US elections 2020: Electoral Fraud, Protests, and Russian Influence

By Elena Gorbacheva, Margarita Zavadskaya, and Bradley Reynolds

On the 3rd of November 2020, the United States presidential elections surprised many. A record-high number of people participated in the voting, despite the ongoing pandemic, which forced many to vote by mail. For the first time, the incumbent declined to accept the results due to alleged electoral fraud. During the previous election in 2016, there were claims that Russia interfered with the elections and facilitated Donald Trump’s victory. This time, however, there was no support for any claims of Russian interference in the voting process that would have affected the results, though concerns of cyber threats continued to menace US Government agencies elsewhere. Why have allegations of election fraud become a hot topic now and what are the consequences for Russia and post-Soviet states? We take a closer look at the situation together with experts from the fields of American, Russian, and post-Soviet studies – Ora John Reuter (University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee), Ivan Kurilla (European University at St. Petersburg), Mark Teramae (University of Helsinki), Sherzod Eraliev (University of Helsinki) and Alla Leukavets (Center for Strategic and Foreign Policy Studies).

Photographer: Rom Matibag

Usually, fraud and post-election protests are associated with new democracies or electoral autocracies whose political institutions are weak and electoral malpractice is widespread.  How unusual is it to observe post-election protests in the oldest democracy in the world? Is electoral fraud a real challenge in US politics nowadays?

Ora John Reuter: Many people associate post-election protest with big, watershed events like the Colored Revolution in Ukraine or the 2011 protests in Russia. The protests in the US weren’t anything like those events. The fraud that sparked those events was documented by international observers and a large body of objective evidence. There is no evidence to support the claims of fraud made by supporters of President Trump.

Ivan Kurilla: I don’t think that the problem lies in the technical side of the electoral process, the root of the problem originates from the decreased social trust, trust that the political opponent will play by the rules. In a stable 200-year-old democracy people tend to trust in electoral commissions by default. The existing doubts resulted from divides within the American society. I do have a wild thought that for decades the American political system has been exporting feelings of a threat outside the country: during the Cold war, there was always some enemy image capable of upholding the sense of unity and overcoming the existing divides. The Cold War ended, but the mythological binary ‘mindset’’ remained. The absence of the external enemy forced the existing divides back to domestic politics. 

It is written that the storming of the US Capitol on the 6th of January by the pro-Trump crowd was “a coup attempt” or “a terroristic attack”. It is not true: it is exactly what we saw in news reports: actions of disorganised, but excited mob. No, it has not happened for the first time in American history, though the last time the actions of similar size and kind took place long ago: after Andrew Jackson was elected a president, the enthusiastic crowd broke in and vandalized the White House (the president John Quincy Adams managed to escape). Andrew Jackson is not a coincidence here: Trump has been compared by many to him, and the parallels are inevitable.

It is also asked is it true that the election results were rigged? Especially because the accusations to the smallest details reminded us of the well-known Russian falsifications. I don’t think so and here is why: in order to execute mass falsifications, dozens (if not hundreds) of ordinary members of election commissioners should have been accomplices. In Russia, sadly, it is achieved through administrative (and in some cases – criminal) pressure, and significant parts of the society are ready to assist the authorities with the fraud. The American society (no matter how hard against it our propagandists argue) is different: it is an impossible task to find dozens of complices of the plot to seize the power in the USA (especially holding necessary offices in the election commissions, and then in courts) due to the structure and traditions of the American society. This does not exclude individual mistakes or deliberate distortions but does not allow a mass falsification[1].

Previous US elections allegedly fell victim to external interference with the help of social networks, trolls, and online public opinion. What was the situation this time? Is US mass media still playing ‘the anti-Russian card’?

Ora John Reuter: This remains somewhat unclear.  FBI Director Christopher Wray said in September that there was credible evidence of online disinformation operations being carried out on social media.  As in 2016, these efforts were targeted at discrediting the Democratic nominee to the benefit of President Trump.  But the extent of such efforts is not well known.  In 2016, the media shined a massive spotlight on those efforts.  That’s not happening this time, for obvious reasons. The spotlight during this election was simply focused on other things.  And since Biden won the election, the media is not as interested in interference by Russia. This is especially true, given Trump’s illiberal behavior after the election, which was a much bigger story than online disinformation.

“The use of the anti-Russian card seems to be very situational and it’s not about Russia per se”


Gayatri Malhotra / Unsplash

Ivan Kurilla: The heyday of the Russian meddling stories was two years ago, from the times when Trump had won the elections in 2016. However, this ceased to bother the American public by the time of the 2020 elections.  However, we still should remember that the main target of these attacks resides in the White House, not in Russia. This media discourse reflects the internal struggles within American politics and society. The Russian threat is used instrumentally when one can combine internal enemies with an external one. Both political parties used the anti-Russian card under various circumstances. When Trump attempted to build a dialogue with Russia, he immediately was labeled as a traitor and Russian puppet. Similar things happened back in the times of the reset under Obama when he was warned to avoid establishing closer ties with Russia by the Republicans and Romney. The use of the anti-Russian card seems to be very situational and it’s not about Russia per se. 

How will the storming of the Capitol on the 6th of January affect Russian-American relations? I cannot rule out that the “Russian trace” would be found also here, – in the USA there are already many specialists in its searches. But frankly, the relations cannot get any worse. I don’t think that Biden will pursue this matter[2].

In Russia, the argument, that even in developed democracies such as the USA elections are “dirty” and fraudulent, is often used so that Russian elections would seem fairer (or at least not much worse). Are similar tactics used in other post-Soviet states? 

Alla Leukavets: Yes, a similar discursive strategy has been often applied by the Lukashenka regime to divert attention from the various human rights violations happening in Belarus, including the election falsifications and repression by the riot police towards the protesters. For example, in one of his post-election statements Lukashenka said that before starting to criticise the Belarusian leadership for its policies, Western governments should take care of their own domestic problems. He called the US elections a “disgrace and a mockery of democracy”, referring to how the election observers in the USA were treated on E-day. 

Mark Teramae: More than the usual, that’s been everywhere else – no, because Ukraine is kind of caught in the middle, you know. Russia is like “oh look, they are just as bad as us, maybe even worse, oho! Now you can’t blame us”. Ukraine is just like… it is not on the same level. Ukraine makes an example of a much weaker state, so these issues are less relevant. Ukrainian elections pretty much have been fair for the last 10 years, and this has been proven by a constant alternation in power. Ukrainian authorities are not worried about their image the way that Russia is when it comes to elections.

What is the meaning of these elections for electoral integrity and democracy in the post-Soviet space?

Alla Leukavets: The recent US elections and Biden’s victory have an important role for electoral integrity and democracy in Belarus. They give hope to the Belarusian political opposition and ordinary people who keep taking to the streets to protest against the fraudulent elections that democracy does work and positive changes will sooner or later also come to Belarus.

Mark Teramae: I think people [around the world] are already doubting this US “promoting democracy abroad” idea because it is more about neoliberalisation than spreading democracy. I hope that other states put these [electoral fraud allegations] down to Trump and not to the system. Because there are no proven allegations of fraud, nobody else but him and his supporters or his team even made any of these allegations. 

Sherzod Eraliev: It will change almost nothing in Uzbekistan/Central Asia. US elections (or any other elections in democratic societies) are something unreachable and unthinkable in the region. 

We got used to the fact that several observers question the credibility of Russian polls, but how come the US leading pollsters ‘missed’ an enormous number of pro-Trump voters? Was it a failure of survey methodology or something else? 

Ora John Reuter:  clear, the polling results were actually pretty accurate in a lot of states. But it is true that they missed in some key states and nationwide.  There were two basic problems. One is structural:  polling response rates have been declining markedly for some time. The reasons for this are many the portability of mobile phone numbers, the proliferation of marketing polls that fatigue respondents, and the massive increase in SPAM calls. But the basic problem is that it has become increasingly hard for pollsters to generate representative samples and, despite changes in how pollsters weigh responses, nonresponse bias appears to lead to an under-sampling of Trump supporters. 

The other problem was specific to this election.  Pollsters always confront the problem of predicting who are “likely voters,” but this problem was made even more difficult in 2020 because the modes of voting differed so much between Democrats and Republicans, with the former much more likely to vote by mail.  This apparently made it hard for pollsters to estimate expected turnout among Democrats. 

Somewhat paradoxically, I think some of the major polls in Russia (e.g. those by Levada Center) are probably more accurate than polls in the US, at this point.  Many Russian polls are still conducted face-to-face and response rates in such polls are much higher than in telephone and online polls.

“Somewhat paradoxically, I think some of the major polls in Russia (e.g. those by Levada Center) are probably more accurate than polls in the US, at this point” 


Ivan Kurilla: Those that vote for Trump, they don’t participate in the polls as they perceive pollsters as representatives of the same establishment and more privileged groups from which these voters feel alienated. In a certain sense, 2016 was a revolutionary year as it ‘democratized’ political participation of the previous silent / voiceless voters. These voters are illiberal and uncomfortable to communicate with.

Last, but not least, what does the victory of Biden imply for the future of the political climate in the post-Soviet space?

Ora John Reuter: It’s a paradox.  Even though the current Russian government clearly preferred a Trump victory and the Biden administration will probably take a harder line in its Russia policy, I think that the election result will actually lead to a lowering of the temperature in the atmosphere that undergirds US-Russia relations.  Many American voters and opinion leaders had taken a more negative view of Russia during the Trump years because Russia was associated with a million scandals surrounding Trump (including the impeachment of course!).  Without these headlines, I think that attitudes toward Russia might revert to the mean again.

Alla Leukavets: Biden’s victory implies several things for Belarus and its future. First, there are hopes that it will likely result in greater American support for Belarus’s pro-democracy movement. This is evidenced by Biden’s recent statement on Belarus in which he criticised the Trump administration for a lack of sufficient involvement in settling the Belarus crisis and promised to increase support to the Belarusian protesters. 

Second, Biden’s victory means that all the other aspects of Belarus-USA relations will also be paid closer attention to. If Lukashenka leaves office, American presence on the ground in Belarus will likely be increased (i.e. the USA embassy will start functioning in full capacity) and diplomatic relations will improve. 

Third, the Biden Administration will likely play a more active role in weakening Russia’s economic and strategic leverage over Belarus. Biden has had an experience of dealing with Russia in the wake of the crisis in Ukraine as a Vice President in Obama’s Administration. This can manifest itself in USA’s increased role in diversifying Belarus’s energy suppliers and export markets as well as in intensification of military-to-military dialogue with Belarus.

Sherzod Eraliev: It will have some repercussions on Central Asia. On the one hand, the US approach to the region will not change drastically; the once heated interest in the region connected with the “global war on terror” and US/NATO operation in neighbouring Afghanistan has come to an end. The decreasing involvement in Central Asian affairs began even during Democrat Obama’s administration. On the other hand, we can expect deeper engagement from Biden’s Democrat administration in Central Asia compared to the current one.

First, as Biden promised in his electoral speeches his administration would focus on strengthening democracy and fighting authoritarianism across the globe. In this regard, Central Asian countries can expect more US involvement in advancing democracy and protecting human rights. However, this should not give a perception that Washington will drastically change its relations with Central Asia, a region where authoritarian rule predominates and human rights violations often take place. Given the region’s neighbourhood with Afghanistan and America’s traditional rivals, China and Russia, Washington has pursued more balanced policies towards the region regardless of who controls the White House, Democrats or Republicans.

Second, Joe Biden’s more aggressive stance on Russia and protraction of withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan will have an impact on Central Asia. This means that Washington may increase “support to independence and territorial integrity” of Central Asian republics. As the US seeks to leave a relatively stable regime in Afghanistan, it wants to enhance the capacities of Central Asian countries, especially Uzbekistan in this regard, in strengthening multilateral economic, trade, and political cooperation with the war-torn country.

The largest economic partner for the US in the region remains Kazakhstan, where American energy companies have heavily invested over the last three decades. In terms of security-political cooperation, the US seems to have stepped up cooperation with Uzbekistan, in part thanks to the change of the government in the latter. In 2019, US assistance to Uzbekistan reached nearly $100 million, a ten-fold increase from 2016. At the same time, the US will continue to insist that economic reforms in the country must be accompanied by political liberalization.

“There’s no ultimate decision-maker one way or the other”


Mark Teramae: I would say no. US will not come on a white horse and fix everything, I mean, anywhere. If anything, they’d make stuff worse, because that’s what they usually do when they intervene in other countries – if you just look at Syria, Libya, Egypt, half of Latin America. And most of what plagues Ukraine are domestic issues. So just because you have, let’s say, a less Russia-friendly president is not really going to fix things going on inside Ukraine that do not have to do with Russia. Not everything has to do with Russia in Ukraine. A lot does, sure, but not everything. And moreover, Obama made this clear in 2013 that Ukraine is a European problem, Ukraine is not a US issue. So Obama never got involved, Trump, surely, did not get involved, so I do not really see why now, especially during the days of coronavirus, and especially if you are going to talk about conflicts, Syria is the big one, Ukraine has just slipped down the list of priorities. 

One can go one of two ways. Because when the US had Obama, things weren’t horrible with most of the post-Soviet region. And when Medvedev was president. It can be possible to have good relations, even between the US and Russia depending on who’s in power on both sides. So there is a chance that there will be an improvement of relations. However, there is also a chance that things might get worse, because of Belarus that is kind of the biggest thing. If the US does give some kind of (obviously non-military) support, and that support is enough to let say push the opposition over the top and remove Lukashenka, then you have, well, US is meddling in post-Soviet countries, going to put NATO there, then provoke a negative reaction from Russia. 

I’ve learned by now after following this region for 20 years that most things don’t change too far. Ukraine was kind of a surprise, but there’s no ultimate decision-maker one way or the other.

[1], [2], Ivan Kurilla, Facebook, translated by the editors from Russian.

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