Restoring Confidence in American Elections

There is a crisis of confidence in American elections. Almost half of all voters have doubts about the integrity of the 2020 elections, and consequently, they question the democratic legitimacy of their elected representatives from the president and Congress all the way down to the state and county level. Whether one believes those doubts are justified or not, effective democratic governance requires the consent and effective participation of the governed. So it is imperative that confidence in the legitimacy of elected representatives be restored. 

Restoring trust in people or institutions when that trust has been shattered is never easy, particularly in a country as deeply polarized and politicized as the United States is now. Fortunately, while such deep distrust in the electoral process is unprecedented in the United States, it is relatively common overseas, and over the last several decades democracy and elections assistance providers have developed some effective means for diagnosing and treating distrust in elections. 

Typical factors that can undermine faith in the integrity of elections in developing democracies include politicized institutions, lack of transparency in processes, late and unjustified changes in election procedures, and the undue influence of rich companies and individuals. Unfortunately, each of these factors was also present in U.S. elections in 2020. In aggregate, these factors caused a large percentage of Americans to question the integrity of the election process, and to doubt the democratic legitimacy of representatives elected through that process. 

Politicized Institutions  

Republicans in general have little faith in the neutrality of the judicial and administrative institutions of government, which is not surprising when you consider that surveys suggest up to 95 percent of civil servants in the United States are Democrats. This is one party control of the organs of state at a level comparable to Communist China, and unseen elsewhere since the fall of the old Soviet Union. In most of the 50 states this control also extends to the local-level officials responsible for administering elections. 

Democratic Party control of the administrative state was not an issue for a long time, as public officials were believed to be generally impartial, but over the last decade it has become increasingly apparent that the apparatus of state is no longer neutral, and this has diminished confidence in the integrity of the election process among Republicans and independents. Over the long term, the solution to the problem is a civil service that looks more like America; that includes representation from the 69 percent of Americans effectively excluded from public service because of their political affiliation. 

While efforts to reform the civil service should begin as soon as possible, this will not be a quick fix. In the short term, the only way to enhance public confidence that biased officials are not affecting election outcomes will be to increase scrutiny of these officials to such an extent that space for malpractice is limited. International election assistance has proved that non-partisan election observation can be an effective tool to provide that scrutiny. 

Historically, the United States has relied on party representatives (poll watchers) to monitor polling and counting processes. With significant percentages of the population not identifying with either major party, however, and some areas so monolithically one party that it is difficult to find opposition poll watchers, partisan observation is no longer sufficient to promote public confidence in election processes. The nonpartisan model for election observation that we promote overseas would be a better fit for the United States. It’s more inclusive, allowing participation by any concerned citizen (not just party members); and deploys observers whose primary objective is to support a free and fair process for every voter, rather than to represent the interests of one party. It would be more effective in promoting trust and confidence in the process. 

Overseas, nonpartisan observation organizations often do more than just observe—almost all also advocate for election reforms. This would be needed in the United States as well, as many jurisdictions currently have regulations and processes that limit transparency and restrict observation, and these would have to be reformed to enable effective observation. To help ensure that elections in the United States in 2022 and 2024 are perceived as credible and legitimate, a national network or coalition dedicated to free and fair elections and capable of deploying observers to every polling station and counting center should be set up as soon as possible. 

To further enhance transparency and public confidence in election processes we should also invite nonpartisan observation groups from other countries to monitor our processes. Many of these groups were founded with U.S. assistance, and it is fitting that they be asked to return the support we provided for their troubled democracies. International observers can provide important insights throughout the electoral cycle. For example, we could invite experienced observers from Estonia and Indonesia to assess election processes or monitor media bias using the same methodological approaches we introduced through our foreign assistance. 

International Standards for Fair Elections 

Judged against any international standard, our legal framework and election processes are convoluted, inefficient, and nontransparent. Past efforts at reform have been difficult because, unlike almost every other democracy, the United States does not have a national election process. Instead, the Constitution grants each state the right to define its own election process, and over the centuries, these have diverged widely. Globally, there are established norms and standards for free and fair elections that, if adopted in the United States, would radically improve the integrity, credibility, and efficiency of our elections. 

While it is not possible under the Constitution for the federal government to mandate a national process, there is nothing to prevent citizen groups from establishing national standards for fair elections and advocating for their adoption in each state. If these standards were widely endorsed and accepted, it would be difficult for local officials and politicians to argue against their adoption, as results from jurisdictions where the reforms had not been adopted would be perceived as tainted and potentially illegitimate. In 2005 the bipartisan Commission on Federal Election Reform (led by James Baker and Jimmy Carter) made a good start at developing national standards for elections that acknowledged global best practices, and their recommendations could be revised and simplified into an effective agenda for local advocacy. 

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Voter ID and Voter Registration 

One of the most important factors in diminishing trust in the 2020 elections was the Democratic Party’s coordinated effort to prevent the adoption of voter ID laws, or to overturn existing voter ID laws, and to prevent the cleaning of voter lists. The Democrats argued that this opposition was necessary because marginalized populations don’t have access to voter ID, and so would be disenfranchised; while Republicans and independents generally viewed the rejection of voter ID as a transparent effort to facilitate fraud.

Effective voter ID and accurate voter lists are cornerstones of international standards for fair elections; and the U.S. government has spent hundreds of millions of dollars helping other countries with voter ID and voter registration programs to prevent fraud and enhance voter confidence in the integrity of the process. In some situations there are marginalized populations that do lack access to ID, but the response in those cases has always been to develop programs to ensure the marginalized have ID (the United Nations even recognizes the right to ID), not to lower standards for election integrity. 

The previously mentioned Commission on Federal Election Reform made commonsense recommendations on voter registration and voter ID. To enhance public confidence in the integrity of the election process, these recommendations should be promoted and adopted for inclusion in a national election reform agenda. 

Postal Voting

In the democratic development field it is well known that when one party makes changes to election related laws or procedures near an election this inevitably leads to allegations that the changes were made for partisan benefit; and this observation is as true in the United States as it is in developing democracies overseas. In the 2020 elections major legal and procedural changes were made by Democrats that severely diminished overall confidence in the integrity of the election process. The changes significantly affected observation and transparency, voter registration, voter ID, and counting processes; but perhaps the most destructive to trust was the wide-scale adoption of mass postal voting as a response to the pandemic. 

Interestingly, since early last year, much of the focus of the international elections assistance community has been on understanding the effects of the pandemic on elections and democracy. It was recognized that voting during a pandemic could spread the disease, so protocols were developed that would allow safe in person voting, and these were used in many elections around the world last year. In contrast, in the United States the Democrats decided that safe voting required a shift to untested mass postal voting processes that, unlike established systems for absentee voting, had few safeguards in place. Predictably, Republicans and independents believed that voting in person could be safe for all but the most at risk groups (which the election proved), and saw the Democratic Party’s advocacy for postal voting as an attempt to facilitate cheating. 

Both international and U.S. election experts (including the bipartisan Commission on Federal Election Reform) acknowledge the particular susceptibility of postal voting to fraud and abuse. Given this consensus, and to enhance voter confidence in the integrity of the process, in the future voting by mail should be limited to rare cases of genuine need (absentee ballots), with stringent and appropriate safeguards in place. The vast majority of voters should vote in person on Election Day, in what should be viewed as a national celebration of democracy. If this requires making Election Day a national holiday, that should be considered. 

Voting Technology 

The use of technology in election processes is one area where the recommendations of the Commission on Federal Election Reform could be updated. While they point out some of the problems associated with the introduction of technology in voting and counting processes, it has become clear since then that the dangers are even greater than they anticipated. Computer scientists repeatedly have pointed out their concerns with using these machines for voting, but even if they could be made totally secure, their use damages public confidence in the integrity of the process simply because they inevitably decrease the transparency of the process. 

If one cannot see or truly understand a process, it is hard to have confidence in it. Overseas we know that every time there is a break in the chain of observation, doubt is introduced. In the old days, this was when ballot boxes were packed up and stored overnight before counting; or were loaded on trucks and sent to a counting center far away. No one knew what happened to the boxes when they were out of sight, so anything was imaginable. 

The same principle is at play with what some call “black box voting.” An ordinary voter cannot really observe or know what is happening inside the machine. To enhance confidence in polling processes, international assistance providers increasingly recommend reversion to simple, transparent manual processes; i.e. paper ballots in a ballot box. That would mean an observer could arrive at the polling station in the morning, see the empty ballot box, watch the process all day, then see the box opened and the ballots counted. This process is simple, and completely transparent. 

To restore confidence in American elections we should go back to a manual process. Some argue this is expensive, but we easily afforded it for hundreds of years, and when we are counting costs, we must consider the cost to society of widespread doubt as to whether our officials were legitimately elected. 

Buying Elections

International democracy assistance providers also recognized early on that authoritarians (or, would be authoritarians) could take advantage of the pandemic to increase social and political control, restrict freedom of speech and assembly, postpone or cancel elections, and limit the transparency of election processes. These fears were quickly confirmed by events in Africa, South America, eastern Europe, and Asia; but while we in the assistance community looked out with concern at events overseas, similar things were happening at home. 

Several internet based companies that had gained near monopoly status on the promise of a free and open internet began to flex their political muscles. In close coordination with each other, partisan media outlets, and their Democratic Party allies, they promoted their favored candidates and suppressed or censored political speech and campaigning by their opponents. Some also provided funding directly to local election administrations for new and less transparent election technologies, raising concerns of undue influence. 

Consequently, election reformers should not look at election processes only. There should be curbs on the undue influence corporations and oligarchs play in American elections. Democracy requires equal influence for every citizen, and a level playing field for all Americans, regardless of their wealth. Laws should be adopted that prevent private funding of elections by corporations and oligarchs, and most importantly, we should prevent corporations and oligarchs from undermining the most basic civil rights of the American people: freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and freedom of religion. That we allow them to limit our freedoms for profit is unconscionable. 

Restoring confidence in American elections will be difficult, but it is not impossible, and it is necessary if we really want to protect our democracy, and ensure the health of our republic for future generations.

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About Tim Meisburger

Tim Meisburger is an election integrity and international development specialist. During the Trump Administration, he was a Deputy Assistant Administrator at USAID, and the Director of the Center for Democracy, Rights and Governance.

Photo: iStock/Getty Images