3 Questions: Administering elections in hyper-partisan era

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Charles Stewart III is the Kenan Sahin Distinguished Professor of Political Science at MIT and a renowned expert on U.S. election administration. A founding member of the influential Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project, Stewart also founded MIT’s Election Data and Science Lab, which recently teamed up with the American Enterprise Institute to release a major report: Lessons Learned from the 2020 Election. MIT SHASS Communications asked Stewart to share some additional insights on the state of U.S. elections in advance of November voting.

Q: The United States has a decentralized system of election administration, which means local jurisdictions have a lot of control over how votes are collected and counted. What are the pros and cons of this system – particularly at this moment, when partisan political efforts are highly focused on election administration?

A: The advantage of the American decentralized system is that the basic parameters of how people vote get decided locally. This has helped create a great deal of trust among voters about how their own votes are counted. Historically, the greatest disadvantage has been that the anti-democratic pockets of America – think of the pre-Voting Rights Act Deep South – have been able to suppress voting, sometimes brutally.

At present, however, all issues of consequence have become nationalized, and all policy choices – including those around voting – are therefore seen through the lens of the national parties, not local needs. This nationalization of politics has left little room for local election officials to experiment with new technologies and methodologies, and it has made election administration particularly toxic. Now, even those who trust how votes are counted in their own backyards are often deeply distrustful of how votes are counted elsewhere.

Thus, the question about what is best for Arizona or Georgia or California is not left simply to residents of those states, as in the past; today, it is the subject of attention from (often angry) partisan zealots elsewhere in the country. In such an environment, America’s decentralized – and thus naturally inconsistent – system can be a liability.

Another way that the decentralization of the system hurts election administration is often overlooked. Because each state is autonomous and often devolves authority down to the local level, it has been difficult to create standardized voting systems. This means there is no national market for technology and business solutions to the challenges of election administration – and yet, innovation is sorely needed. The American system of election administration was designed for voting in the 1880s, but the 2020s present a very different set of problems.

Many other policies that used to be hyper-local – public education, water and sewer service, public health, etc. – have often been consolidated into larger government units and there has been greater cooperation across towns and counties. States and the federal government have taken on a bigger role in funding them. But not elections. The result is that election administration often throws antiquated solutions at modern problems or, as in the case of the cybersecurity threat, is slow to react.

The reaction to the challenges of voting during the pandemic saw some movements toward a more modern and coordinated management of election administration. States stepped in and provided centralized services, such as printing and processing mail ballots or developing online portals for voters to track mail ballots. The federal government provided nearly half-a-billion dollars to shore up security and meet the many demands on election managers as they quickly pivoted to new election modalities. One hopes that this momentum will carry into the near future, but efforts to re-litigate the 2020 election are a major distraction.

Q: What safeguards exist to ensure that future elections remain free of interference – particularly from those at the top echelons of political power?

A: The 2020 election showed the resilience of the fact-based part of the election administration system – election administrators, judges, and research institutions (including universities) – that have stood for the rule of law in the face of illiberal attacks on election administration. Opponents of fair elections recognize this and have attacked all parts of this fact-based bulwark. They are physically threatening election workers, trying to remove judicial oversight of election administration, and creating so-called “election integrity” think tanks to perpetuate disinformation about elections in America.

The fact-based part of election administration is robust, but we can’t be complacent about its health. The federal government is stepping up the protection of election workers and officials; states should do this as well. Unfortunately, some states have taken action that is less than helpful by passing laws that try to strip authority from local election officials and empower state legislatures to overturn the results of free and fair elections. I think there’s every reason to be concerned about these laws, but not because I think they will achieve these worrisome ends. The biggest worry is that such laws encourage doubt about outcomes and give those who lost elections a platform to sow that doubt.

It’s important to keep in mind that the first principles of election laws have not been overturned in these states, nor have constitutional guarantees. There is a judicial principle that says that if an election has been run under a set of rules established before the election, that election’s results must stand even if some of the rules may have been contestable beforehand. If partisan election officials or state legislatures want to throw out an election result because they don’t like the outcome, or on a pretext of unproven fraud, the courts will intervene.

Similarly, if local election officials are replaced for pretextual reasons, it’s hard to imagine a state or federal court letting this stand. Still, democracy will be damaged regardless of the outcomes of such disputes. Politicians will be given more opportunities to denigrate the voting process, and baseless conspiracy theories will be given a megaphone.

For now, I’m more worried about the culture of democracy than I am about whether winners will be properly certified. That can change if the assaults on neutral election administration continues.

One of the final challenges facing the free conduct of elections is how to stanch the stream of disinformation about elections that is the source of the populist energy centered on attacking the system. Even when the clown-show of a ballot review in Arizona had to conclude that Joe Biden legitimately won that state in the 2020 presidential election, the release of the reviewers’ report was used by an array of manipulative pundits to continue to sow doubt.

This is a misinformation problem that infects American public life generally: It’s not confined to election administration alone, or even to politics. Insisting on responsible behavior by the social media platforms is a necessary first step toward addressing the plague of misinformation, but it’s not likely to be enough. I think we are seeing the consequences of the half-century-long destruction of responsibly curated news sources in the name of economic disruption, and that problem and its consequences extend far beyond the administration of elections.

Q: Can you suggest some efforts – either by citizens, legislators, scholars, and/or pro-democracy organizations – that could effectively protect and strengthen democracy at this moment in the nation’s history?

A: The greatest effort to protect and strengthen democracy is voting itself. The consensus on the ground in states like North Carolina and Texas, where efforts have been made in the recent past to raise barriers to voting, is that the efforts of state legislatures in these states have actually served to mobilize pro-election forces. Donating to candidates who are pro-democracy and working for their election is probably the most important thing citizens can do.

For scholars, we need to be laser-focused on what we do uniquely best, which is documenting the actual consequences of election laws on participation. Legislators who support barriers to voting often mis-estimate the consequences of such laws. Citizen groups who are hypervigilant about threats to democracy also may overestimate the power of some election laws to suppress or expand the vote. As scholars, we need to be independent voices in identifying the worst of the barriers, and we need to act to redress anti-democratic efforts, either through our publications or through litigation. If we don’t ground advocacy in science, those of us who study the workings of our democracy squander what we have to offer that is distinct.

Finally, I think we all have to be clear that the illiberal wind is blowing at a gale force in just one of the political parties. This is not a partisan statement, but a fact. Working to isolate the illiberal fringe of the Republican Party and protect those in the party who value open elections and political competition may be the most important thing of all, although how to do that is still not clear. My liberal friends, of whom I have hundreds, don’t like to hear it, but I think that saving the Republican Party from extreme illiberalism may be the most important pro-democracy activity in America.

At the moment, it’s not clear how that might happen, but ideas are being suggested. In a recent New York Times op-ed, Miles Taylor and Christine Todd Whitman, both strong Republicans, argued that the best path to change is for Republicans to vote for Democrats in 2022. They also alluded to the possibility of creating a conservative third party based on more traditional Republican values, not anti-democratic ones. Changes to election laws that discourage victory by extreme candidates of the left and the right might also work. (Rank-choice voting is one such popular reform.)

To be clear, changing voting rules to box out extremists or withholding votes from illiberal candidates will not purge the country of extreme anti-democratic movements. But, if we think that the biggest threat to upholding democratic values is the fact that political leaders believe they must appeal to anti-democratic elements, at least we can work to reduce the payoff to appealing to the fringes.

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