Blog

Key to Healthy Democracy: Modern, Secure Elections

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September 28, 2017

Democracy Fund is proud to announce a new grant to the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT). With demonstrated expertise in data privacy and a deep understanding of the unique challenges of election administration, CDT is positioned to be critical bridge builder to help experts and policymakers better communicate, collaborate, and respond to threats to our election system.

Before I describe CDT’s voter registration and campaign data cybersecurity project, I’d like to offer a small window into our thinking about the importance of this line of work and how it supports Democracy Fund’s strategic priorities.

Voter Registration & the Increasing Challenges for Data Security

Increasing access to the Internet, the growing civic tech community, and improved technologies have paved a path for states to modernize voter registration systems. These modernization policies are appealing to many legislators and election experts who view them as a step toward cost-efficiency and an improved voter experience. For the last 15 years, states have been modernizing voter registration systems by offering online voter registration to citizens, facilitating collaboration between election officials and government offices covered under the National Voter Registration Act, and joining state-driven efforts like ERIC to keep voter rolls clean and identify eligible voters. As our systems map shows, these changes to registration systems help make voter lists more accurate, which leads to better election planning, and fewer problems experienced or perceived by voters on Election Day.

From an administrative perspective, modernizing voter registration improves the voter experience by allowing the voter to type in his or her own information into a database and streamlines the transfer of registration data between government agencies and elections departments. Registration data also helps political campaigns better understand the electorate and strategically reach out to potential voters. As these modernization policies are implemented in the states, election officials and other managers of election data have the enormous responsibility of maintaining these digital systems and protecting them from cyber-attacks—all while operating on limited budgets, preserving voting rights, and protecting individual privacy.

Election Integrity, Trust, and the 2016 Election

The tone and tenor of the 2016 presidential campaign raised our concerns about public trust in elections. While it is not unusual for the public to be concerned about possible voting fraud, the allegations from both presidential candidates that the election system was “rigged” or “hacked” in favor of a particular candidate or outcome felt atypical and worrisome. Irresponsible campaign rhetoric may have created (or reinforced pre-existing) misconceptions about the way elections are run. After the election was over and as fears about foreign interference in our elections were mounting, matters were further complicated by the NSA’s apparent documented evidence that the Russian government attempted to infiltrate voter registration systems in several states.

Calling into question the legitimacy of the election outcome without evidence of actual wrongdoing is harmful to the public’s faith in government and undermines our democracy. To reiterate: public concerns about election integrity are not unique to this past election cycle. However, public misconceptions about the way elections work and the real threats of foreign interference make the cybersecurity risks faced by campaigns and election officials even more significant. We must work toward sustainable solutions that give election officials and others the tools needed to protect the voices and votes of the American electorate.

Though difficult, it is not impossible to allay the public’s concerns. The increasing use of technology in election management makes the system more complex than ever before. It requires listeners to understand very technical administrative processes and makes it difficult for the news media to report about. However, election officials play a key role in shaping the public’s understanding of election process, and voters are very likely to listen. For these reasons, it is vital for stakeholders to balance the need to be responsive to public concerns with the needs of under-resourced election departments that could benefit from doable, sustainable best practice recommendations from the cybersecurity and civic tech communities.

Why We Invested

At Democracy Fund, we believe that every eligible American should have an equal opportunity to vote in elections that are free, fair, accessible, and secure. A healthy democracy requires election administrators and other government officials provide voters with confidence in the integrity of election outcomes and assurance that they have a voice in our democracy. Data-driven policies and new technologies can help reduce barriers to voting and improve the efficiency and security of our election system.

Based on analysis captured in our Election Administration & Voting System map, Democracy Fund invests in organizations and projects that are focused on expanding modern and secure voter registration systems; supporting voter-centric practices and tools in election administration to improve the voter experience; and fostering the public’s trust in elections by supporting a system that’s worthy of their trust.

We invested in the Center for Democracy and Technology because technology experts and election professionals need a reliable and trusted cybersecurity resource. With our support, CDT will:

  • Conduct a 2-year research effort to identify opportunities and challenges with cybersecurity in state election offices and national political campaigns;
  • Generate a set of best practices for election officials and the public; and
  • Distribute “campaign data hygiene” recommendations for all political parties.
  • Convene experts and stakeholders to learn from each other and co-create solutions to election security challenges.

You can learn more about these efforts in CDT’s press release announcing our grant and the project.

Political professionals should be able to keep discussions about campaign strategy internal; election officials should have the tools necessary to combat any type of outside interference; and voters should feel confident that our elections result in legitimate outcomes. We believe Joe Lorenzo Hall and the CDT team will fortify the field with research that deepens our shared understanding, create opportunities for learning and collaboration, and equip election officials and the managers of voter data with the solutions they need to protect voters and encourage participation in future elections.

Press Release

Democracy Fund convenes expert panel to discuss voter trust, efforts to strengthen confidence

Democracy Fund
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February 22, 2017

Washington, D.C. – At the recent National Association of Secretaries of State’s (NASS) conference Democracy Fund facilitated a panel discussion on the pressing need to bolster voter confidence in light of the intense scrutiny during 2016.

Panelist David Becker, Executive Director of the Center for Election Innovation and Research, stated that this was one of the best run elections in American history. Nevertheless, a Democracy Fund survey fielded days after the election revealed troubling voter perceptions. Democrats and Republicans alike question the process, believing that candidates or political parties can change the results at the ballot box, or that machine malfunctions can impact results.

“There is a need for voter education about why voters should trust the process and the results, even when their candidate loses,” said Rebecca Mark, Vice President at Porter Novelli, who assisted with the survey. “This mistrust ladders back to an intense feeling of frustration that voters have towards their government.”

Eighty-five percent of voters characterized their experience voting in November as pleasant, a testament to the hard work of officials like Secretaries of State, yet the undercurrent of concern could persist into future elections.

“That solid majority of positive voting experiences will be essential for building additional trust in both the outcome and in the process,” said Stacey Scholl, Senior Program Associate of Elections at Democracy Fund.

Showcasing transparency is critical to strengthening confidence among voters, such as efforts by Colorado Secretary of State Wayne Williams. The Secretary shared his election cycle experience, including the installation of recount room viewing windows so anyone – regardless of credentials – could watch a recount. He explained, “people need to have confidence their election officials are doing everything they can to maintain the integrity of the election, because if they have that confidence they will vote.”

To view full panel, covered by C-SPAN, click here.

Panelists included Hon. Wayne Williams, Colorado Secretary of State, Hon. Miles Rapoport, Senior Practice Fellow, Ash Center, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard, David Becker, Executive Director, Center for Election Innovation and Research, Rosalind Gold, Senior Director of Policy, Research and Advocacy, NALEO Educational Fund, Samidh Chakrabarti, Product Manager for Civic Engagement, Facebook, and Rebecca Mark, Vice President, Porter Novelli.

The Democracy Fund is a bipartisan foundation that invests in organizations working to ensure our political system can withstand new challenges and deliver on its promise to the American people. For more information, please visit www.democracyfund.org.

Brief

Voter Sentiments On The U.S. Election System

Natalie Adona and Paul Gronke
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December 2, 2016

The 2016 election was one of the most hard fought and divisive in recent memory. The Democracy Fund continues to be troubled by some of the rhetoric regarding the “hacking” and “rigging” of the American election system, two topics that animated so much discussion from across the ideological spectrum this cycle. We believe the long-term impact of these messages undermines the legitimacy of the election system and further erodes public trust in our political system.

Our new infographic is based on a national survey of voters after the 2016 election that was designed to provide the Democracy Fund a snapshot of public opinion about our election system and the possible effect of the rhetoric around election fraud. This data demonstrates that while most voters had a pleasant voting experience, deep concerns exist about the integrity of American elections.

Most Americans had a pleasant voting experience and expressed confidence in the outcome.

Let’s start with the good news: most Americans had a pleasant voting experience. When asked, 85.3 percent of voters said the best description of their voting experience was that it was “pleasant.” This is consistent with other surveys that capture voter opinions about election administration. For example, the Cooperative Congressional Election Study (CCES) has found the majority of in person voters report having “excellent” or “good” interactions with poll workers and are generally confident that their own ballots were counted as intended. Results from the CCES also indicate that a majority people think that election officials are fair most of the time. (1)

Because public opinion about elections can be influenced by one’s political associations and candidate preferences, we broke down these results by party identification. It turned out that party differences were minimal. The percentage of Republicans who reported a pleasant experience (89) was higher than among Independents (83.6) and Democrats (82.5). Still, 4 out of 5 voters who cast a ballot for Hillary Clinton reported a pleasant voting experience.

Overall, these results show that election officials ensured not only that voters can participate in the political process, but also that voters can feel good about participating. To anyone who has ever worked in an election office, this is very encouraging. A positive voter experience is never guaranteed—it has to be earned. A significant portion of the report from the Presidential Commission on Election Administration (PCEA) focused on the positive benefits that would accrue from a “customer service” orientation. A great level of detail and care is required to successfully administer an election and we want to take a moment to recognize and appreciate the hard work of election officials.

Many are concerned about voter fraud in national elections.

But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves – just because most voters walked away feeling good doesn’t mean that there isn’t more work to be done. Hearing claims that the election could be “rigged” or that other countries might “hack” the American election system may have heightened concerns about voter fraud. Even though there is virtually no evidence that voter fraud occurs at a scale large enough to sway electoral outcomes, confidence in vote counts decreases significantly the further removed the vote total is from the local jurisdiction. Survey data has consistently shown that respondents are less confident in state- and national-level ballot counts than in local counts. (2)

Lower confidence in national-level outcomes may make the public vulnerable to claims that the election system is “rigged” or that results could be “hacked.” As shown in the infographic, 39 percent of voters were “very” or “somewhat” concerned that an electronic security breach or hack impacted national vote counts. A slightly lower but significant percentage of voters (38) had similar concerns around parties and candidates changing election results to create false or inaccurate totals. Of that group, 35 percent of Trump voters and 40 percent of Clinton voters answered that they were “very” or “somewhat” concerned that the parties or candidates changed election results.

Minority communities and younger voters were more likely to report problems and distrust with voting.

Other concerns emerged from our survey. Twenty-three percent of African Americans and 18 percent of Hispanics said that they felt fearful or intimidated voting, or had problems voting, compared to 12 percent of white voters. More than half of Hispanic respondents and 58 percent of African Americans expressed answered they were “very” or “somewhat” concerned that an electronic security breach or hack impacted vote counts, compared to 32 percent of white voters. Hispanics and African Americans were also more likely than whites to answer that they were “very” or “somewhat” concerned that a candidate or party changed the election results to create false or inaccurate vote counts.

The data revealed that age may also shape opinions about fraud. Twice as many younger respondents were “very” or “somewhat” concerned that a candidate or party changed the election results (49 percent compared to 24 percent of respondents 55 and over). It turns out that this pattern is nearly linear across smaller age cohorts, across all items, something we hope to explore in the future.

In one respect, it is encouraging that older voters, who presumably have more experience with voting, are more confident. But this also implies that younger and less experienced voters may be especially susceptible to claims about election fraud, and this could dissuade them from voting. To take just one example, we discovered that 17 percent of respondents under 55 reported that they felt fearful or intimidated, or had problems voting, compared to just 11 percent of respondents 55 years and older.

Distrust in the election system is unhealthy, and it’s notable that younger and minority voters overall were more likely to report fear and intimidation while voting and were more likely to express concern about election integrity. Given the sometimes brutal tone of the campaigns this election cycle, we felt it was important to highlight these data points as worthy of further examination.

Building Trust in Elections

Despite fears around voter fraud, polling place security, and calls for an increased number of poll watchers from the campaigns, local election officials successfully served the voting public. As we look through our data, we are very encouraged by evidence that voters are more likely to think the outcome was fair when educated about key security features. Our survey data confirm that independence, transparency, integrity, competence, and fairness translate into higher levels of public approval of the elections system.

Election officials, advocates, and others should think about how they talk about election security with voters and look for opportunities to foster trust in the system. Our data shows a need for increased voter education in three important ways:

  • First, the fact that certain minorities were more likely to report some kind of problem with voting should raise concerns about election conduct and hopefully will lead to meaningful ways for election officials and others to address problems in particular communities.
  • Second, because younger voters were also more likely to express concerns about election security and are probably less experienced in voting, election officials and advocates should focus their educational efforts on younger voters as well.
  • Third, voters from both sides of the political aisle have concerns about election fraud and are receptive to the information and rhetoric that they hear about election processes, which opens up an opportunity for election officials to show voters how their offices address these concerns.

We will continue to explore our data and are looking forward to sharing our findings as they emerge. One of our takeaways from this survey is that, even with all the good work that’s been done, voters need our help to understand election security and integrity and will listen when they’re given correct information. We hope that these survey results will trigger productive conversations between voters, election officials, advocates, and others about the processes currently in place that keep elections secure.

About the Authors

Natalie Adona is a Research Associate for the Elections Program at the Democracy Fund. Paul Gronke is a professor of political science at Reed College and serves as an academic consultant to the Democracy Fund’s Elections Program. He is also the Director of the Early Voting Information Center in Portland, Oregon.

Endnotes

(1) The Cooperative Congressional Election Study has been administered in each federal election since 2006. The data are available at http://projects.iq.harvard.edu/cces/home.

(2) Michael W. Sances and Charles Stewart III. “Partisanship and Confidence in the Vote Count: Evidence from U.S. National Elections since 2000.” Electoral Studies 40 (December 2015): 176–88. doi:10.1016/j.electstud.2015.08.004.

Press Release

Public Opinion Reinforces the Exemplary Work of Local Election Officials on November 8

Democracy Fund
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November 21, 2016

WASHINGTON D.C. – November 21, 2016 – According to a new national survey conducted by the Democracy Fund in the days following the election, 85 percent of voters say they had a pleasant experience on November 8th, including overwhelming majorities of voters who supported either President-elect Donald Trump or Secretary Hillary Clinton.

“Despite rhetoric about potential widespread election rigging or hacking, local election officials successfully ensured that ballots were securely cast and accurately counted. Their efforts are clearly reflected in a positive voter experience and the fact that no significant improprieties have yet come to light in canvasses or audits,” said Adam Ambrogi, Elections Program Director, Democracy Fund. “Even if your candidate did not win, Americans can take pride in our decentralized, transparent, and secure election system.”

The voter experience is critical because it fosters trust in electoral outcomes. The Presidential Commission on Election Administration (PCEA) put forward its recommendations in large part because inefficient or poor administration decreases trust in the outcome, and bad voting experiences might cause the public to disengage in future elections.

Data shows that large swaths of Democrats and Republicans express nervousness about key safeguards within the system, including the idea that fraud, rigging, or hacking may actually have impacted the outcome of the 2016 presidential election. In fact, there is even substantial concern among voters who believe that the 2016 election outcome was “very fairly” determined – meaning that even the voters who are most trustful of the system after the election still have considerable concerns about specific threats to the process.

“The Democracy Fund is committed to working with local election officials to help educate voters about the transparent and decentralized safeguards in place so that they can be confident in the outcome and trust the results,” said Natalie Adona, Elections Research Associate, Democracy Fund. The newly released survey also points to a need for continual efforts to guarantee that all Americans feel safe when they cast their ballots. Twenty-three percent of African American voters, and 18 percent of Hispanic voters, say they felt fearful, intimidated, or had problems voting, compared to 12 percent of white voters.

“In a heated election, passions and rhetoric can sometimes rise, but it is imperative for our democracy that all voters feel equally comfortable going to the polls,” Ambrogi said. “Some of these disparities in the voter experience are troubling, and should cause all of us to examine this issue before the next election.”

This online survey of 1,500 U.S. adults was conducted November 9–11 via VeraQuest, Inc. Panelists are required to double opt-in to ensure voluntary participation in the surveys they are invited to complete. Adult respondents were randomly selected to be generally proportional of the age, sex, region, race/ethnicity, income, and education strata of the U.S., based on Census proportions, and quotas were established for demographics to confirm sufficient diversity of the sample in proportions so that they would resemble that of the United States.

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About the Democracy Fund

The Democracy Fund is a bipartisan foundation established by eBay founder and philanthropist Pierre Omidyar to help ensure that the American people come first in our democracy. Today, modern challenges—such as hyper partisanship, money in politics, and struggling media—threaten the health of American Democracy.

Read our report on the progress made towards more secure and smooth elections since the Presidential Commission on Election Administration’s recommendations were released in 2014: http://bit.ly/PCEAProgress.

Contacts:

Lauren Strayer, Director of Communications
Democracy Fund
(202) 420-7928
media@democracyfund.org

Jennifer Krug
Porter Novelli
(212) 601-8264
Jennifer.krug@porternovelli.com

Statement

Democracy Fund: This Election Is Not Rigged

Democracy Fund
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October 20, 2016

In the last two weeks, fear mongering over potential election rigging has come to a fever pitch. In response, the Democracy Fund issued the following statement:

“The peaceful transfer of power is a cornerstone and tested principal of our democracy. Recent fear mongering over the Presidential election being ‘rigged’ does not reflect the security and checks built into our elections system. We’ve studied the election process and worked with administrators from both sides of the aisle — and our election process is secure and safe,” said Adam Ambrogi, Director of the Elections Program at the Democracy Fund.

“By design, our election system is highly decentralized and no one person ever has unlimited access to voting machines, making widespread hacking or rigging extremely difficult. Beyond technology, we have layers of physical security and protocols that prevent against bad actors. The system has checks and balances built in to ensure that before, during, and after our elections, we’ll know if something goes wrong — and we have steps to ensure Americans can have faith in the results of our elections, no matter who wins.”

See the Democracy Fund’s report on the progress made towards more secure and smooth elections since the Presidential Commission on Election Administration’s recommendations were released in 2014: http://bit.ly/PCEAProgress

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Democracy Fund experts on the topics of fear mongering around election rigging, voting, and election administration are available for interviews. To schedule, please contact Molly Haigh at molly@megaphonestrategies.com.

Blog

Our Political System is Not a Game: Real Leaders Know When to Accept Defeat

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September 21, 2016

With just weeks until the American public chooses our next president, it is troubling to see headlines filled with dubious suggestions that our elections might be “hacked” or “rigged” when the likelihood remains so remarkably small. Even more disturbing is the possibility that these kinds of stories could undermine the election results if things don’t work out after election day.

The wonder of American democracy is that we resolve our conflicts with votes and laws, not tanks and guns. This tradition is possible only because we treat the other party as opponents, not enemies, and we respect the integrity of our democratic institutions.

If the margin is very close, we rely on our election system and our judicial system to use predetermined rules to bring the election to a settlement. The alternative to relying on elections and rule of law is unthinkable and should be rejected in the strongest possible terms. When the votes have been cast and ballots counted, we expect that losing candidates will make a phone call to congratulate the winner and then publicly acknowledge the will of the electorate.

Refusing to accept election results wholeheartedly and without reservation is not just wrong, it is un-American. Gracefully accepting defeat is one of the truly powerful moments in our nation’s political life. Both of the major party candidates should commit to doing so this year.

Before it’s too late, we must call on political, media, and civic leaders to make clear that this is not a game. When candidates lose elections, we expect that they will accept defeat and call for the American people to come together as a nation. Period.