Prevent Violence, Strengthen Democracy: Electoral Codes of Conduct for the United States

As 2020 began, experts on political violence were already alarmed by increasing mass shootings, hate crimes, police killings, and political polarization in the United States. They did not imagine how much worse it would get: between the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, street protests in which Americans killed each other and the police attacked protesters, government disinformation campaigns, and incitement to violence by the President, we have arrived at an Election Day when, as political scientist Brian Klaas put it, “all the red flags that you see in other countries that have political violence are being raised in the United States.”

In those other countries – which are often transitioning to democratic governance after autocratic or military rule, wars, or mass violence – Western governments including the United States’ try to reduce the risk of violence by providing advice and funding to strengthen electoral systems. Codes of conduct for elections – typically agreements in which candidates and other members of political parties commit to uphold certain standards during and after an election campaign – is one tool they offer. The first such codes focused on technical matters like campaign finance regulation, but since the 1980s they have also tried to prevent election-related violence by discouraging certain types of speech and behavior.

This includes dangerous speech, which we define as any form of expression (e.g. speech, text, or images) that can increase the risk that its audience will condone or participate in violence against members of another group. Such speech has abounded in the United States in recent years, and has become even more common and more potent in the final weeks of the campaign.

Since this problem will not end with this election, no matter its outcome, we have examined electoral codes from around the world for attempts to guide or govern speech that might be used in the United States to reduce the risk of violence in future elections.

Click here for a .csv version of the codes of conduct table at the end of the paper.