Restoring trust in US elections
Public servants who manage voting procedures are stepping up to renew confidence in ballot outcomes.
One characteristic of countries with high voter confidence in the integrity of elections is public trust in the people who run elections. When that trust breaks down, as it has in much of the United States, restoring it can lead to hard questions – about the technology for ballot counting, as an example, or the role of private money in government-run elections – but also a flurry of attempts at reform.
Since the 2020 presidential election, at least 19 states have enacted nearly three dozen laws to regulate access to the ballot box and expand public monitoring at polling stations. Those measures are designed to renew public confidence either by making it easier to vote or by eliminating opportunities for fraud. Court cases and the House probe of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, meanwhile, aim to restore democracy through accountability.
But in communities across the country, local election officials are weaving a perhaps more consequential tapestry of trust. Instead of focusing on what has gone wrong with American democracy, they are engaging more vigorously in what makes it right. “One of the things that I always try to do is make sure that I’m not using triggering language, that I’m not using the language that automatically puts us on one or the other side of the aisle,” said Tammy Patrick, a senior adviser to the Democracy Fund and former county election official from Arizona, in an interview with the website Governing.
The public remains deeply divided over the results of the 2020 election. The most recent Monmouth University Poll, from last November, found that a third of Americans – including 75% of Republicans – still believe Joe Biden did not win the presidency fairly. That skepticism has helped fuel a troubling rise in threats against local election officials. In Pennsylvania, according to the Pew Research Center, a third of local election officials have left their jobs in fear for their safety. Lawmakers in at least 10 states are debating new criminal penalties to curb those threats.
But doubt about the last election also appears to be stirring a new era of civic participation. More people – including more minorities – are either running for local offices or learning how to be volunteers at polling stations. Town clerks and county election officials are banding together to produce public education videos about how elections are held and votes are counted. Some have started podcasts. Others are holding town hall meetings and hosting webinars and public tours in their offices. For some, threats of violence have deepened their resolve.
“Am I scared? Yes, I’m not going to lie. I am scared,” Linh Nguyen, a town clerk candidate in DeKalb County, Illinois, told the Iowa Capital Dispatch. “But as a minority woman, to be honest, in a room of raised hands, mine will never be picked, and I learned to look for opportunities where other people see obstacles.”
That courage underscores what makes democracy more solid and enduring than it sometimes seems. “Almost one-third of citizens vote at town halls staffed with election workers volunteering their time to help fulfill the promise of democracy,” said Mike Koles, executive director of Wisconsin Towns Association. “They are the same people we see in church, we rely on to respond to emergencies, and that cheer on the local team on Friday night. Nobody can be trusted more than these local public servants.”
As the U.S. moves toward its next elections, the renewed spirit of civic service among election managers may be the best way to restore trust in the outcomes of ballot counting.