With millions of votes being cast across the country, President Trump, faring badly in the polls, is working overtime to undermine voter confidence in the election. From attacking mail-in ballots to refusing to commit to a peaceful transfer of power, he is behaving like any wannabe autocrat. For anyone familiar with the authoritarian playbook, Trump’s attempts to cast doubt on the election, suppress votes, foment violence, and insist that he can only lose the election if it’s rigged are all too predictable. So, too, is the time-tested formula for preventing a stolen election while keeping the peace: winning decisively at the polls, protecting the results through organized civic pressure and disrupting violence through active nonviolence.
That strategy may be pivotal here. Fortunately, there is a long history of mobilizing in the face of repression in the United States and great deal of recent international experience to draw on, as the popular campaigns to resist stolen elections in Serbia, Ukraine and the Gambia show us.
In the lead-up to the 2000 presidential election in Serbia, a pro-democracy movement called Otpor knew that President Slobodan Milosevic, then deeply unpopular, would attempt to lie, cheat and bully his way to victory. He ordered police and paramilitary groups to beat up, arrest and imprison dissidents and publicly declared Otpor a terrorist organization. Otpor, meanwhile, trained its members in nonviolent discipline, had a strategy for fraternizing with police and deployed women to the frontlines of protests. As expected, following a massive get out the vote effort, Milosevic declared victory over the opposition candidate, Vojislav Koštunica, amidst evidence of widespread vote tampering confirmed by thousands of poll monitors. Otpor organized nationwide protests, many laden with humor, and coal miners launched a massive strike, creating economic pressure and prompting Milosevic to step down.
Something similar happened in Ukraine’s 2004 presidential election pitting the popular opposition leader, Victor Yushchenko, against the Russian-backed Prime Minister, Viktor Yanukovic. Yanukovic declared victory in the run-off election despite contradictory evidence from exit polls showing Yushchenko the clear winner. As evidence of ballot tampering emerged — and after the compromised Central Election Commission declared Yanukovic the winner — over a million people rallied in Kiev and strikes were launched across the country. Faced with overwhelming numbers of peaceful protesters, members of the security forces defected and refused to obey orders to crack down. The parliament eventually sided with the people and the Supreme Court declared Yanukovic’s victory fraudulent, paving the way to a new run-off vote, which Yushchenko won handily.
In the Gambia, the people voted out strongman President Yahya Jammeh in the 2016 presidential election, choosing opposition leader Adama Barrow. After Jammeh initially said he would accept the results of the election, he then changed his mind and refused to concede power. In response, activists adopted the hashtag #GambiaHasDecided. They plastered the streets with billboards and leaflets and used creative nonviolent tactics to send a clear message that it was time for Jammeh to go, in accordance with the country’s constitution. The movement maintained a peaceful posture despite widespread state repression and shrinking civic space. Jammeh was forced to leave power.
Although the U.S. context is very different, how people in those countries achieved free and fair elections is very relevant, particularly given Trump’s autocratic inclinations and the erosion of democratic norms and institutions over the past few years: They voted the incumbent leaders out, exposed cheating and then used disciplined nonviolent mass action to defend the legitimate results. Keys to the pro-democracy movements successes were an enthusiastic get out the vote effort, the presence of skilled and trained election monitors, nonviolent mass action that moved from street protests to mass non-cooperation tactics, and violence mitigation efforts that muted the impact of state and paramilitary violence.
The only way real or would-be autocrats can steal an election — at home or abroad — is if ordinary people allow it.
Analysts and scenario planners in the United States have suggested that Trump could try to claim victory before votes are counted, try to stop counting, or refuse to accept defeat. He could prevail upon GOP legislatures to send an alternative, pro-Trump slate of electors in defiance of the popular vote. Such attempts would constitute an autogolpe, where those in authority attempt to expand their power.
In response, civic groups like Choose Democracy, Hold the Line, Fight Back Table and Protect the Results — while keeping the attention focused on a robust electoral process — are training thousands of people in how to resist an executive power grab or coup. They are preparing activists for disciplined nonviolent action, rooted in local communities, that could include acts of mass non-cooperation like sit-ins, stay-at-homes and labor strikes.
A grassroots campaign launched by Hold the Line is calling on elected officials, military and police chiefs to publicly commit to ensuring that all votes are counted, to protect peaceful protesters and to refuse unlawful or unconstitutional orders. The bipartisan National Council on Election Integrity is urging peace and patience while mail-in votes are being counted after Nov. 3.
Anticipating, preventing and resisting political violence will be critical to protecting the vote and ensuring a continuation of the democratic experiment in this country. Given the rise in violent attacks committed by far-right and white supremacist groups and the potential for election-related violence, groups like Nonviolent Peaceforce, Cure Violence, DC Peace Team, Portland Peace Team, Mediators Beyond Borders and Pace e Bene are leading trainings in violence de-escalation, active bystander intervention and unarmed civilian protection.
A network of peacebuilding organizations and data scientists, called the Trust Network, is developing an early warning and early response platform to help communities prevent and mitigate election-related violence. The Bridging Divides Initiative is partnering with the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project and the Carter Center to map potential hotspots and to connect people to groups working locally to keep the peace. Over Zero, which has developed a globally-informed action guide for building resilience to political violence, is working with local communities to employ communications tools to counter violence, hate speech and disinformation.
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Central to all of these efforts is planning for violence, training people in violence disruption and de-escalation techniques, and getting accurate and timely information to trusted community organizations and leaders, who are in the best position to mitigate violence. Knowing that there will be attempts by agents provocateur and others to foment violence in order to justify “law and order” crackdowns, many activist groups have adopted codes of conduct grounded in nonviolence and have trained marshals to promote protest safety and to maximize participation in their actions.
The only way real or would-be autocrats can steal an election — at home or abroad — is if ordinary people allow it. We have all the power necessary to defend the integrity of the election and to ensure that the new government sworn in reflects the will of the people. Our current moment demands an active synergy of nonviolent action and peacebuilding tools, techniques and approaches to help protect the vote, uphold our democracy and keep the peace. Strengthening this synergy through active dialogue and partnerships between the social justice and peacebuilding communities in the United States is important now and will be key to building a more just, inclusive and peaceful society in the future.
As coup prevention has gained mainstream attention, here’s a series of tactics with a plan to defend our democracy.
To prevent a stolen election we must win decisively at the polls and use disciplined nonviolent mass action to defend the legitimate results.
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