By Jill Goldwasser
Americans have had a rocky past when it comes to election confidence. In the 19th century, machine party politics bought voters and stuffed ballot boxes (Matlin 92). The election of 2000 between George Bush and Al Gore shook voter trust in the electoral process (Gronke et al.). With the 2016 election came concerns of election interference by foreign powers (Abrams). Misinformation and mistrust characterized the 2020 cycle, threatening democracy (Coppins). After this past election, many Americans no longer trust our electoral process.
A policy brief from the Election Integrity Initiative states that “the basis for public trust is shaped by the broader political context in which elections take place, not just by the quality of the electoral process itself.” The 2016 election cycle and President Trump’s actions while in office brought out strong feelings from all sides of the political spectrum. For example, in 2017 Trump spoke publicly about the Charlottesville neonazi protest where a counterprotester was murdered, he described “very fine people on both sides” (Gray). This rhetoric did two things. First, by defending white nationalists, Trump looked to part of his base and told them they were welcome, whereas previous public figures had forced white supremacists into hiding. Second, it hurt and frightened the Americans who neonazis directly harm, especially because a woman died. According to a study done by the Pew Research Center in 2019, “at least three-quarters of Republicans said the president’s words sometimes or often made them feel hopeful, entertained, informed, happy and proud. Even larger shares of Democrats said his words sometimes or often made them feel concerned, exhausted, angry, insulted and confused.” Further, Trump’s rhetoric divided the political parties more than any other incoming president in the preceding 30 years (Dimock and Gramlich).
Because of his highly divisive politics, the 2020 election was poised to be one of the most contentious in United States history. Leading up to the election, a Pew Research survey found that 90 percent of Trump and Biden supporters said that if the other candidate was elected, irreversible damage would befall the nation (Dimock and Gramlich). Worldwide, “The higher the stakes in an election, the greater the possibility that results may be mistrusted or challenged” (Maarten Halff and Election Integrity Initiative). Trump and his supporters had spewed various false claims of election fraud, including claims about mail-in voting, dead voters participating in the election, faulty voting machines, and more (Yen et al.) leading up to the election and throughout the vote counting process. On November seventh, four days after voting closed, it was announced that Joe Biden had won the presidency (Detrow and Khalid). However, Trump’s supporters, deep into the lies of a stolen election, would not accept the outcome.
At the typically ceremonial Electoral College vote count on January 6th, Republican members of both chambers of Congress objected to the vote tallies in battleground states. Their actions perpetuated the false claims of fraud. Outside the Capitol building, a large crowd of people in support of Trump and people who believe the QAnon conspiracy theory amassed. Soon after the protesters came together, they pushed forward through the barricades and breached the Capitol in what has been called an insurrection and an egregious attack on democracy (Serwer). Policy must be enacted to ensure that overall trust in democratic systems increases.
Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, many states granted expanded mail balloting for elections in 2020, increasing levels of mail-in voting from about 22% to over 45% of the electorate voting by mail in the General Election (MIT Election Data and Science Lab). With such a large portion of voters utilizing the system, issues arose. First, the Postal Service failed to return all of the completed mail ballots to election officials by Election Day. In Philadelphia, just 66% of the mail-in ballots were delivered by Election Day. In Atlanta and Detroit, only around 80% of mail ballots arrived (Mangan). This led to a slow ballot counting process in key states, as election officials had to wait for more ballots to be delivered. Another problem that led to slow ballot counting was the various laws in place for the processing of mail-in ballots in different states. For example, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, which tend to be swing states, cannot begin processing their mail-in ballots before Election Day (Gringlas and Moore). Taking the time to count every vote is inherently a good thing, but as we saw in both the 2000 and 2020 elections, waiting for the winner to be announced feels like “being in limbo” (West et al.). Finally, as the days stretched on and the ballots were counted, Trump continued to spread misinformation about the election. These lies included ballot ‘dumping’ where he claimed that he was winning and then all of a sudden, a “massive dump of votes” (Yen et al.) came in for Biden, which put Biden in the lead to win the state. While President Trump insinuated that these ballots appeared out of nowhere, he was actually describing the continued process of tabulating ballots as they arrived. In many states, absentee ballot results from a municipality are tabulated and reported all at once, appearing like a massive ‘dump’ of votes. However, Trump was not the sole perpetrator of these lies. Conservative media, such as Breitbart News, The Washington Times, The Gateway Pundit, and The Washington Examiner propagated large amounts of misinformation about mail ballots being thrown away in September and October of 2020 (Hsu). Following the election, outlets like One America News and Newsmax prided themselves on refusing to call the election for either candidate, and Fox News continued to spread false claims of voter fraud (Barr and Ellison). GOP politicians promoted the claims of a stolen election as well. When asked by the Washington Post in December, Rep. Mo Brooks and Rep. Paul Gosar both said that there was too much evidence of fraud and that they could not accept Biden as president, and 129 Republicans supported Trumps further efforts to claim the presidency (The Washington Post Staff). Many of these elected officials signed onto a lawsuit in Texas that asked to extend the the deadline for certification of presidential electors. The standing for the suit was based in claims of election fraud. The Supreme Court dismissed it (Liptak). This combination created a conservative echo chamber that was difficult to escape, and thus those on the political right believed that the election was conducted fraudulently.
Trump’s base had also been primed to believe the lies of the election. The levels of contention made them concerned that Trump would not be elected, so when he, their media platforms, and their elected officials spewed these lies, they wanted to believe them. According to Dr. Karen Douglas at the University of Kent notes that “people are drawn to conspiracy theories when they… feel uncertain either in specific situations or more generally” (Mills and Douglas). The conspiracy of the stolen election and fraudulent election practices especially enticed those who had experienced a validation of values under the Trump administration.
On January 4, 2021, HR 1, also known as the For the People Act, was introduced into the House of Representatives. It is a comprehensive bill that addresses many issues connected to absentee ballot tabulation, as well as other election reforms. Section 1621 dives into voting by mail, aimed at rectifying the challenges faced in the 2020 election. First, to resolve the problems with the Postal Service and delayed ballot delivery, HR 1 requires that “the United States Postal service shall ensure… that ballots are processed and cleared from any postal facility or post office on the same day the ballots are received at such a facility or post office.” This aspect functions as a measure of accountability for the Postal Service, as well as resolves the problem of late ballot delivery due to postal delays. Furthermore, ensuring that ballots are received and delivered increases voter confidence because the voters know for certain their vote will matter.
Increased speed in counting ballots would lead to clearer results, thus increasing confidence in elections. Additionally, faster counting leaves less time for misinformation to spread. To make ballot tabulation faster, a later portion of Section 1621 requires states to “begin processing and scanning ballots cast by mail for tabulation at least 14 days prior to the date of the election involved.” The ballots are not to be tabulated before the election, they are only processed in order to prepare for counting. This aspect of HR 1 would ensure that all states are fully prepared to tally ballots in a timely manner. Florida already has this policy in place, allowing officials to begin processing ballots 22 days before the election (Sartory Link). University of Florida professor and voting expert believed that unlike in previous years, Florida was prepared to face the challenges brought by the general election. He noted that Florida had “the infrastructure in place to handle mail ballots, unlike some other states” (Man). Florida was in fact able to pre-process and tabulate ballots in order to have a definitive count by the end of election night. In contrast, Pennsylvania, a battleground state, was allowed to start processing mail ballots at 7 A.M. on Election Day (Ballotpedia). Late the next night, Joe Biden’s lead in Pennsylvania was great enough to prevent a recount, and thus the election was called in his favor (McCrone). Florida, because of this policy, was able to count ballots significantly faster than Pennsylvania.
For these reasons, the Senate must pass HR 1 and the president must sign it. However, if that is not possible, Congress should work to pass each of these aspects individually in an attempt to combat disinformation and increase trust.
Abrams, Abigal. “Here’s What We Know So Far About Russia’s 2016 Meddling.” Time, 18 April 2019.
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Barr, Jeremy, and Sarah Ellison. “Conservative media has stayed devoted to Trump’s bogus claims of victory — but cracks are starting to show.” The Washington Post, 20 November 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/trump-conservative-media-fox-election-fraud-claims/2020/11/20/c6febaf0-29d2-11eb-b847-66c66ace1afb_story.html.
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