The early October sun was shining through dust clouds in a parking lot of a rural polling place in western Kyrgyzstan. Voters inside the polling place, located near the border with Uzbekistan, were casting ballots in the 2015 parliamentary elections. Two international observers, one from Germany and one from the United States, had just finished their assignment at the polling place and climbed back into their vehicle to head toward the next several polling places they were expected to observe that day.
As their driver carefully maneuvered through potholes, a military vehicle transporting more than a dozen Kyrgyzstan troops had rolled into the lot and stopped near the front door of the polling place. “Wait!” shouted the German observer to the driver. “We have to go back. We have to go back immediately!” The observers knew military presence could mean trouble and must be reported. They went back and observed that the troops had shown up to vote and, after doing that, they left. All was well.
International observers sent to developing countries are routinely told to immediately report any evidence of military or police influence at polling places. Minority groups around the world, including in the United States, have for years reported that people find the presence of uniforms at the polls to be intimidating or as an attempt to use scare tactics to suppress voting. As officials in the United States confront the serious obstacles of conducting the upcoming election amid the coronavirus pandemic, the siren calls of “bring in the military” are starting to ring out.
It is easy to understand why, as the situation looks awful. Voters could risk their lives by simply going to polling places. Some states are incapable or politically unwilling to use a backup plan, such as sending qualified voters a ballot in the mail. The United States is facing a possible double whammy of a public health disaster and an election disaster. What do Americans do both during and after disasters? They look for assistance from the military and first from the National Guard. One Arizona state senator has called for the military to work at the polls. National Guard volunteers, out of uniform, also assisted at the polls in the recent election in Wisconsin.
So it looks like an easy call. But not so fast. Let us recall that elections run by civilians reside at the heart of our democracy. Let us keep in mind that elections free of military control are considered by international agencies as a sign of a robust democracy. Let us also remember that a country with elections run by the military is viewed around the world as a dictatorship. Our national predicament calls for partnerships and detailed planning to avoid a major dual calamity of a public health emergency and an election emergency. The role of the military, such as the National Guard, should be discussed in any disaster planning exercise. But troops should be brought in only as a last resort and under certain strict conditions.
In the event of a last resort, any arrangement for the National Guard or any other military command to help with elections during this pandemic must be conditioned on civilian officials retaining control over all administrative matters related to conducting elections. The military does not decide who gets to vote and who does not. The military has no role in counting votes and releasing results. Uniformed military must not not be allowed inside or near entrances of polling places. They must not carry weapons. Finally, the role of the military needs to be transparent. If military members out of uniform are working at polling places, for instance, details on what they are doing and who is supervising them must be disclosed.
Unfortunately, the public is now largely unaware that some states, such as Washington, have sought help from cybersecurity experts at the National Guard for their elections. The states are justifiably concerned about bad actors penetrating their voter registration and voting systems. However, this involvement of the military has to be disclosed to the public. What is their role? What specific cybersecurity expertise does the National Guard have that cannot be provided by civilians? What kind of access would the National Guard be given to voter registration and voting systems in order to assist states and the Homeland Security Department?
The United States has been regarded as the model democracy for years. We should continue to act as such no matter what the circumstances. We cannot afford to send a message to the world that ceding civilian control of any aspect of an election to the military is acceptable.
John Lindback served as a former director of elections in Oregon and past president of the National Association of State Election Directors. He is the first executive director with the Electronic Registration Information Center and was an international elections observer in Azerbaijan and Kyrgyzstan.