Statement of Need for Better Voter Communication
A global pandemic. A limping postal system. A rush to make voting by mail a more universal possibility. Confirmation of Russia’s successful election meddling in 2016 by the highest levels of the U.S. government. Foreign imitators lying in wait to replicate their efforts.
Even before the fantastic convergence of disruptive threats spun themselves together into a looming election crisis, the communication infrastructure around voting in the United States was hobbled. There’s a deficit in funding, a total lack of standardization among states’ efforts to inform their citizens about voting, and a devastated local news landscape that leaves many without trusted election resources.
American voters are, however, already familiar with crisis-based disruption. The United States has seen many recent election cycles severely disturbed by natural disasters and terrorist attacks (e.g., Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Sandy, 9/11). Still, there are no systemwide plans for communicating with voters during or after an interrupted election.
Table of Contents
More on the COVID-19 pandemic
In addition to recommending that polling places follow efficient hygiene measures and social distancing protocol, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) strongly advises that counties move all polling locations from nursing homes, long-term care facilities, and senior residences to protect older populations from exposure. In some cases, those with COVID symptoms may be required to visit ad-hoc “curbside voting” spots that minimize contact between poll workers and infected voters. Polling places may also adopt CDC recommendations for “scheduled” or staggered voting hours, altering the times when voters are accustomed to voting. The CDC recommends that voters “check your voting location and requirements in advance because they may have changed due to COVID-19.”
Understandably, this has already produced confusion and even last-minute changes to polling places in the primaries. In Mississippi, for example, a regular polling place was moved at the last minute from a town hall to a private residence down a dirt road without any warning or communication.
More on the USPS and voting by mail
As the USPS predicts a substantial slowing in on-time delivery amid increased usage, a ProPublica investigation found that even looking backward the agency hasn’t met its own on-time delivery goals in five years. Nonetheless, in an Aug. 18 statement, Postmaster General Louis DeJoy said that the USPS is ready to handle the volume of election mail, pay necessary overtime for carriers, and delay the removal of post boxes and sorting machines that was previously announced. In testimony before Congress on Aug. 24, he confirmed that those sorting machines that have already been removed will not be replaced, but restated his commitment to deliver “the nation’s ballots securely and on time.”
Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah, and Washington State already conduct their elections entirely by mail. As a result, they have the infrastructure in place to coordinate ballot delivery and have had the time to properly address the design and instructions for their mail-in ballots. However, in states where officials are ramping up vote-by-mail in response to the pandemic, voters remain unsure what to do to make sure their votes count on Election Day. Communicating the “when” and “how” instructions around mail-in voting this election cycle will be crucial. Registered voters need to know if they must request a mail ballot and by when, when to send it back based on evolving deadlines in light of USPS delays, where to sign the envelope and other required details, and how to track their ballots. Communication around all this is all the more complicated since the requirements vary in each state.
In Alaska, voters have filed a federal lawsuit challenging a June decision by its governor to automatically send absentee ballot applications only to residents over 65 years old. The lawsuit alleges that the decision makes it easier for older people in the state to vote and violates the 26th Amendment to the Constitution, which says the rights of citizens 18 and older to vote shall not be denied or abridged on account of age.
Meanwhile, in Fairfax County, Virginia, residents reported receiving unsolicited, partially pre-filled absentee ballot applications with return envelopes addressed to the City of Fairfax, not Fairfax County. It turns out that an initiative by the Center for Voter Information with good intentions, hoping to encourage mail-in voting, is only confusing those voters who have already requested absentee ballots from the county on their own — and mistakenly includes an incorrect return mailing address.
In Minnesota, voters are still allowed to request an absentee ballot up to the day before the election, which is an obviously unrealistic turnaround time for both the USPS and election officials. Conflicting mail-in ballot instructions in the Tennessee primary left voters unsure if ballots completed in blue ink would be counted. In New York’s 12th District primary election, 13,000 ballots were declared invalid based on mistakes on the exterior envelope — largely because of missing postmarks or missing signatures. (The final margin of victory for the primary winner was just 3,700 votes.) A couple in DeKalb County, Georgia, Gia and Clifford Johnson, couldn’t find the dropbox for their ballots so they sent them by mail — only to find that the ballots were rejected for being late. “I’m devastated,” Ms. Johnson said when she realized her vote wouldn’t count.
More on misinformation and disinformation
In January 2017, the CIA, FBI, and NSA jointly stated that Russia will “apply lessons learned” from its 2016 cyber-attack influence campaign ahead of the 2020 election. In April of this year, the Senate Intelligence Committee released its final bipartisan report on Russia’s 2016 election interference. Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr, the senior Republican senator from North Carolina, said that one of its most important conclusions “was that Russia’s aggressive interference efforts should be considered ‘the new normal.’” A warning that “has been borne out by the events of the last three years,” he continued, “as Russia and its imitators increasingly use information warfare to sow societal chaos.”
China and Iran are those such imitators. China reportedly prefers that President Trump not win reelection, viewing him as “unpredictable”; Russia is seeking to disparage Joe Biden and other “anti-Russia establishment” candidates; and Iran is spreading disinformation and particular anti-U.S. content to undermine public trust in democracy.
While U.S. intelligence agencies are providing classified election threat briefings to candidates and government officials — formerly in person but now only in writing — they are not releasing specifics to the public about where and how foreign information campaigns are interfering with the vote. That clearly leaves Americans feeling unsteady about large swathes of information they encounter online and at a loss for where to find trusted voting guidance.
Meanwhile, we’ve seen a rapid rise in local, hyperpartisan sites masquerading as legitimate news outlets. An investigation by the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University found that titles like the Philly Leader and San Francisco Sun are part of a politically backed network of 1,200 sites that “ape the look and feel of local news,” but espouse partisan talking points and run articles about voter fraud citing data from conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation. The sites’ ownership is purposely hard to identify; many are aimed at attracting single-subject readers interested in business or a specific religious orientation. All, however, are laced with partisan disinformation and intend to make it harder for voters to agree on basic facts and trust in the election process.
Finally, President Donald Trump is contributing to the spread of disinformation from his Twitter pulpit. In two tweets in late May, the president made false claims that mail-in ballots will lead to voter fraud, saying in one instance: “There is NO WAY (ZERO) that Mail-in Ballots will be anything less than substantially fraudulent. Mail boxes will be robbed, ballots will be forged & even illegally printed out & fraudulently signed.” For the first time ever, Twitter added a fact-checking label to the tweets, linking users to trusted sources debunking his claims.
On July 30, President Trump also tweeted that due to “Universal Mail-in Voting,” the 2020 election will be the most inaccurate and fraudulent one in our country’s history, suggesting that the election be delayed until “people can properly, securely and safely vote.” While the president does not have the authority to delay the election and many members of his own party adamantly spoke out against it, the dialogue around expected voting fraud and talk of delaying an election no doubt contribute to the din of conflicting information about where, when, and how Americans can safely vote this November.
More on the lack of funding for elections and why voter communication is so neglected
In response to the ruinous 2000 presidential election, the U.S. Election Assistance Commission’s (EAC) most crucial function is supposed to be the standardization and certification of voting machines, though it has not updated a full set of requirements since 2005. Secondarily, the commission was established to maintain election integrity through emergencies. But a ProPublica investigation in July 2020 revealed that the EAC is plagued by partisan infighting and Congress has tried to eliminate it multiple times over the last decade. With an operating budget of only $8 million and a full-time staff of just 22, states looking for help with, among other issues, infrastructure for increasing vote-by-mail in response to the pandemic have found the commission ineffective.
The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act included $400 million in emergency money to help states respond to COVID-19 disruptions to the 2020 federal election cycle. In an op-ed for POLITICO, Republican election officials wrote that the $400 million should be seen as nothing more than “a down payment,” and another round of grants without state matching requirements is necessary. Currently, complete forgiveness around the CARES Act money is contingent upon a state’s commitment to match 20 percent of all grant spending on expenditures directly related to the effect of the pandemic on federal elections — an ask some states are reportedly struggling to meet. The Brennan Center for Justice estimates that $2 billion is needed to run safe and secure elections.
Robust election communications are not a high priority for states, especially during a global pandemic. It’s nearly impossible to find a line item dedicated to them in the budget. Actually, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), because administering elections involves so many levels of state and local government it’s rare for any state to know how much total money is spent on each election cycle — from personnel, polling place locations, ballot printing, voter information dissemination, cybersecurity protection, and adhering to changing regulations.
Only 16 states are required by state law to publish and distribute voter information pamphlets. A number of states also require the printing and distribution of sample ballots. Only Kentucky and Nebraska demand that county officials publish sample ballots in newspapers prior to elections.
Some states and counties have recently issued voter information apps, though people generally complain about usability issues and information deficits. For example, Ohio’s secretary of state (SOS) released an app in 2016 called “Ohio Voter Info,” which advertises the ability to find polling locations, check registration status, and see sample ballots. However, it only has full information if individual counties have uploaded it to the state’s linked website: www.electionsonthe.net. Likewise, in California, the SOS released “Vote California” in 2016. Users note it has weak functionality and mostly just redirects them to the SOS website.
Required by law to balance their budgets each year, a number of states have taken immediate steps through executive authority to make budget cuts for fiscal 2020. For example, governors in Arkansas, Colorado, Idaho, Indiana, Missouri, Ohio, and Wisconsin have already made across-the-board cuts — meaning election communication from states and counties is certainly not poised to get better.
More on the decline in local news and how that impacts the voter information void
In decades past, there were three major networks and local newspapers. In Washington, D.C., The Washington Post was published daily in the morning and The Washington Star was printed in the afternoon — at least between 1852 and 1981. If there were changes to, say, polling place information that didn’t make the morning edition, city residents knew to look to the afternoon paper for updates. Then, the internet happened.
Research by the University of North Carolina finds that more than one in five papers has closed over the last 15 years, leaving thousands of communities at risk of becoming news and information deserts. The project also identifies nearly 200 counties in the United States that have no newspaper at all — a result that usually affects the poorest, least educated, and most isolated communities across the country. The disappearance of trusted local newspapers has a number of well-documented consequences, chief among them a decline in civic engagement.
Even though public trust in remaining local news outlets remains high, almost no media organization can afford to provide public service announcements or free advertisements, even to states and counties. Meanwhile, at the national level, a September 2019 Gallup survey found that 58 percent of Americans trust mass media “not very much” or “none at all.”
The decline of public service journalism at the local level, which once focused on giving citizens a way to solve their own problems, includes the loss of in-depth local candidate reviews, voting guides, polling places and hours, etc. Joy Mayer, director of Trusting News, offered a short instructional course in August for local newsrooms about building trust in their election coverage. Chief among the mistakes made, she said, is a tendency to bury election basics inside longer, complex stories about campaigns and voting. One method for displaying basic election information she recommends to newsrooms could involve a constantly updated and refreshable dashboard with basic election information. She also emphasized how much earlier information needs to be printed and made available — all the while noting that enacting change is difficult, especially in newsrooms where staff has been decimated and it takes considerable bandwidth to rethink routines.
Where state and local government communication fall short, philanthropic, faith-based, and corporate initiatives attempt to fill the trust vacuum. While projects like Rock the Vote, TurboVote/Democracy Works, Faith in Action, My Muslim Vote, Native Vote, etc., are contributing greatly to addressing voters’ needs, many of them focus more on registering people and require agency to actively seek out resources. Corporations and social media companies are likewise spearheading initiatives to inform their employees or users about voting — though, again, much of it is registration-focused.
A note on the importance of local politics, even as most voters don’t know these elections are happening
There is a clear need to communicate the importance of elections at the state and local levels for the upcoming 2020 election and beyond. Participation in local voting is low nationwide, with only 27 percent of eligible voters casting ballots in the typical municipal election. Couple this with a 2018 NPR study finding that white Americans are twice as likely as minorities to be “frequent” voters and an oft-cited report from Portland State University called “Who Votes for Mayor?” indicating that the median age of voters across the United States in mayoral elections is 57, and it’s fair to say that a very unrepresentative set of residents determine how local governments fund services. This is no small or inexpensive matter, either. Every year more than half a million local elected officials nationwide manage budgetary measures and allocate resources up to $2 trillion for policing, education, affordable housing, courts, infrastructure, and public transportation.
There is, however, hope. In many ways, COVID-19 has also exalted the importance of local leadership to the national consciousness. Differing responses to the pandemic on a state-by-state (and even county-by-county or city-by-city) basis have demonstrated how local officials can fill the gaps where federal management falls short. The 2018 midterms also demonstrated a surge in youth voting, as the 18- and 19-year-old voter turnout across 42 states hit “historic highs” — with Americans ages 18 to 29 doubling their turnout from 2014 to 28 percent and exceeding the national average by one point. The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) out of Tufts University finds that an astounding three-quarters of young people are paying attention to the election and 80 percent believe the outcome will affect their lives. Still, youths are undermobilized. In the 2016 presidential election, 27.4 million Americans between 18 and 29 were registered to vote, but only 21.6 million turned out. According to a CIRCLE poll, 39 percent of younger voters said they did not know where to vote, 26 percent said they need help distinguishing between truth and fake news, and, among youth in low-income communities, most are uncertain about voter ID laws in their states and don’t know what documents they need to bring to the polls.
One key way to get citizens involved going forward is to remind them repeatedly that local elections are happening even in presidential “off” years when the media isn’t covering them.