Since 2008, partisan distrust of presidential election results has been substantial. In 2016, only 43 percent of Democrats believed that the election was free and fair; now, only 30 percent of Republicans do. Each party’s supporters are more likely to believe that the vote was free and fair if they won, and those on the losing side are becoming more suspicious of the results. With a defeated president trying for weeks to overturn an election he has falsely called fraudulent, our partisan breach will be hard to repair.
But electoral reform can still provide a better foundation of trust. Two decades since the 2000 Florida recount debacle revealed the shoddiness of how America votes, we should be able to provide a straightforward, sensible answer to anyone who asks, “How do you know the results are correct?”
Yet, we still do not have nationwide standards and procedures to assure Americans that results are reliable. Claims of widespread fraud are false, but we can do much more to provide stronger answers to those who might want to question the process or the results.
The true scandal is that we know what we need to do and have even begun to implement reforms in many states, but we have not instituted the changes nationwide.
The basics come down to this:
Easier registration, with standardized voter databases, would keep voters from being incorrectly purged from the rolls — which can disenfranchise them — or being left on them when they move — which creates mistrust and suspicions of fraud.
The easiest method is called automatic voter registration: If an eligible citizen has an interaction with a government agency, like the motor vehicle department, she’s registered unless she declines, and the records are sent digitally to the registrar, which means cleaner, more up-to-date voter rolls. Nineteen states and the District of Columbia are already running such a system. This should be expanded nationwide.
We need to encourage states to exchange voter data so the records of people who move or die can easily be updated. The National Institute of Standards and Technology has been developing a common data format that would allow registrars in one state to exchange information with those in another state, greatly increasing the integrity of the rolls. A consortium of 30 states and the District of Columbia already has formed the Election Registration Information Center to make it easier for states to share data to both reach out to unregistered voters and to keep track of people who move or die so they are not wrongly kept on voter rolls.
Voting rights groups have long asserted that purges of voter rolls — often disproportionately affecting minorities or students, two groups who tend to vote Democratic — are a form of voter suppression. The Republican answer has been that they are only for maintenance, to ensure ineligible voters don’t remain on the books. If that’s the concern, the fastest way to fix all this would be to adopt these standards for registration and data exchange.
Still, we should not continue to rely on the tenacity of voters to overcome these obstacles. Research consistently finds that Black and Latino voters wait much longer in line to vote than their white counterparts, and this is simply unacceptable. There should be a sufficient number of voting booths everywhere so nobody has to wait in line for too long, and this should be a funded federal mandate.
But it’s not enough to have the potential to vote quickly if one doesn’t actually get to vote because of problematic record-keeping at the polling place. Electronic or paper poll books are used to check if a voter is registered to vote at a particular location. Nationwide use of standardized, secured electronic poll books, with a paper backup copy, would greatly help speed up voting, lessen suspicions of fraud and instances of disenfranchisement — and even make counting faster by reducing the need for provisional ballots when a registration is disputed. Increasing numbers of states already use a version of such digital poll books, but there needs to be a national standard for their certification and security, along with national funding.
The number of people who are estimated to vote with no paper trail is down to 5 percent of the electorate — still high, but a number that’s been steadily going down (it was 25 percent in 2016). Optical scanners, which use paper ballots, provide everything we need: easy-to-mark ballots that can be processed by machines for speed or for checking, and easy to audit and do recounts — people can look at them if necessary after the election.
These systems are already nearly universal, demonstrating that progress is possible. They should become the national standard as we upgrade the remaining paper-based ballot-marking devices and replace all electronic-only devices.
Even with a system that’s expected to work well, we need to know that it has worked well. Like any other equipment, optical-scan counting machines can fail, and human error can add to this. That’s why we should have risk-limiting audits after each election after the counting is complete but before the result is certified.
In such audits, a small number of randomly selected ballots are examined and compared with the already reported results. Well-established statistical methods allow us to spot potential problems — be it errors with scanners, human error, manipulation. This helps us feel confident that the reported result is what we’d get if all ballots were correctly counted. Risk-limiting audits should be a standard final step before certifying elections.
Georgia’s electoral laws mandate such audits, and its Republican secretary of state undertook just that (though he decided to audit all the presidential votes given the controversy drummed up by the president and the narrow margin). Colorado, Rhode Island and Virginia also have such audits on their books. Georgia’s effort is a pilot program, as are those in Indiana and Nevada.
During the audit in Georgia, a discovery was made of a few thousand ballots that had not been counted because of human error in uploading results — too small to change the outcome, but showing exactly why audits are a good idea before results are certified.
In such a polarized climate it may seem difficult or impossible to pass legislation on voting, but it’s in neither party’s long-term interest to have this kind of suspicion hover around elections. The secretary of state in Georgia has shown that officials dedicated to election integrity can oversee a safe, fair vote, with transparency, even if the result is against their partisan interests. And some — though too few — prominent members of the Republican Party have expressed their discontent with the president’s baseless claims of fraud. It’s time for them to join reform efforts.
There is a notable overlap of interests. Voting machines are distrusted by people in both parties, and postelection audits help everyone. Improving voter registration makes registration easier (usually a Democratic demand) and removes suspicions of voter fraud (usually a Republican demand).
If the Biden administration made this a priority, it would take just a few Republican senators to pass legislation to fix many of our ailments with the electoral process.
There are other, broader, questions, of course, like developing national standards for handling of mail-in ballots and making Election Day a holiday. Plus, all this doesn’t address other crucial problems of our electoral system — the Electoral College makes people outside swing states feel that presidential candidates do not fight for their votes, gerrymandering can cement minority rule and the Senate gives disproportionate power to tiny groups of people in small states.
Still, if we can’t get even voter registration and counting right, what hope is there?
We have well-studied methods that are effective, and there is nothing more urgent than making sure our elections work — everything else a government can try to do depends on that.
Zeynep Tufekci is an associate professor at the University of North Carolina, the author of “Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest” and a contributing New York Times opinion writer.