Election officials in the United States have human rights obligations to ensure that everyone entitled to vote in the November 8, 2022 elections are able to do so freely and without fear of intimidation or violence, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch issued a report in a question-and-answer format to describe the human rights imperatives, guided by international law, to protect the right to vote and the integrity of elections in the United States.
“The 2022 general elections in the United States are an important test of the country’s resolve to adhere to fundamental principles of democracy and human rights,” said Amanda Klasing, head of the US democracy initiative at Human Rights Watch. “Election officials themselves are under threat, and US officials should urgently ensure that voters, poll workers, and civic groups can participate freely in the electoral process, without fear or intimidation.”
In its report, Human Rights Watch addresses the need to align US elections procedures with international human rights standards, including prohibitions against any racial discrimination in voting. It also discusses the critical role that civil society organizations play in protecting the integrity of US elections and key questions such as government’s responsibility to counter misinformation and to act to prevent voter intimidation, including the presence of weapons or law enforcement in polling places.
While international human rights law “does not impose any particular electoral system,” the United Nations says, it does set out voting rights and nondiscrimination obligations that are binding on the national, state, and local governments in the US.
A healthy democracy is one that is based on the will of the people and protects the rights of all, Human Rights Watch said. Inclusive democratic institutions are vital to protecting human rights: they help to ensure that people’s voices are heard, civic groups can operate independently, elections are free and fair, and rights are protected under law.
In the US, some state and non-state actors are attempting to silence or limit the work of these groups. State laws violate the right to vote and misinformation about the 2020 elections is eroding public faith in elections and democratic institutions. This dynamic is especially visible in the lead up to the November 8 general elections.
The officials charged with administering free and fair elections in the US have come under increased scrutiny, harassment, and even death threats since the 2020 election in part due to false claims by former President Donald Trump and his supporters that there was a conspiracy to deprive him of the presidency in 2020, Human Rights Watch said. A task force of the US Justice Department, in close collaboration with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), reported in August 2022 that it had reviewed over 1,000 reports of hostile or harassing incidents against election workers, with almost 11 percent meeting the threshold for a federal criminal investigation. In October, the FBI issued a broad statement of caution about threats to election workers ahead of the November elections.
Human Rights Watch also provides information in the report on the pernicious laws, policies, and practices that limit the power of Black voters, and the important role nongovernmental organizations play in protecting the integrity of US elections. These groups operating at the state and local levels are on the front line of protecting the integrity of US elections. They help to register voters, inform them about their rights and how to vote, and contact local election officials when there are problems.
Civil society and nonpartisan observers play a significant role in a healthy democracy, Human Rights Watch said. Some state lawmakers have passed laws that chill the involvement of nongovernmental groups in registering or supporting voters, including laws with steep fines and even criminal penalties.
International human rights law provides a useful roadmap for a way forward on these and other hot-button issues related to the US election, Human Rights Watch said. As US citizens go to the polls, other human rights concerns in the US and globally are being exposed. One such issue is the link between politicians who foment xenophobic fears to build political power – a theme seen in contacts between officials in Texas and in Hungary, for example. Another is the failure of countries like Brazil and states like Georgia to fully ensure that all eligible voters feel safe and able to exercise their rights without the terror fomented by racial discrimination.
“Racial justice is central to actual realization of the right to vote in the US, in Brazil, and worldwide,” Klasing said. “You can’t have democracy without racial justice, and you cannot have racial justice without democracy.”
The November general elections are very consequential for human rights in the United States. There are 36 governorships up for election, including in influential states such as Texas and Florida. Every state will have state legislative elections, with bills pending in statehouses across the country to protect and to attack many human rights, including the rights to abortion access, peaceful assembly, and more.
All US House of Representative seats are up for election, along with 34 US Senate seats. And there are local ballot initiatives in many states, including in California, Michigan, Kentucky, and Vermont, considering questions related to abortion and contraceptives. These state initiatives have become crucial to ensure continued access to abortion at the state level, as the nearly 50-year federal constitutional guarantee was overturned by the US Supreme Court in June.
Although the US Constitution’s Thirteenth Amendment technically abolished the institution of chattel slavery, it provided an exception that allowed for the continuation of slavery “as punishment of crime.” Over 150 years after the passage of this amendment, voters in Alabama, Louisiana, Oregon, Tennessee, and Vermont are considering measures that would explicitly prohibit all lingering forms of slavery and indentured servitude. Voters in Colorado, Florida and New Jersey previously took action to prohibit this racist exception.
The US prison labor system is a legacy of slavery and a form of economic exploitation, and racial inequities persist today. Black people are disproportionately incarcerated and thus overrepresented among those working in prison. In December 2020, Human Rights Watch supported an amendment to the US constitution that would “prohibit the use of slavery and involuntary servitude” as a punishment for a crime. Almost one million people in the US are currently working while confined in US prisons.
Specious claims of election fraud, dangerous lawsuits undermining the basic principle of “one person, one vote,” and confusing changes to election rules are all dangerous anti-rights forces at play in the current midterm elections and beyond. Human rights offer an easily defined roadmap through this dangerous terrain, Human Rights Watch said.
“Staying the course on ensuring democracy requires dismissing and circumventing all distractions in favor of protecting the right to vote for everyone,” Klasing said. “No one, whether a voter or an election official, and no matter their political views, social group, or race, should lose sight of that simple fact.”