuss the takeaways from the 2020 U.S. elections, his thoughts on democratic backsliding around the world, and his second year teaching at ASU Law. Note that the interview was carried out in September 2021.
IRLS Dispatch: Last year, the 2020 US Presidential Election overshadowed your semester-long US and International Election Law course. Is there any such issue this year?
Professor Garber: 2020 was an extraordinary year for anyone teaching election law, but it also was a bit surreal. This year is more typical. On the one hand, there are interesting developments happening around the globe, whether it is the fallout from the collapse of the government in Afghanistan, to the dissolution of the government in Tunisia to the coup in Guinea to upcoming elections in Nicaragua. At the same time, the US election law scene, as anybody reading a newspaper can attest, is incredibly dynamic: several election bills are being considered at the federal level, while states are debating a whole host of legislation, with many of the bills designed to make voting more difficult. And every week, or so it seems, a federal or state court is issuing a significant decision for those who follow election law developments. So, the pace is different then it was in 2020, but nonetheless quite exciting.
Dispatch: What are some of the main takeaways about the US electoral system from the 2020 elections?
Garber: A tough question to answer in limited space. I am, of course, grateful that the institutions proved capable of performing their assigned roles: election officials administered the elections with integrity, courts resolved election disputes expeditiously while respecting the sovereign right of the people to elect their leaders, and ultimately those elected were allowed to assume office in the constitutionally prescribed manner. However, without doubt, the system has suffered as a result of the constant barrage of bogus claims about fraud and the questioning of the legitimacy of those elected. The consequence is a diminution of the “social trust” that is essential for the success of any democracy. This reality highlights one of the themes that I try to communicate in the course: those who care about democracy must be ever-vigilant.
Dispatch: Democratic backsliding around the world is a widely discussed issue. Do you see any hopeful or positive cases or democratic developments around the world?
Garber: Absolutely! Although we tend to focus on the problem cases, as my earlier answer suggests, many countries have been conducting credible and effective elections during the pandemic without major problems. Indeed, two elections took place during this past summer, which were of particular interest to me given that I had served as an election observer in both Bulgaria and Zambia in the early 1990s, when they conducted their first competitive elections after decades of one-party rule.
In July, Bulgarians went to the poll for the second time in four months. Again, the outcome was quite close, with the two leading parties divided by less than half a percentage point. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) assessed the election as being “competitive” and with “fundamental freedoms being generally respected.” Unfortunately, no party has managed to form a majority coalition, and a third election is now anticipated before the end of the year.
In Zambia, the opposition presidential candidate defeated the incumbent by a 59-38 percent margin. While some of the incumbent’s supporters sought to cast doubt on the integrity of the process when the results were announced, strong statements by both domestic monitors and international observers validated the results, and the incumbent publicly conceded six days after the election.
Dispatch: What are you most looking forward to about teaching the class again this semester? And what would you like students to gain from the class?
Garber: I look forward to engaging the students on a series of challenging constitutional and political issues related to the conduct of elections. For example, we will discuss the future of the electoral college in the United States, alternatives to the first-past-the-post election systems that is used in most US elections, the particulars of this year’s redistricting process in the 50 states, and role of the courts in resolving electoral disputes. And, I expect the students to gain an appreciation of the influences that flow from one state to another, and from one country to another when we talk about the conduct of elections. Ultimately, I hope the students emerge as more informed citizens, who will contribute, each in their own way, to the strengthening of democracy in our country and worldwide.