Had there not been so many political storylines in the news avalanche ahead of Israel’s second general election in 2019, one might have been inclined to see it as Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last straw: On September 3, two weeks before the voters again went to the polling stations, Netanyahu went public with the allegation that had it not been for widespread voter fraud in Israeli-Arab communities in the April election, his right-wing coalition would have passed the 61-seat threshold needed to gain a majority in the Knesset.
The evidence on which his charge was based was flimsy at best, and was quickly confounded by Israeli media. To be sure, such publicised deviations to the truth did not stop Netanyahu from exploiting the false narrative as the principal pretext for his party’s plan to push through a last-minute bill that would have allowed cameras to be brought into polling stations, a tactic he first tested in April against the attorney general’s explicit orders. Ultimately unsuccessful, the legislative initiative was blasted as an all-too transparent attempt to discourage Israeli Palestinians from going to the polls in the upcoming election.
With his dubious insinuation of extensive voter fraud and “stolen elections”, Netanyahu invoked one of the favourite pieces of disinformation frequently disseminated by right-wing populists worldwide. Ahead of the 2016 presidential election that would unexpectedly bring him to power, Trump, Netanyahu’s best buddy in the White House, repeatedly claimed that voter fraud was a common and widespread issue in the United States and instigated his constituents to go to polling stations on election day to prevent irregularities. In the weeks before the recent elections in the two Eastern German states Brandenburg and Saxony, representatives of the right-wing party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) urged their followers to register as official election watchdogs, suggesting that the “established parties” were planning to miscount votes in order to thwart an otherwise inevitable AfD victory.
Such calls for election monitoring are in part aimed at suppressing voter turnout, especially among marginalised communities. There is indeed at least some, if inconclusive, data to suggest that voters might be intimidated by the presence of cameras or other forms of vigilante election “monitoring”, especially if conducted not by state officials (for example with fixed CCTV) but by representatives or supporters of one of the contending candidates. But even more than that, casting doubt on the integrity of electoral processes by alleging voter fraud constitutes the most blunt, direct assault on democracy itself.
Once the narrative of rigged elections gains sufficient traction, the result will likely be contagious apathy within the body politic. If the outcome is predetermined or manipulated anyway, then why even bother going out to vote? If there is no reason to trust the official results of an election – the only time when an overwhelming majority of citizens actively participates in the politics of their community in representative democracies, – then what reason is there to believe that the elected politicians will act in the public’s interest?
The tactic is bound to erode the overall faith in democracy no matter if carried out by the person in office or an incumbent. However, it becomes even more dangerous if used, as is the case with Netanyahu now or with Trump after the 2018 midterm election, by the person already in power. It’s an approach straight out of the authoritarian playbook: By implication, as no free and fair election could possibly end in the leader’s loss, it necessarily follows that the election itself must have been fraudulent. As recently observed with regard to Trump’s attitude toward next year’s US presidential election, such kind of “election manipulation by the person holding the nation’s highest office has often been a first step toward democratic decline”.
As the false narrative of prevalent voter fraud seems to become more widespread, democratic institutions need to step up to debunk this particularly toxic strand of disinformation. This is not just a political issue; participation in democratic decision-making processes is a human right. According to Article 25(b) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) – a treaty that Israel, the U.S., and Germany all have signed and ratified – every citizen “shall have the right and the opportunity, without (…) unreasonable restrictions, to vote and be elected at periodic elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage”. Attempts at disenfranchisement or at suppressing overall turnout by baselessly questioning the integrity of elections is a ruthless attempt to curtail this right.
In its General Comment from 1996, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) declared that Article 25 “lies at the core of democratic government based on the consent of the people”, as elections “are essential to ensure the accountability of representatives for the exercise of the legislative or executive powers vested in them”. Moreover, it clarified that “no distinctions are permitted between citizens in the enjoyment of these rights on the grounds of race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status”. The High Commissioner urged all parties to the Covenant to enact and strictly enforce laws that prohibit “any abusive interference with registration or voting as well as intimidation or coercion of voters”.
Many countries call themselves democracies. It is strict adherence to the rules spelled out in the ICCPR and other international human rights documents that distinguishes actual, true liberal democracies from the large – and growing – number of states with a form of government that is democratic only in name.
For this reason, state authorities have a duty to proactively counter false narratives about alleged voter fraud as fast and as effectively as possible, no matter if they are spread by the contender, as in the case of Trump 2016, or by the incumbent, as with Netanyahu now. On top of that, it is important to authoritatively call out such acts for what they are: violations of human rights and of one of the foundational norms of constitutional democracy. Doing so would not amount to an infringement of the freedom of speech. Politicians may well be free to voice suspicions of voter fraud – although this is in itself questionable if it comes from a sitting head of government without any tangible evidence. Yet the task of preserving the underpinnings of democracy by swiftly correcting such disinformation through official channels outweighs free speech considerations in this particular case, as the rights of the whole body politic are at stake.
When authorities remain silent, on the other hand, they become complicit and violate the human rights of their citizens. While the free press in Israel, the U.S., and Germany quickly stepped in and did the admirable task of contextualising and refuting the false narratives about voter fraud pushed by the populists, it should ultimately be up to the democratic institutions of the state itself to safeguard its very raison d’être. As democracy keeps fighting for its life in more and more countries, false allegations of voter fraud are indeed the most dangerous lie.