3 Questions: Administering Elections in the Hyper-partisan Age
Charles Stewart III is Kenan Sahin Distinguished Professor of Political Science at MIT and a renowned expert on US electoral administration. A founding member of the influential Caltech / MIT Voting Technology Project, Stewart also founded MIT’s Election Data and Science Lab, which recently partnered with the American Enterprise Institute to publish a major report: Lessons Learned from the 2020 Election. MIT SHASS Communications has asked Stewart to share some more information on the state of the US election ahead of the November vote.
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 – especially at a time when partisan political efforts are heavily focused on election administration?
A: The advantage of the American decentralized system is that the basic parameters of how people vote are decided locally. This has helped to create great confidence among voters as to how their own votes are counted. Historically, the biggest downside has been that America’s anti-democratic pockets – think of the pre-Deep South Voting Rights Act – have been able to suppress voting, sometimes brutally.
By now, however, all important issues have become nationalized, and all political choices – including those regarding voting – are therefore seen through the prism of national parties, not local needs. This nationalization of politics left little room for local election officials to experiment with new technologies and methodologies, and it made election administration particularly toxic. Now, even those who trust the way the votes are counted in their own backyards are often deeply suspicious of the way the votes are counted elsewhere.
So the question of what is best for Arizona, Georgia or California is not left to residents of those states alone, as in the past; today it is the object of the attention of fanatic (often angry) supporters elsewhere in the country. In such an environment, the decentralized American system – and therefore naturally incoherent – can be a handicap.
Another way in which decentralization of the system harms electoral administration is often overlooked. Because each state is autonomous and often delegates authority to the local level, it has been difficult to create standardized voting systems. This means that there is no national market for technological and business solutions to the challenges of election administration – and yet innovation is badly needed. America’s system of electoral administration was designed for voting in the 1880s, but the 2020s present a very different set of problems.
Many other policies that were once hyper-local – public education, water and sewerage, public health, etc. – have often been grouped into larger government units and there has been greater cooperation between cities and counties. The states and the federal government have assumed a greater role in their funding. But not the elections. The result is that the election administration often offers archaic solutions to modern problems or, as in the case of the cybersecurity threat, is slow to respond.
The response to the challenges of voting during the pandemic has seen some movement towards more modern and coordinated management of election administration. States stepped in and provided centralized services, such as printing and processing mail-in ballots or developing online portals for voters to track mail-in ballots. The federal government provided nearly half a billion dollars to bolster security and meet the many demands of election managers as they quickly turned to new electoral modalities. It is hoped that this momentum will continue for the foreseeable future, but efforts to challenge the 2020 election are a major distraction.
Q: What guarantees exist to ensure that future elections remain free from interference – especially from those at the highest levels of political power?
A: The 2020 elections showed the resilience of the factual part of the electoral administration system – electoral administrators, judges, and research institutes (including universities) – who defended the rule of law in the face of illiberal attacks on the election administration. electoral administration. . Opponents of a fair election recognize this and have attacked all parts of this fact-based bulwark. They physically threaten election workers, attempt to remove judicial oversight of election administration, and create “election integrity” think tanks to perpetuate election disinformation in America.
The factual part of the election administration is solid, but we cannot be complacent about its health. Federal government strengthens protection for workers and election officials; states should do it too. Unfortunately, some states have taken steps that are less than helpful by passing laws that attempt to remove the authority of local election officials and allow state legislatures to overrule free and fair election results. I think there is every reason to be concerned about these laws, but not because I think they will achieve these worrisome goals. The biggest worry is that such laws encourage doubt about the outcome and give those who lost the elections a platform to sow that doubt.
It is important to keep in mind that the first principles of electoral laws have not been overturned in these states, nor do they have constitutional guarantees. There is a judicial principle which says that if an election was conducted according to a set of rules established before the election, the results of that election must be maintained even if some of the rules may have been challenged beforehand. If partisan election officials or state legislatures want to reject an election result because they dislike the result, or under the guise of unproven fraud, the courts will step in.
Likewise, if local election officials are replaced for pretextual reasons, it’s hard to imagine a state or federal court leaving that position. Yet democracy will be undermined regardless of the consequences of such disputes. Politicians will have more opportunities to disparage the voting process, and baseless conspiracy theories will be given a megaphone.
For now, I’m more concerned with the culture of democracy than whether the winners will be properly certified. That may change if attacks on a neutral election administration continue.
One of the latest challenges facing the free conduct of elections is how to stem the tide of election disinformation that is the source of the populist energy focused on attacking the system. Even when the clown show of an Arizona ballot review must have concluded that Joe Biden had legitimately won that state in the 2020 presidential election, the reviewers’ report release was used by an array of manipulative experts. to continue to sow doubt.
This is a problem of disinformation that infects American public life in general: it is not confined to electoral administration alone, nor even to politics. Insisting on responsible behavior on the part of social media platforms is a necessary first step in tackling the scourge of disinformation, but it is unlikely to be enough. I think we see the consequences of the destruction of half a century of responsibly organized sources of information in the name of economic disruption, and this problem and its consequences extend far beyond the administration of governments. elections.
Q: Can you suggest any efforts – either on the part of citizens, lawmakers, academics and / or pro-democracy organizations – that could effectively protect and strengthen democracy at this time in the nation’s history?
A: The greatest effort to protect and strengthen democracy is the vote itself. The consensus on the ground in states like North Carolina and Texas, where recent efforts have been made to remove barriers to voting, is that the efforts of the state legislatures in those states have in fact served to mobilize forces. pro-electoral. Donating to pro-democracy candidates and working for their election is probably the most important thing citizens can do.
For academics, we need to focus on what we do best, which is documenting the real consequences of electoral laws on turnout. Lawmakers who support barriers to voting often misjudge the consequences of such laws. Citizen groups hypervigilant in the face of threats to democracy may also overestimate the power of some election laws to suppress or expand the vote. As academics, we must be independent voices to identify the worst of obstacles, and we must act to redress undemocratic efforts, either through our publications or through litigation. If we don’t base the advocacy on science, those of us who study how our democracy works are wasting what we have to offer that is distinct.
Finally, I think we must all be clear that the illiberal wind is blowing at full speed in only 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 it is still unclear how to do it. My liberal friends, of whom I have hundreds, don’t like to hear it, but I think saving the Republican Party from extreme illiberalism may be the most important pro-democracy activity in America.
At the moment, it’s unclear how this could happen, but ideas are being suggested. In a recent New York Times editorial, Miles Taylor and Christine Todd Whitman, both staunch Republicans, argued that the best path to change was for Republicans to vote Democrats in 2022. They also hinted at the possibility of creating a conservative third party. based on more traditional, non-anti-democratic republican values. Changes to electoral laws that discourage victory for extremist left and right-wing candidates could also work. (Elective voting is one such popular reform.)
To be clear, changing the voting rules to exclude extremists or withhold votes from illiberal candidates will not purge the country of extreme anti-democratic movements. But, if we believe that the greatest threat to the maintenance of democratic values is the fact that political leaders think they have to appeal to anti-democratic elements, at least we can work to reduce the gain in appealing to the democratic ones. margins.