Opinion: Canada must observe U.S. vote

Canada needs its own eyes and ears on the ground, and soon

Canada has no plans right now to send an official team of observers to the U.S. election, government sources have confirmed.

But with Donald Trump’s increasing reluctance to see the vote as legitimate, Canada might want to start rethinking that decision in the days ahead.

This country has sent election observers to all kinds of fragile democracies over the years. The sad fact is that the United States, thanks largely to Trump, is fast becoming one of them.

If Trump decides to dispute the results of the Nov. 3 vote — as he appeared to indicate during this week’s raucous presidential debate — Canada needs its own eyes and ears on the ground, and soon.

Other international observer teams have already arrived. On Tuesday, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe set up a 40-plus member mission in the United States, with 11 experts based in Washington and 30 observers dispatched throughout the country.

“The mission will assess to what extent the elections are held in line with international obligations and standards for democratic elections, including the commitments agreed to by all OSCE countries, as well as with national legislation,” the news release stated.

Canada is a member of the OSCE, so technically, it does have some kind of election-observation presence for what is shaping up to be a wild democratic ride in the U.S.

But Trump’s escalating rhetoric around the very legitimacy of the vote would appear to call for more direct, formal observation from Canada, much like this country dispatched during the 2019 vote in Ukraine.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has ordered his own Liberals not to get involved in the U.S. election, but an observation team could be strictly non-partisan, maybe even including some high-profile former conservative prime ministers such as Stephen Harper or Joe Clark.

Clark has been doing international work in democracy for years now, including election observation around the world. Harper, during his time in power, sent three separate teams to watch elections in Ukraine, in 2010, 2012 and 2014.

Trudeau could argue that with so much for Canada and democracy at stake in the U.S. election, we are sending a blue-chip team to make sure we have our own information on how to regard the results.

Granted, Trump might take offence at the U.S. being treated as a democratically challenged nation, in need of adult supervision, but the president has only himself to blame if the world is starting to have doubts about how things are unfolding.

“It’s not going to end well,” Trump said — twice — when the subject of mail-in ballots came up during Tuesday night’s debate, also volunteering that it could be “months” before the official results are known.

The president also said: “I’m urging my supporters to go in to the polls and watch very carefully, because that’s what has to happen.”

Even better than Trump supporters, though, would be international, neutral teams of watchers, capable of assessing claims from either side about alleged fraud at the polls.

COVID-19, which is creating the need for so many mail-in ballots, has also made the act of election observation more difficult.

The Guardian reported this week that the pandemic, with its accompanying travel and health risks, has dramatically scaled back the expected number of international observers for the election — precisely when that act is most needed.

The delegation from the OSCE, for instance, is far smaller than originally envisioned in August, when it planned to send around 500 observers for the U.S. vote.

In an article this month in the Conversation, Timothy Rich from Western Kentucky University reported that most Americans would support international election monitors. In the surveys quoted by Rich, it was the people most concerned about catching COVID who wanted some kind of independent election observation.

Canada is already riveted to this spectacle in the United States. This election matters; democracy itself is being called into question by no less than the leader of the country and one of the chief contenders in this messy vote.

Serious people agree. Author and journalist Bob Woodward, who interviewed Trump 18 times for his new book Rage, has said he’s very worried about how Trump will deal with the Nov. 3 results.

On Wednesday, Woodward said this is a “big mess” and added: “I don’t know whether we have a process or leadership out there that can gather the remnants that are on the floor that Trump has shredded, just absolutely shredded and ignored, and put it back together.”

Independent election observation might help and Canada, as an avowed defender of democracy in vulnerable countries, should take part.

Susan Delacourt is a columnist with Torstar Syndication Services.

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