How open government can uphold election integrity
Here’s the good news: The 2016 election is not rigged.
Here’s the bad news: Across the United States, the local officials charged with conducting a free and fair election are facing an unprecedented wave of distrust.
“We have never seen this amount of calls. We spend an inordinate amount of time … responding to people,” Tom Schedler, secretary of state for Louisiana, said in October at the Bipartisan Policy Center, commenting on rigging claims. “There is no validity to that whatsoever,” he said. “Unfortunately, most people we’re responding to, it makes no difference what you show them to debunk the theory — they don’t believe it.”
Unfortunately, public outcry isn’t focused on the problems that have led to the U.S. election system being ranked at the bottom of Western democracies by the Election Integrity Project, like gerrymandering, discriminatory electoral laws, campaign finance or voter registration accuracy.
Instead, they’re focused on process, like polling stations, vote counting and post-election results, all of which the U.S. compares well; research shows that voter fraud is vanishingly rare in the United States, with clerical errors and bad data accounting for most reports. In the face of these bogus voter fraud claims, what can federal, state and local officials do?
Here are four ways for the members of the public and government officials to use transparency and accountability to help mitigate rumors, conspiracy theories and false claims.
Build in resiliency and backup systems
Unfortunately, it’s reasonable to expect that the widespread disruptions to internet services in October may have been a preview of what to expect on Election Day.
If voters do not vote early, they should make sure to find their polling place in advance of Tuesday. Take a moment to Google “find my polling place” and print it out.
Election officials would be wise to maintain local databases on mobile devices and print out lists of registered voters in case they lose access to voter registration systems due to online outages.
Newsrooms should shore up security across organizational social media accounts and web servers to protect against compromise and dissemination of false reports. This is particularly true of Associated Press reporters and editors, whose accounts and voting data have become a critical part of Election Day infrastructure.
Publish and promulgate explanations of checks and balances
States, counties and cities should post clear explanations of the electoral process on websites, push them out on social media and accept media requests to discuss how the voting process works. Ideally, these will go beyond an outline of the voting process, as provided by the Massachusetts Secretary of the Commonwealth’s Office, to explain how state laws anticipate human errors and build in safeguards to address them.
They’ll point out that polling places are public spaces, at libraries or schools, and community centers open to the public, like churches or gyms. They’ll describe how the ballots and voting machine are kept secure prior to voting, with seals that show tampering, and that observers can check them. They’ll explain how political parties and campaigns can send watchers to observe the safety and integrity of Election Day, and how lawful poll watchers are trained. They’ll lay out how election officials keep records of who voted and how. They’ll explain and document how every step of the electoral process works, including ballot preparation, testing of equipment, voting early, by absentee and on Election Day, and the count, transmission and certification of results. They’ll provide every possible reason for voters to trust that they have verified the integrity of the election.
There will be lines, errors, mistakes, misconfigurations, conflicts and other problems on Election Day. Transparency and accountability about what happened and what was done are democracy’s best protectors.
Report problems to Electionland and the FBI
Voter intimidation is illegal. Certified poll watchers are there to protect you and your right to vote, not to prevent you from voting or discourage you. If you experience extreme or abusive intimidation at the polls, call 911 and contact the local law enforcement present. You should also report all instances of voter intimidation to the FBI Civil Rights Division: Staff at 1-800-253-3931. You can also voice complaints, problems or concerns related to voting by fax 202-307-3961, by email to email@example.com and by complaint forms that may be submitted here.
If you aren’t subject to voter intimidation — and we hope you aren’t! — please consider sharing your experience at the polls with Electionland, a nationwide collaboration of nonprofit media outlets that are documenting the 2016 election. Text “ELECTIONLAND” to 69866 to participate, or submit a report online.
Stand up and decry misinformation
It’s not enough for federal officials, members of Congress or the White House to stand up for the integrity of the elections, particularly in a moment of extreme partisan polarization. It’s incumbent on state and local officials, particularly secretaries of state, to explain to voters how elections are conducted. Given unprecedented concerns about foreign actors seeking to influence elections, it’s also critical for officials to explain how electronic voting systems are secured and protected.
A recent panel on election integrity at the Aspen Institute featured Edgardo Cortés, commissioner of the Virginia Department of Elections, describing both the security provisions that their systems follow, like an “airgap” from the internet, and the checks and balances present at each polling station, from observers to counts in public, and following the vote, in the certification process. Common Cause’s steps to secure our election are a useful outline as well.
On Election Day, remember that other nations may have an interest in undermining trust in our election. As with wars and natural disaster, pranksters will be online. Beware videos and doctored images from previous years or other locations.
Don’t spread rumors and conspiracies using your own social media accounts. Read the Verification Handbook. Google claims first, search for the link on Twitter, consult Snopes.com to see if it’s a debunked rumor, consider the authority of the publication (beware fake news sites!) and then decide whether to share the story. Please do share verified fact-checks of rumors: They change minds.
We hope that you’ll turn out to vote! Go find your polling place and exercise your most fundamental democratic right.