Disinformation-fueled partisan “audits” have been popping up around the United States in the ten months since the 2020 presidential election. Election workers face unprecedented levels of harassment sparked by false voter-fraud claims. And 51 percent of American voters believe that elected officials will overturn the results of a future election because their party did not win.
As the United States deals with the backlash of false claims surrounding the 2020 election, Elections Integrity Fellow David Levine, who previously served as Elections Director of Ada County, Idaho, answered questions about the growing issue of the subversion of elections, election officials’ responses to these problems, and why Americans should still have faith in democracy. The below transcript has been edited for clarity.
You’ve talked a lot about the increasing politicization of electoral institutions in the United States. Can you go into detail about this problem? Where are you seeing it most pronounced, and what’s causing it?
It’s important to step back and define the subversion of elections. For me, that largely is the process by which people are interfering in what should be the non-partisan administration of elections. Elections are conducted by thousands of dedicated volunteers and election workers. Basically, when they decide to help administer the election, they are choosing to put the process of democracy ahead of any of their own partisan allegiances, at least during the time in which they are helping run the election. We now are seeing that at grave threat. Prior to the 2020 election cycle, what used to happen was that there would be debate—and vigorous debate, I might add—over what the rules should be governing how elections should be run. But then when it came time for the election, the election would be run in a non-partisan way, people would be allowed to do what they should do, the results would come out, they would get validated, and that would be the end of it. Unfortunately, those times now appear to largely be over.
My work since the 2020 election cycle has begun to look at increased politicization of election administration. ProPublica came out with a story just recently looking at how partisan actors are trying to send more people to help serve as poll workers who appear to care more about which person wins than making sure the process is fair. We’ve seen audits of election results that have been conducted in places like Arizona by actors who are biased and who are unfamiliar with how elections should be conducted. That is a problem, as well. And of course, we’re seeing, right now, numerous challenges across the country that put the security of our election equipment at risk. We’ve begun to see efforts by bad-faith actors to try and get custody of the equipment, which introduces all kinds of concerns over how fair our elections are and what could be done to tinker with them.
I’ve been focused on how to make sure the people, the processes, and the technologies that are used to make sure elections run properly are protected. Because if they’re not adequately protected, then democracy is not adequately protected.
In what is largely viewed as a reaction to the politically motivated “audits” happening in Arizona and other places, the National Association of Secretaries of State Task Force on Voter Verification recently approved a list of recommendations for how states should conduct post-election audits. NASS put forward six recommendations to build transparency and security into election audits, including ensuring a timeline is set ahead of the election and that voting machines are audited by a federally or state-accredited test lab. These recommendations come from a bipartisan group of chief election officials and secretaries of state, showing that there is support across the political spectrum for how to ensure the accuracy of election results. If that is the case, why are we seeing more calls for partisan post-election audits, and how can we restore trust in election officials as the experts on elections?
It’s important to step back and acknowledge something: that in spite of the politicization around election administration, and efforts by certain political actors to try to subvert our election processes, officials across the political spectrum largely believe and are taking steps to, in practice, properly administer elections in a non-partisan manner. This document by the National Association of Secretaries of State is just the latest thing to sort of bolster that view. In ordinary times, what they put out wouldn’t be a surprise or a shock. We know that there are Democratic elections officials, like Secretary of State from Michigan Jocelyn Benson, and Republican election officials, like Kim Wyman in Washington state and elsewhere, that believe in the non-partisan administration of elections. This document is in many ways a reaffirmation of best practices for how you validate election results.
Auditing an election is about “trust but verify.” You trust the results, and you verify them. Unfortunately, some of the efforts we’ve seen by private actors to review—not audit, review—aspects of the 2020 elections are about “don’t trust, and don’t verify.” If you want to actually validate the results of an election, you get people who have an understanding of how this is to be done—people like state and local elected officials. You make sure that there are people across the political spectrum who are part of the process. You make sure that the process is transparent, so that people can see what is going on. You make sure that there are protocols and procedures in place ahead of time. None of those things were done with regards to the Arizona “audit.” I think none of those things appear to be necessarily in the cards for other post-election reviews that emanate out of that, whether it’s actions we’re seeing possibly percolate in places like Pennsylvania or Georgia.
So, the NASS document is important. The National Association of Secretaries of State is a valuable organization. They do important work, and they have people across the political spectrum that believe in the sanctity of the voting process. What we can really see here is just how ridiculous these actions by private actors are, and they lead to a series of really challenging, tough questions. If we know what the best practices are for auditing an election, such as the ones you named and that NASS identified, why aren’t we doing them?
There are a couple places that we ought to look to. Number one, I think it’s really important to just underscore that there are political officials that feel that they are under tremendous duress from, among others, the former president of the United States. There were numerous legal challenges to the 2020 election, and they almost all failed! According to experts across the political spectrum, this was a secure election, and arguably the most secure election that was ever done. The fact that all we’ve got for that is a bunch of—in many cases—private efforts with practices that aren’t at all aligned with reality or best practices tells you everything you need to know about just how legitimate these practices are.
So, it’s worth acknowledging that if you want to know whether or not an election audit was a good election audit; you ought to know whether it’s transparent. You ought to know whether or not state and local elections officials are part of it. You ought to know whether or not our election workers, who were heroes in 2020, are involved in this process. And if not, you ought to be asking, “Why?”” I think most people will begin to see that it’s certain political actors that still have a problem with the results of the 2020 election, and may never stop having a problem until their particular candidates are the winners. Fortunately, that’s not how a democracy works. I’m hopeful that what NASS put out is something that people can heed—not only election officials, who were heroes in the 2020 election, but elected officials in local, state, and federal government as well as voters, too.
At ASD, we focus on interference in democracies by autocratic states like Russia, China, and Iran. Do you worry that the partisan divisions we’re seeing in the United States over the conduct and legitimacy of elections make us more vulnerable to foreign interference?
Yes, they certainly make us more vulnerable. Foreign interference is one of the biggest threats that democracies across the world—not just the United States—face. And it is quite clear that one of the best ways to counter that is to have a unified approach, a unified response, a response that is not political, that says, “There is no place for authoritarian actors.” Unfortunately, what we’ve seen in some respects is some political actors that have decided that amplifying some of the claims that authoritarian actors have made could potentially provide political dividends. And that is not helpful to democracy. We need a whole-of-society effort to counter foreign interference. We need a whole-of-government effort to counter foreign interference.
We have election officials across the political spectrum that did yeoman’s work in 2020. Poll workers that did yeoman’s work in 2020. We saw government entities—for example, the Cyber Security Infrastructure Security Agency, that in the last election cycle was headed up by a Republican—that did yeoman’s work in helping support election officials across the country to be aware of threats. There were elements or aspects of American society that did do things to help counter the threat of foreign interference. But when there are domestic actors that are either amplifying those [autocratic] messages or are putting out information that malign actors can easily amplify, the effect of that can be profound and devastating on democracy. We saw how Russia was able to exploit partisanship, polarization, and division in our country to mount a historic disinformation campaign during the 2016 election. And what we see, unfortunately, in 2020 is foreign actors don’t necessarily have to do a whole lot to sow the same kinds of division. In some ways, with regards to 2020, Americans did it to themselves. We have to really think hard about how we can come together in the face of authoritarian threats, so that we can help ensure—against these ever-evolving, sophisticated adversaries—that we can keep up with them, and make sure that our elections officials have the resources they need to counter them at every turn.
Zooming out a bit, what do you think can be done by others, such as Congress, the federal government, state governments, or even citizens themselves to depoliticize the administration of elections and restore trust in our democratic institutions?
Number one, people everywhere—voters, elected officials, and others—need to support their election administrators. It’s worth noting that a tremendous number of election officials are eligible for retirement before the 2024 presidential election. They were heroes in the 2020 election, but if many of them continue to deal with harassment, they may choose to leave. And that would be a national security problem of epic proportions.
And I think it’s important that we come together and make sure that elections officials are protected and supported in their jobs. We know that there’s a task force within the Department of Justice that’s going to help ensure that elections officials, if they face threats from others, know they have somewhere to go with them. I But it’s really important that voters are speaking up for elections officials, that federal authorities and law enforcement are protecting elections officials, and that we as a society are touting them for the work that they’re doing.
Number two, we need to make sure that elections officials have the resources they need to do the job. It’s worth noting that philanthropic organizations played a huge role in making sure that elections officials had the funding they needed, and we should never be in that position again. That means that Congress needs to make sure that we have ongoing federal funding, so that elections officials have what they need to prepare for threats like, but not limited to, the threat of foreign interference and the coronavirus pandemic. Making sure that elections officials have the resources they need is important.
Third, voters are really important. You need to make sure that each one of us is participating and doing our part in the process. That means—number one—if you’re interested in securing our elections, be a poll worker. Find out more about the election process and take pains to make sure that you are promoting actual election information. If you see something that’s skeptical, don’t immediately share it with everybody else. That’s not helpful. Making sure that you’re turning to trusted sources of information like elections officials or others that work in the elections space, is really important,. Also, make sure that, if you’re trying to vote, you have a plan in advance and consider voting ahead of Election Day. That’s not only helpful for you because it makes it easier for you to successfully cast a ballot; it makes it easier for us to snuff out threats to our elections, and it makes it easier for elections officials to administer the election, so that they’re not knee-deep in stuff on Election Day. I would say that every one of us has a role to play. Voting is one of the best ways to counter the threats from malign actors, both foreign and domestic. If you want to help run the process, try to serve as a poll worker, and be smart about the information that you’re consuming. Look to trusted sources of information, whether they’re the media or elections officials. And if you’re not sure whether or not the information you’re seeing is accurate, reach out to trusted sources of information. The news bubbles that we have are, unfortunately, one of the biggest threats we face with regards to the integrity of our elections. So we are going to have to worry about, and work through, that, as well.
Do you have any final thoughts you’d like to offer?
I don’t want for us to lose hope. I study elections around the globe. At the Alliance for Securing Democracy—under the leadership of Laura Thornton and others—we are trying to secure democracy from bad actors, wherever they may be. I’ve had the opportunity to study and look at democracies across the globe, and while we face an ever-increasing number of threats, and we find democracy under assault here in the United States and elsewhere, there are a number of things we ought to be mindful of. Number one, is that there are always ways that people can make a difference. They need to be thinking about registering to vote and voting in each and every election—not just the national ones, but the local ones, too.
Number two, we have a great group of elections administrators who helped us run a really, really good election. And if they get the support they need, they can continue to do that.
Number three, there are people—lots of people—that are trying to do the right thing. There are civil society groups trying to reach voters and share good information in places that are hard to reach. There are international organizations trying to share best practices from other countries. There are government officials at CISA, the FBI, the EAC, and the Department of Justice that are trying to do their part. It’s important that people don’t lose hope. They need to figure out a way to be part of the answer, not part of the problem. And if they still have questions about that, they ought to reach out to me about it. And if they can’t get ahold of me, then they ought to reach out to my colleagues. We need to do our part. And if we do our part, I am confident that we can see our way out of this and help ensure that we’re on the up and up.