The second votes in the 2024 presidential election will be elected on January 23 during the New Hampshire primaries, following the Republican caucus in Iowa which was held on January 15. More than three years after the 2020 presidential election, doubts about the integrity of the U.S. election remain high among large swaths of voters, thanks in large part to the rhetoric of the leading Republican candidate. Can we expect a repeat of the aftermath of the 2020 vote, which included the January 6 violence, litigation, and criminal charges that are still ongoing today? We asked David Becker ’91, JD ’94, founder and executive director of the nonprofit organization Center for Election Innovation and Research.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
During a public affairs council/morning consultation survey In September, 37 percent of American adults agreed that the November election would be “fair and open to everyone eligible to vote.” Why isn’t this percentage higher?
For years now, and particularly for more than three years, voters have heard messages from people across the political spectrum that they cannot trust election results because elections are rigged, that there has widespread fraud, voter suppression, voting is difficult. All these things are false. But as we become more and more divided as a nation — and, in particular, as the leader of one political party is particularly aggressive in spreading lies about democracy, leading almost all Republicans to doubt election results they lose – overall confidence in elections is down. Electoral officials nevertheless continue to produce good results. All their work has been transparent.
If you think about it, the elections of 2020 and since have withstood more scrutiny than any election in American history: more investigations, more partisan accusations without evidence, and more judicial oversight than we’ve never seen one before in an election. And each time, these elections have withstood this scrutiny. I hope this gives voters confidence that when election losers tell them to doubt the election outcome, they should be skeptical.
Another survey, conducted in October by Johns Hopkins University and Gallup, reported on adults who believe Donald Trump won the 2020 election. Only 30 percent of them responded “completely” or “a lot” when they were asked if they “trust the accuracy and integrity of elections” in their state; only 13 percent trust elections in other states. How can we strengthen the confidence of these voters before November?
I’m not sure this is possible. We must understand that many voters are subjected to a constant diet of toxic lies, fed by election losers and, in particular, the former president. These lies have been remarkably resilient in the face of the truth. However, there is hope. Current efforts to hold those who spread lies accountable for the damage they cause to our democracy are very important. Criminal proceedings against the former president and those who aided him in his efforts to interfere with the accuracy of the 2020 election results; civil suits against those who spread lies, often destroying the lives of others, all in service of the big lie; and the professional liability of lawyers and others who violated their oath and attempted to undermine democracy. We’re going to see a lot of that this year, and some of those efforts could bear fruit before the election. I am particularly attentive to the lawsuit filed by the special prosecutor in Washington against the former president.
You said the 2020 presidential election weathered the most careful election in American history. What improvements have been made to the process that should give citizens confidence in the 2024 vote?
So if you look at the 2016, 2020, and 2024 elections, we see steady improvement. In 2020, 95 percent of all ballots cast were recountable and verifiable paper ballots; This is a good election security practice and compares very favorably to only about 75 percent of all ballots cast on paper in 2016. In 2020, this included all ballots cast in every battleground state, including Georgia, that had paper. polls in 2020 for the first time in two decades; North Carolina and Pennsylvania, which had paper ballots statewide, where in 2016 most ballots had no paper component. And in all of those states, they audited those ballots to confirm that the counts were accurate. In each state, their accuracy has been confirmed. And in many of these states, they also conducted manual recounts to confirm the result.
In addition to these very important efforts regarding the integrity of the electoral process, we have had numerous court cases examining all aspects of the 2020 elections. And there will be trials that examine all aspects of the 2024 elections.
And still today, more than three years after the 2020 election, no evidence has yet been presented to a court anywhere in the country that would indicate there was any reason to doubt the outcome of the elections. 2020 elections. So voters should feel very confident, and yet election losers continue to lie about them.
Since 2020, election officials have faced threats and harassment, leading to staff turnover. A voting rights group, the Voting Rights Lab, reported in October, that in several battleground states, the high turnover rate of local election offices “means that these offices will be understaffed or staffed by inexperienced administrators” in 2024. Does this not portend new problems?
First, it is indisputable that election officials across the country, Republican and Democratic, in red and blue zones, were subjected to consistent abuse, harassment, and threats after the 2020 election. And those threats are not came because they did not do a good job; they came precisely because they did an extraordinary job. Somehow they managed to get the highest turnout in American history by any measure, 20 million more ballots than in any previous election. election ever held in the United States. And they did it in the middle of a global pandemic, while they, their staff and their families were getting sick. And this election has withstood all the scrutiny that the losers of this election could throw at it. It is one of the great achievements of the democratic process in American history. But they are tired. They were constantly attacked.
As some election officials leave, we see Americans step up; we see people in these roles stepping up. We’ve had several major elections since 2020. And those elections passed with very, very few problems. Election officials did what they always do, to give every eligible American a vote, even though they were under-resourced and had to try to overcome a host of other challenges. And they still got through it, and they will get through it again in 2024.
What is the biggest misconception among those who distrust our elections?
Many people who don’t have confidence in our elections have never been poll workers or volunteer poll workers. So they don’t see the 250 years of evolved checks and balances that we have in place to ensure that every eligible voter, but only eligible voters, can cast a ballot that will be counted correctly. There are so many checks and balances in place to ensure that. This is why voter fraud, although fairly easy to detect, is extremely rare. When this happens, we find it and we prosecute it. We know this is a tiny fraction; not zero, but not much more than zero of the overall vote total.
Additionally, I think there’s a misconception that all these checks and balances and the decentralization of our system – in which we have 10,000 electoral jurisdictions holding elections at the same time – makes it very difficult for any sort of massive fraud and not detected. Even if it were to happen, it would require a conspiracy of millions of people from both parties. Stealing a presidential election in the United States is as nearly impossible as one might imagine.
Much litigation and the January 6 riot at the Capitol followed Trump’s defeat by Joe Biden in 2020. What do you think will happen if a repeat occurs this year, i.e. Trump is the Republican candidate and he loses?
I and many others who work in this area are very concerned about some of the lies being spread by the former president, who may very well be the Republican nominee. He has already demonstrated that the facts and the lives of public officials across the country do not prevent him from spreading lies if he loses. We should all expect him to spread lies again if he loses, by any margin, and to demonstrate his contempt for the Constitution and the rule of law and attempt to delay or interfere with the process by which his loss will be confirmed.
He also has a chance to win, and it’s important that we as a society recognize the importance of elections. They are verifiable, they are transparent; there are legal ways to provide evidence to challenge them. But if your candidate loses – and there is always a loser in elections – (it is important) to accept that result and run the next campaign. But there is a very significant threat that the loser of the presidential campaign could seek to once again undermine confidence in the election and incite even worse violence than we might have seen in 2020.