When I was 23, my country’s president lost an election and, not caring for that outcome, decided to annul the results. His name was Slobodan Milosevic—a lovely character sometimes called the “the Butcher of Balkans”—and my homeland was Serbia. In 1996, Milosevic’s party had lost local elections to a united opposition in 15 of the 18 largest cities. It took three months of demonstrations and street protests to make him concede. And that experience changed my life forever.
Four years later, he tried to do it again, after he lost the presidential election in a landslide. But this time, together with my friends in the Serbian student movement Otpor, I led nationwide demonstrations and strikes that inspired hundreds of thousands of my fellow Serbs. Milosevic finally conceded on Oct. 5, 2000, only after our movement had turned out half a million protesters in front of the national assembly and strikes brought the country to a standstill.
For the last 15 years, my organization CANVAS, which specializes in empowering pro-democracy movements, had worked with dozens of groups around the world facing unfair, stolen, and disputed elections. Some of them like Ukrainians in 2004, Georgians in 2005, or Maldivians in 2008 were capable of defending democracy, despite the vast arsenal of autocratic tricks they had to overcome, including bribing voters, ballot stuffing, annulling results in state-controlled courts, and, if that didn’t work, brutal violence and repression.
Last Autumn, I moved to the United States, so imagine my surprise when I discovered that the overwhelming fear of my American friends is that their country may now be on the verge of a disputed election. I may be a newcomer to American democracy, but after my work combating autocracies globally, I believe there are some universal tips that people facing the danger of a disputed election should know.
1. Win, and win big. Numbers are important, and history teaches us that the larger the turnout and margin of victory, the more difficult it is for anyone to cast doubt on the result.
When Georgia held parliamentary elections in 2003, exit polls and parallel vote tabulations by local nongovernmental organizations showed opposition parties winning by a landslide, while the state-run electoral commission affiliated with long time country’s leader Eduard Shevardnadze claimed the opposite.* International organizations like the OSCE deemed the election neither free nor fair. Soon after, a series of nationwide nonviolent protests known as the “Rose Revolution” brought the county to a standstill, resulting in Shevardnadze’s resignation on Nov. 3 as well as the Supreme Court of Georgia annulling the results of the election. (Americans may not be able to count on their own Supreme Court in this election.)
When a fresh round of elections was held six weeks later, opposition leader Mikheil Saakashvili won 80 percent of the vote.* None of this would have been possible if the real winner had not been so clear and obvious from the beginning.
2. Plan. And do it before the election results are disputed. Serbia, Georgia, Ukraine, Gambia … basically every case study teaches us that disputed elections are likely to trigger an unprecedented opportunity for mobilization. Remember: Elections are “political” (so they drive “political” people), but election fraud is personal (so it affects everybody). Expect people who have never been active to feel the urge to join. Make sure you have the organization to channel that mobilization, and that’s not something that can be built over a coffee. Successful movements strategically select the institutions that they want to target or defend with nonviolent strategies early, and prepare step-by-step plans and proper tactics for targeting each one of them. Do not wait for the storm to start planning.
3. Stay nonviolent . Anticipating, preventing, and resisting political violence is always critical to protecting the vote and ensuring the survival of democracy in any country. Remember the iconic photos of smiling women handing flowers to armored members of Ukrainian security forces in 2004? This is exactly what I am talking about. Political scientists Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan in their landmark work Why Civil Resistance Works demonstrated that nonviolent movements are twice as likely to succeed as those that fail to prevent looting, rioting, or outright violence. Humor and creativity help also. As my recent research with professor Sophia McClennen shows, wit works far better than anger.
4. Prepare for the marathon. Bad news: Movements to defend democratic elections rarely end quickly. After Milosevic annulled election results in autumn 1996, Serbian citizens protested for more than 100 days, sometimes in harsh winter temperatures. We learned our lesson well, so when he tried to steal the election again in 2000, we made him concede in less than three months. Even that was less challenging and heroic than the Ukrainians who defended their election victory from November 2004 until January 2005 in a far harsher Ukrainian winter! Gather your warm clothes, persistence, and patience. Tell your kids that you will be out a lot, or even better, embrace the idea that marches and protests are great for building family connections. It’s your democracy to defend—and this may well be the most important battle of your lifetime.
5. Never, ever take democracy for granted. Ronald Reagan was not my favorite U.S. president, but his warning that “Freedom is a fragile thing and is never more than one generation away from extinction” is unfortunately true. We have witnessed dozens of democracies backslide or slowly die across the globe—from the Philippines to Hungary—because people were either too busy or lazy to defend them. No, defending the vote is not “somebody else’s problem.” It’s your country.
Never forget that democracy is not something granted to you because of your place of birth. Rather, think of democracy like love: You need to practice it every day.
Correction, Oct. 27, 2020: This post originally misspelled Eduard Shevardnadze’s first name and Mikheil Saakashvili’s last name.