As 2020’s COVID-19 pandemic ravaged Americans’ health and economy, distrust of our election system infested the bloodstream of U.S. democracy.
The result is a nation with voter flu, even leading to a feverish mob physically attacking Congress in session, enraged about imagined ballot fraud and a stolen presidential election.
My own service as a foot soldier in the 2020 election — an election official in Fairfax County, Va. —plants me on the far shore from those who stormed the Capitol with baseball bats, firearms and death threats.
Having served my 15-hour day Nov. 3 with a balanced team of Republican and Democratic officials to manage our poll, then tally and secure the votes for delivery to our county on election night, I was astounded by the eruption of heated, widespread charges of fraud or suspicious handling of electronic votes and paper ballots.
In fact, I expect most other election officials who served that day in well over 200,000 polling places (2018 election estimate) run by 10,000 county and municipal jurisdictions nationwide have been as surprised as me at how the baseless charges endlessly repeated by former President Trump’s camp have eroded voters’ faith in fair elections, particularly in the presidential election’s toss-up states.
That eruption was terribly ironic. More than a million local and state election officials served in the 2020 election in early voting and on election day. Faced with the pandemic, they ran an election system marathon to ensure safe voting and make the 2020 election work: expanding mail-in voting, finding alternate polls that allowed social distancing, placing ballot drop-off boxes countywide, recruiting and training younger officials to replace experienced older officials who couldn’t risk poll jobs this year, and more.
They did a bang-up job overall, which makes the former president’s dishonest charges especially insulting to folks who stepped up to a very long work day for a small stipend while, in most cases, covering their own training and travel costs.
Let’s remember that America’s election systems has been earning high marks for management for years.
President Barrack Obama’s 2013 Commission on Election Administration reported well-managed elections nationwide, and President Donald Trump’s own Advisory Commission on Election Integrity found no significant cases of fraud or other voting problems after its three-year investigation.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Election Assistance Commission report for 2018 elections said states were pouring new equipment into counties and cities in recent years and that nearly 90 percent of jurisdictions were already using voting machines that were equipped with paper backup.
What’s more, shortly after the 2020 election, the Trump administration’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency reported jointly with other national election oversight agencies: “the Nov. 3 election was the most secure in American history.”
In line with that report, let’s assume confidence in 2020 elections results suffered a lot less in states not especially targeted with baseless charges and desperate, fact-challenged affidavits.
For example, in North Dakota, an easy Trump win, the 2020 election and its aftermath were “pretty normal,” said Leann Oliver of the N.D. Secretary of State’s Elections Unit. When election challenges “were hitting the national news, the next day we got calls,” often related to unsupported claims of problems with Dominion Voting System machines (not used in North Dakota), she said.
Among North Dakota voters, Oliver said, “there is still the confidence … you know: how many ballots were cast is (equal to) how many are in the poll book that voted.”
Nonetheless, panelists in a National Conference of State Legislatures webinar on the election worried Americans’ usual assumption of fair, honest elections has been frayed.
“I don’t know how we overcome the hype that has arisen from false accusations of all kinds of fraud,” Sen. Greg Walker, Republican chairman of the Indiana State Senate Elections Committee told the panel. “You’ll find all kinds of concerns … (county) successions from states … armed resistance to settling a presidential election — things I never would have imagined I would have heard in this country,” he says.
Walker thinks much of that breakdown stems from voters’ plain negligence in learning how elections work. For example, he said, Indiana counties invite the public in to watch testing of new voting machines, and “no one from the public shows up. They don’t want to understand the process; they want to complain about the misconceptions.”
The result, he says: Voters blame “that local person, that county level [election official]. I don’t see a tool … to overcome the kind of media sensations that were made for four years prior to this election cycle about how untrusted (the election) was going to be.”
Indeed, President Trump made unsupported claims that more than 3 million undocumented residents voted in the 2016 election and that over 1 million California votes were fraudulent. On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton followed up U.S. intelligence agencies’ 2017 reports on Russian interference with her own claim that Russian agents cost her the presidency.
As a trained Virginia election official, I saw and heard plenty questionable, mistaken or dishonest (often hard to tell) claims in news reports across the country after Nov. 3.
For example, Virginia polls all operate with officials affiliated with both parties but also welcome extra observers assigned by political parties who can watch but not serve voters or touch ballots or voting machines. When polls close at 7 p.m. and voters have filed out, everyone must leave and doors are closed for security. Observers must also leave then unless they commit to stay until votes are tallied and sent in sealed boxes to the county. We take no chances on ballots disappearing, or being added, once the poll doors are closed.
Nonetheless, I observed countless claims by voters or observers in several states saying they were illegally chased out after polls closed. That makes me wonder if the complainers know the poll’s basic rules.
How to cure the nation’s voter flu?
I’ve seen proposals in The Hill, the Washington Post, a new report from the National Task Force on Election Crises Issues, and more, all calling for a type of national bipartisan commission, and they advance many good suggestions.
But states, counties and cities, not national panels, run elections.
Tammy Patrick of the Democracy Fund, a NCSL panelist suggested: “Have a day where, all across your state, the legislators spend the day going into election offices … (and) talk to election officials.” She urges election officials everywhere: “invite your legislators to your state association meetings.”
Yes, but let’s also go beyond state lawmakers and election officials and strive for a more informed electorate.
Civic knowledge has sunk at an all-time low. A 2016 survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center in Pennsylvania found only 26 percent of Americans can name the three branches of government (down sharply from earlier years). The survey found just nine states and the District of Columbia retain the long tradition of a year of high school civics and government; most states still require a semester; 11 states, no civics at all.
My suggestion: Drop the voting age to 17 and get all states to require at least a semester of civics in the senior year. As seniors and legal voters, they could be trained in as election officials and get their civics course credit while helping run election polls. Perhaps colleges could include a similar choice for freshman.