Hoover Institution (Stanford, CA) – Election officials from around the country gathered on January 23, 2023, at a conference co-sponsored by the Hoover Institution’s Center for the Revitalization of American Institutions and the Election Official Legal Defense Network (EOLDN) to discuss lessons learned from the 2022 election and what more needs to be done to foster public confidence in the 2024 elections.
The bipartisan group of active and former election officials joined with academics and other election observers to assess challenges in election administration and the impact of charges that election results are not accurate.
The conference’s backdrop was the 2022 elections, which saw continued attacks on the accuracy of the system and “election denier” candidates running in battleground states for key statewide election administration offices. The election’s results showed that while every first-time election-denier candidate for one of these offices in a battleground state lost, every incumbent official on the local, state, and federal levels who had engaged in election denialism after the 2020 election won. As in the 2020 elections, there was no sufficient evidence of systemic fraud to overturn the results of any race in the 2022 election. Conference participants observed that, based on the election’s results, election denialism would remain a significant factor in the 2024 elections.
Sessions at the daylong conference, held under the Chatham House Rule to foster candid discussion through an off-the-record contribution, featured three main themes: a recap of the administration of the 2022 elections and the impact of specific actions by election officials and election deniers on public trust in voting processes and procedures; steps election officials believe need to be taken to increase public trust for the 2024 elections; and an assessment of how persistent election denialism impacts free and fair elections in America.
A Debriefing of the 2022 Election and Developing Best Practices for 2024 and Beyond
Election officials faced great challenges in 2022, stemming from persistent yet unsubstantiated charges about the reliability of elections, as well as changes implemented in the 2020 cycle because of the COVID-19 pandemic, including increases in mail-in ballots and early voting in many states. Although the pandemic has waned, some states are still grappling with retaining their COVID-era voting laws. The most acrimonious debates over election processes occurred in states and jurisdictions with the sharpest political divides, but some less-competitive states were not immune to controversy.
In addressing the acrimony, election officials participating in the conference recommended active transparency and outreach initiatives intended to encourage all voters to “kick the tires” of their voting system so that they can learn about the safeguards embedded in it. Officials also found success in increasing their communications with the public. Through active media strategies in the runup to the 2022 elections, these officials were able to explain details about the voting process and anticipate and address charges against the accuracy of their systems. Some of the participating election officials also hosted educational sessions and published materials that countered such charges before they were lodged.
In jurisdictions where election workers had reported harassment and threats of polling place disruptions, partnerships with law enforcement proved successful. The election officials urged that their colleagues continue to work with their respective local law enforcement agencies to ensure safety and order at the polls.
The election officials noted that a common attitude among skeptical voters is that while they may trust their local elections, they believe that other states or localities are susceptible to voting irregularities. Problems with the conduct of the vote are rare, yet when alleged, they end up becoming magnified as political talking points in the national media, which can potentially erode overall confidence in elections. The officials urged greater transparency and engagement with the news media to counteract narratives that undermine the voting process.
During the conference, the election officials said that they faced issues in 2022 that are likely to be present in 2024:
- Unreasonably long lines at some polling places
- A push in some jurisdictions to revert to hand-counting votes, a process that takes longer than electronic counting and interjects human judgment into ballot tabulation at the cost of accuracy
- An increase in frivolous recount requests even when margins of victory are insurmountable
- An increase in frivolous open records requests, driven in part by a market for election litigation
- An increase in threats or voter intimidation at polling stations
The Outlook for the 2024 Elections
Conference participants noted that while candidates who engaged in election denialism fell far short of meeting their expectations in statewide contests in battleground states, numerous other candidates who questioned the reliability of elections still won their races. Local election officials in jurisdictions where election denial candidates lost still believe that voting integrity will continue to be a contentious issue in 2024. Conference participants explained that in 2022, they faced a barrage of public records requests and mass challenges to voters’ registrations that taxed resources and time in preparing for the actual election. They also noted that the similarities of the requests across jurisdictions suggested that standard responses could be developed. Participants further cited the ongoing litigation filed by the losing statewide candidates in Arizona and incidents of local election officials in several states refusing to certify elections despite a clear popular vote count and no evidence of fraud or irregularities.
The issue of election accuracy is a theme that continued to be expounded by former president Donald Trump and his supporters in 2022, well after his election loss in 2020. Recent polling shows both that Trump is currently the leading candidate in 2024 Republican primary polls and that a significant percentage of the Republican Party continues to believe that elections don’t accurately reflect the will of voters—despite the failure of this political message in competitive races in battleground states in 2022.
Conference participants said that sufficient funding and enforcement of laws protecting election officials and workers faced with harassment are important components of well-run elections. Attrition in the ranks of election administrators and challenges recruiting volunteer poll workers are continuing issues that need to be addressed.
Two issues of election administration are also likely to be seriously discussed in the lead-up to November 2024:
- The timeliness of election results. Among voters who believe fraud occurred in 2022 or 2020, a large portion were concerned about the length of time it takes to count votes. These voters suggest that any states that spend numerous days counting votes must be engaged in some kind of illegal activity. While some states can process their preliminary results for public release on election night, others cannot. Participants noted that two principal factors account for such discrepancies: a) some states do not authorize mail-in ballots to be processed until election day while others allow the processing to begin well in advance; and b) some states allow mail-in ballots to be received days after the election while other states require such ballots to be received by the time polls close on election day. The issue hinges on policy choices by individual states. Elected officials in some states believe that processing ballots before election day will result in the preliminary release of vote totals, despite no instances of that happening in states where that procedure is in effect. And in some states, election officials believe that delayed results are fodder for election deniers to question the integrity of the process, while in other states, officials place a premium on extending their ballot receipt deadlines to increase voter participation. The issue of mail-in ballot deadlines is a source of tension between election officials who say that they need time to do their jobs and others who insist that speedier results are essential for the credibility of elections.
- Maintenance of voter registration lists. Many of the complaints against election administration include charges that numerous illegal ballots are received from former residents who are no longer eligible to vote. Many of the participating election officials were complimentary of the Election Registration Information Center (ERIC), an entity supported by 32 states and the District of Columbia that cross-checks state voter registration rolls to sort out ineligible voters. But the officials also noted that several politicians in some states where distrust of the election system runs high want to opt out of ERIC. The participants maintained that states that are not part of ERIC have no other means to check their voter registration rolls against other states.
A number of states are also considering new laws that could impact election administration. These include proposals to address ballot harvesting concerns, make changes to processes regarding the verification of mail-in ballots, allow some expansions of early voting, increase the investigative authority of law enforcement agencies, or add additional statutory protections for election officials.
The Future of Election Administration
The participating officials explained that there is no such thing as a perfect election and that with approximately 10,000 jurisdictions across the country responsible for the casting and counting of ballots, problems will undoubtedly arise in each cycle. Considering the reality of hyperpolarization in American politics, the officials held that they need to foster even greater engagement with the public and transparency in the voting process while also “prebutting” charges of inaccurate elections. Conference participants expressed the view that election denialism will continue to be present over the next few elections.
The participants maintained that elections and voter attitudes evolve with every cycle. Paper trails for ballots and pre-established methods and standards for post-election “risk limiting audits” that measure the accuracy of vote tallies are now being implemented in most jurisdictions and should be in all to enhance voter confidence. Accurate voter rolls are important for both assuring smooth-running polling places and instilling confidence in the electoral process.
Attrition of personnel is also a perpetual challenge that has been exacerbated recently as election officials face threats and harassment. While there is an ongoing debate over whether election administrators should be appointed or elected, there is no disagreement that all jurisdictions need to recruit more volunteers to be both poll watchers and poll workers.
In the long view, several areas were highlighted for additional research:
- Which aspects of elections have the most and least public trust and how election administrators should best communicate with voters to increase confidence in the system
- Best practices to refine standards for post-election audits and validation of election results
- Voting by mail—what works and does not, and what security measures are most reassuring to the public
- In-person voting—how to make it easier and more secure
- Voter registration list maintenance and best practices for keeping the rolls accurate
Election officials have a challenging job ahead of them, as they must work to ensure free and fair elections and counter the persistent tide of election denialism.
For more analysis on the state of American elections, tune in to Saints, Sinners, and Salvageables, a podcast hosted by the conference’s chief organizer, Benjamin Ginsberg, Hoover’s Volker Distinguished Visiting Fellow and a preeminent election law expert. In the podcast, Ginsberg and guests discuss issues that are causing partisan rancor over voting processes and provide solutions on how confidence can be restored in American democracy.