US: 10 Steps for Safe, Credible Elections

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A voter wearing a mask to protect against coronavirus lines up at Riverside High School for the Wisconsin primary election on April 7, 2020, in Milwaukee.
© 2020 AP Photo/Morry Gash

(Washington, DC) – Local, state, and federal officials in the United States should follow 10 fundamental principles to promote safe and credible elections on November 3, 2020, Human Rights Watch said today.

The principles, drawn from international human rights law, provide a roadmap for rights protections by election officials, law enforcement, and other authorities at all levels of government. Officials and social media companies have human rights responsibilities to prevent and mitigate incitement to violence and discrimination on their platforms.

“Election officials at all levels in the US should approach their jobs with laser-focus and not be distracted by rhetoric, spin, and frivolous lawsuits,” said Nicole Austin-Hillery, executive director of the US Program at Human Rights Watch. “Voting is a fundamental right, and officials have a duty to let every voter vote and to count every ballot cast.”

Some measures that election officials adopted to address the Covid-19 pandemic during primaries earlier this year impeded the right to vote or had racially discriminatory effects, Human Rights Watch said. Officials should ensure that all mandated voting methods, whether in-person or by mail, are accessible to all voters.

Recent threats and violence by extremist groups have highlighted the need for authorities to take steps to protect the rights of voters and protesters, Human Rights Watch said.

“Officials in the US are obligated to protect everyone from threats, harassment, and violence,” Austin-Hillery said. “State and federal authorities should actively work to prevent and investigate violence by white supremacist and other groups, and alleged collusion by police or other security forces.”

Human Rights Watch, together with the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), on October 7, sent a letter signed by 58 groups to Attorney General William Barr and Federal Bureau of Investigations Director Christopher Wray, calling on them to take action to protect against white supremacist violence during the election period.

Human Rights Watch has documented recent abuses by law enforcement at protests in the United States, and has urged the federal government not to deploy to protests agencies that lack meaningful crowd control training or have a record of human rights abuses. Law enforcement officers are obligated to uphold the right to peaceful assembly and not engage in excessive use of force or arbitrary arrests.

Internet intermediaries, like social media platforms, also have a responsibility to respect human rights and mitigate harm – such as incitement to violence – resulting from their business practices. The principles that should guide local, state, and federal officials, as well as social media companies where relevant, are as follows:

Ensure that all eligible voters are able to exercise their right to vote by effectively communicating about voting procedures, making various voting options readily available and accessible, and adopting additional measures as needed.
Ensure the right to vote without discrimination or discriminatory effects.
Protect the right to health while voting and during election-related activities.
Provide prompt review, appeal, and remedy for voting rights violations.
Allow unfettered monitoring by impartial, non-partisan election observers.
Keep the right to vote and the “will of the people” at the center of ballot counting.
Prevent voter intimidation and violence by extremist and other groups before, during, and after the elections.
Ensure access to accurate electoral information; act to prevent or mitigate rights abuses.
Ensure the right of peaceful assembly.
Minimize arrests and use of force in responding to protests.

Concerned countries and international human rights bodies, including the United Nations, Human Rights Council, and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, should monitor the rights situation in the United States during the election period and be prepared to speak out in support of basic rights. They should not prematurely endorse an election result, which could have political ramifications.

“The roadmap to safe and credible US elections can be found in respecting human rights,” Austin-Hillery said. “Local, state, and national authorities as well as social media companies have important roles to play in protecting the fundamental rights of US voters and others. The international community should be monitoring these concerns closely.”