In a Dec. 30, 2020, interview with Fox News, claiming that he had to “stand up” for his constituents, Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley announced that he would challenge the certification of the 2020 election. These constituents felt disenfranchised, he said, and that their votes didn’t count. One take on these voters’ feelings is that they didn’t like the process because they didn’t like how things turned out. It’s possible, too, that they didn’t like the result because they really didn’t trust the process.
Mistrusting elections poisons democracy. If a president isn’t properly elected, and is even perceived as improperly elected, that can cast doubt on the legitimacy of every decision that his administration makes. American distrust of the electoral process has grown rapidly in the 21st century. After the 2000 election, given George W. Bush’s razor-thin Electoral College victory, the dispute over the recount, and the Supreme Court’s deciding the matter, many asked whether Bush was “really” president. Concerns about Russian interference led many to doubt that Donald Trump had legitimately won the 2016 presidential race. And today, some are still litigating the outcome of the 2020 race, while every proposed reform brings with it charges of trying to game the system.
Indeed, we seem to be locked into a kind of a death spiral in election reform, where anything that changes how we run elections is looked at in terms of which side will benefit. Bills being considered – and passed – in many states, justified as improving election “integrity” and “security,” seem almost transparently designed to shrink the electorate to a more GOP-friendly core. The goal is not making elections more trustworthy but electing more Republicans.
In essence, this is results-oriented tampering with the election process. Long term, it can only increase cynicism about our elections while stifling other, more sensible, reforms. The same phenomenon plays out in debates over redistricting, where each side jockeys to draw districts not in pursuit of better representation, but to ensure more districts “lean” their way. That’s nothing new, although we may be entering an era of exceptional brazenness in this regard. Using increasingly sophisticated computer programs to design districts that maximize partisan advantage has become a perverse art form.
To restore trust in elections, we have to find policies that are not simply tilted in favor of one political party. Policy that increases trust in elections has to benefit both sides. This will not be easy: Election reform never occurs in a vacuum, and many reforms do help one side more than the other – much of the time, in fact, we know in advance which side will benefit more. This colors and corrupts debate over the policy. We must work hard to assess reforms on the merits, and not in terms of partisan advantage.
We should start by examining reforms with broad appeal – such as limiting gerrymandering, and publicly financing campaigns – to lessen the appearance of corruption. We might also consider more systematic reform, such as restructuring voting rules so as to make a three- or four-party system viable. Allowing for more parties could lessen partisan polarization and the distrust that flows from it. We might break through “red vs. blue” into a subtler environment of red, blue, and green. Worldwide, multiparty democracies are less polarized and can be more successful at finding democratic consensus. In addition, considering bigger, if less feasible, reforms may have some benefit, too, and even lead to surprising results. And since it is harder to predict the long-run effects of such reforms and which side benefits from them, we may find it easier to convince the public to adopt them.
But perhaps the easiest thing we can do is to realize that American elections already, and for the most part, deserve our trust. Setting aside partisan rhetoric and conspiracy theorizing, the 2020 election was relatively problem-free. And this was, we should acknowledge, fairly amazing. COVID-19 greatly challenged our system’s ability to ensure safe and secure voting. People feared long lines, months-long delays in order to tabulate votes, and delays in mail service that would result in wasted votes. But states for the most part rose to the challenge, passing new laws and adjusting the election process to help people vote without risking their health. The country is full of nameless, heroic local election clerks who made this possible. The election wasn’t perfect, of course, but it was more than good enough – and worthy of our trust.
We must think big when considering how to guarantee the right to vote for all in free and fair elections, but we can also draw inspiration from our general success in holding trustworthy elections. Learning to trust the process may mean trusting in the people who make it happen, day in and day out – even when the result doesn’t go our way.