The author is Professor at Oxford University and Senior Fellow of the Hoover Institution
Democracies everywhere must prepare in vivid memory for the contingency of a controversial outcome in the major US elections.
Out of the disorder surrounding the controversial elections in 2000, they should adopt an informally coordinated stance. If you listen to international election observers, you should wait until the extraordinarily complex, decentralized US system produces a clear result. The measured clarity of the other democracies can marginally contribute to a more civilized US process and significantly calm the international environment in connection with this feverish competition.
In 2000, foreign leaders were everywhere. Among other things, the German President first congratulated the candidate George W. Bush and then withdrew his congratulations. It took five weeks and the Bush Supreme Court verdict v Gore to clarify.
The situation is much worse today than it was in 2000. Due to Covid-19, more than half of all voters are considering voting by mail. That would make things difficult even if the US had a climate of Buddhist calm. But its political and media landscape is now so hyperpolarized that each side has its own facts that are not facts at all for the other.
US President Donald Trump has furiously expressed distrust of the legitimacy of the electoral process and, in particular, of postal votes. "This is going to be the most corrupt election in American history!" He tweeted recently.
The international context is also less favorable. In 2000, the US appeared to be the only "hyperpower" and democracy triumphed around the globe. Now the US is being challenged globally by an authoritarian China and there is a democratic recession all over the world.
Trump vs Biden: Who will lead the 2020 polls?
Use the FT's interactive calculator to see which states are most important to winning the presidency
If recent polls lead to votes in battlefield states, there may be no need to activate these contingency plans. If Democrat Joe Biden won major swing states on election night, the Republicans in charge should immediately tell the president that he must accept the result.
Given that more Democratic than Republican voters are calling for postal votes, it is entirely possible that Mr Trump would be at the top of the night and then Mr Biden would move forward with the postal vote count. This "blue shift" scenario could spell days and even weeks of furious disputes, from polling stations to county, city and state electoral offices to state and federal courts.
In an even worse case, the outcome could depend on a decision by a Supreme Court, the composition of which is itself the subject of violent party political disagreements: a replay of Bush versus Gore, but of steroids. In the worst case, the controversy could extend into January 2021 in the face of possible violence, market panic and global dismay.
A calm, deliberate approach from the world's other democracies will be most relevant in the “blue shift” scenario. These countries will have thousands of diplomats and journalists on the ground. The US and international media will be covering this event extensively, and Facebook and Twitter will go to great lengths to contain misinformation. While the facts are controversial, that doesn't mean there won't be any facts. It is an important task of liberal democracies to adhere to these facts and to stand up for them.
They can rely on an election surveillance mission from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, of which the United States is a member. It has carried out around 370 election observation missions in 30 years and, with the help of the US, has developed best benchmarking practices for rigor and impartiality. The OSCE Mission has just submitted an interim report and will hold a press conference in Washington the day after election day.
If the dispute is resolved by the Supreme Court, as it was in 2000, the world's democracies will certainly have to accept its judgment. Stanford University's Nathaniel Persily argues, however, that long before such a high noon of the judiciary, the actions of countless local and state officials in the 10,000+ jurisdictions involved and by judges of lower courts will be decisive. Some will be biased, but the majority will be Americans who work to ensure that this time-honored, if somewhat dilapidated, process is as free and fair as it can be in an age of Covid-19, populism and paranoia. You deserve our silent support.
The stakes are so high for all of us. In the worst case scenario, it could mean another downward slide in a global democratic recession. At best, this could be the beginning of a broader, global democratic renewal, so that government of the people by the people for the people does not perish from the earth.