Trey Grayson on the reliability of the American election system

The 2020 election is well under way. Despite the tussle of politics, the process is robust

10/27/2020 11:37:00 AM

Elections have become a polarised, partisan issue. 'Yet all this overlooks the degree to which American elections, especially for federal offices, are fair, secure and free,' argues KYTrey in The Economist

The 2020 election is well under way. Despite the tussle of politics, the process is robust

This guest commentary is part of a series on American election integrityIF THE WORLD’S election experts were to design a stress test for democracy, they couldn’t come up with circumstances better than America in 2020. Yet there is reason for optimism about the reliability of the election. For the most part, the electoral system has performed well. And this year’s contest and the pandemic may spur further improvements.

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Elections have become a polarised, partisan issue. Democrats accuse Republicans of suppressing voter turnout by curbing mail-in ballots during the pandemic; Republicans respond with allegations of fraud. Both sides can point to individual examples to support their cases. Some also worry about the risk of cyber-attacks, or acts of God, such as storms.

Yet all this overlooks the degree to which American elections, especially for federal offices, are fair, secure and free. The country has seen many close elections and the country has withstood the test. The two previous Republican presidents entered the White House having won the electoral college despite losing the popular vote, for example. Moreover, the mechanics of America's elections have built-in features that make it highly resilient to foreign or domestic attacks.

Under the constitution, states are responsible for conducting elections. Each state delegates a different portion of that responsibility to municipalities, which, depending on the state, might include counties, cities, townships, parishes or some combination thereof. These days, local election officials are heroes of the covid-19 pandemic for their ingenuity and their dedication to keeping the system running.

And although fragmenting the election system into thousands of small pieces with sundry rules and procedures creates unwieldy legal complications and headaches for election-campaign staff, it also makes the system as a whole more difficult for a bad actor—whether foreign or domestic—to manipulate.

Despite the acrimony and recriminations between political parties, the actual administration of elections can mark a rare area of bipartisanship. Consider Kentucky, where I oversaw elections as its secretary of state from 2004 to 2011 as a Republican. This year Governor Andy Beshear, a Democrat, and the secretary of state and chief elections administrator, Michael Adams, a Republican, agreed on a plan to expand mail-in voting for the state primary and increase voting options for the general election.

Kentucky traditionally required almost all voters to vote in person on election day, and Mr Adams came under intense criticism from many fellow Republicans, who disagreed with the changes required to successfully conduct an election in a pandemic. In addition to increasing options for early in-person voting, Mr Adams also agreed to loosen restrictions on absentee voting, which decades of use in other states have shown is secure and trustworthy. He held firm against dissent from his fellow Republicans, showing that bipartisan co-operation is still possible.

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Farther north, Jocelyn Benson and Frank LaRose, the secretaries of state of Michigan and Ohio, respectively (and a Democrat and a Republican, respectively), have become the go-to pair for bipartisan election administration and civility. This year, they will co-chair the Elections Committee of the National Association of Secretaries of State, which has the function, among others, of allowing states to share policy innovations and best practices relating to elections and voting. They’ve even turned the historic feud between their two states into an opportunity to compete on voter-registration drives.

Both Ohio and Michigan are battleground states and there is a chance they will decide the winner of the electoral college. If the election is close or in dispute, ensuring the integrity of the contest will be up to officials like Ms Benson and Mr LaRose. Although the actual counting of ballots occurs in precincts across the country, it is the secretaries of state who ensure those precincts have the right resources, personnel, training and guidance.

As with any political process, elections are vulnerable to machinations, abuses and scandals. But those who worry about a president who won’t leave the White House should bear in mind the genius of the American system, in which federal elections are run entirely by the states, mostly beyond the control of the federal government. Occupants of the White House have little to no control over the process which decides if they stay there.

Any challenge by a candidate to the outcome of a state vote would have to follow established procedures under state law, or it would go through state or federal courts. Ultimately, the highest authorities to resolve disputes related to presidential elections are the Supreme Court or Congress. But such solutions are rare.

A byproduct of the electoral-college system is that elections are rarely decided by a narrow margin. The electoral college usually amplifies the win because almost all states are winner-take-all. For Congress or the Supreme Court to decide the winner of the election, both the electoral-college contest and the vote in the deciding state or states would have to be very close, as happened in 2000. Based on current public-opinion polling, the odds on so precarious a situation are exceedingly low.

An important development this year is the increasing number of companies and athletes lending their voices and resources to the pro-voting cause. A long list of professional sports stadiums are being converted into mass-voting centres to help accommodate what could be an election with the highest turnout in decades. An effort led by the basketball star LeBron James recruited 10,000 volunteers to work at polling locations across the country. (Not surprisingly, the ever-creative Ms Benson and Mr LaRose are involved in this effort.) A consortium of breweries in Ohio are lending their brands to encourage voter registration and turnout. Employers are even giving employees a paid day off to serve as poll workers.

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Admittedly, not all government officials are allies in this effort. For example, the governor of Texas, Greg Abbott, has tried to limit ballot drop-boxes to one per county, even though in Harris County, home to Houston, this would leave one drop-box for more than 4m residents. This effort is now being fought in the courts.

Perhaps the most encouraging sign is the resilience of the American voter. A recentpollfound that only a minority of Americans expect to know the results of the presidential election on November 3rd, with a majority appropriately expecting results anywhere from several days to several weeks later. With expectations set properly, Americans will be ready to allow the system to work, even if that means slower results, recounts or other unexpected events.

Because of the pandemic, more Americans are paying closer attention to the intricate workings of elections than ever before, and opportunities to improve and modernise voting systems are gaining momentum.One policy is automated verification and registration, or AVR. It replaces expensive and error-prone paper-based voter-registration systems with computer systems that update voter-registration information automatically. In combination with the Electronic Registration Information Centre, known as ERIC, an interstate data-sharing system, AVR can ensure that more people are registered to vote in the correct place and eliminate accidental dual-registrations, which are very common because about 10% of Americans move home every year. The bipartisan Presidential Commission on Election Administration, on which I served,

recommendedthese types of technological upgrades as a way to improve the voter experience, since more accurate voter files reduce waiting times at polling places.State election databases are already computer-based, so improving them with AVR and ERIC—which only compares data and does not change them—doesn’t make them more prone to hacking. But it does free up time and resources to devote to cyber-security. With record voter registrations this year, AVR could have saved the

32 stateswhich have yet to implement it millions of dollars and thousands of hours of work.These systems, like the election machines themselves, are hardened against cyber-attacks. Senior national-security officials recently spoke directly to the American people, delivering an optimistic

assessmentof America’s voting security. Co-ordination across federal, state and local governments is strong, as is co-operation with the private sector. The infrastructure is robust. Although threats against American elections have proliferated since 2016, our ability to detect, deter and neutralise those threats has strengthened. This is reassuring.

There is plenty to be worried about in American politics. Many of our institutions seem to be failing, partisanship has overridden patriotism for many, and old rules are being broken faster than new ones can be written, especially by some of our top leaders. But despite all the tussle which accompanies so much of public life in America, our election systems are a point of pride—because they work.

__________________Trey Grayson, a Republican, is the former Secretary of State of Kentucky and co-chairs the advisory board of the Secure Elections Project. Read more: The Economist »

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