The People Who Run This Are Your Neighbors
by Mitchell Brown and Kathleen Hale
October 23, 2020
This interview with Kathleen Hale and Mitchell Brown, professors of political science at Auburn University and coauthors of How We Vote: Innovation in American Elections, was conducted and condensed by franknews.
Kathleen: I'm Kathleen Hale. I am a professor of political science at Auburn University where I direct the graduate program on election administration. I work with Auburn faculty to conduct training and certification for election officials around the country. I've worked in and published in this field pretty much exclusively for the last decade.
Mitchell: I am Mitchell Brown. I'm also a professor of political science at Auburn University and have worked closely with Kathleen in our efforts around election administration for the past decade. We write a lot about how elections are run, how election administration works, and what that means for understanding the election system here in the US.
We're at a critical moment, in a very unique election — what’s most concerning to you?
Kathleen: Well, there's a lot going on. We study elections and the process of conducting elections as a system, and by definition, it's a complex process. There is interaction across local government, state government, and, in a limited scope, the national government. What I'm most concerned about right now is trust in the system — the trust voters have to place in something that they don't know a lot about. Especially right now, voters are learning new information, they're confused, and they may not trust what they hear.
I'm concerned about the broad implications that this moment may have on the faith in our institutions. I'm a believer in American democracy and in our democratic institutions, and I worry about the broader possible impact of this election.
Mitchell: I'll add to that. I would say that the biggest threat to American democracy right now is declining trust in the electoral system specifically. People who have studied political science have watched the American public's trust in the government decline since the late sixties, but, for the first time, we are seeing a real distrust in the electoral system, and it's coming from a very political place.
There is a lot of partisan fighting right now, and a real attempt to rile people up — on one side about access, and on the other side about integrity. But, there is very little evidence that supports either narrative.
Can you explain how the election administration system collaborates between the federal, state, and local agencies?
Kathleen: Elections are a local enterprise. While the federal government has a duty to ensure equity, the federal government does not run the election. The states, through localities, run elections. Local offices run elections, and state officials support local offices.
Should we want to see uniformity across states? Are unique statewide barriers to voting something we need to accept?
Mitchell: We discuss this in our recent book, How We Vote: Innovation in American Elections. There is a lot of conversation right now about moving to a standardized federal election system, which would ensure uniformity across states. At the end of the book, we conclude that this is probably not a good idea. There is, of course, a real history of voter suppression for groups of people, particularly for African Americans. We think that the federal government needs to play a role in protecting citizens' right to vote and in ensuring equal access to the ballots. However, we think that moving to a uniform system across all of the states would hamper certain responsiveness to local conditions that election offices have now. Much of the positive change that we have seen in how elections are run has come from election offices responding to local conditions and local needs, and these needs and conditions aren't the same everywhere.
We also think that a move towards a federal election might actually make us less secure.
Our heterogeneous system makes it much harder to hack an election.
Another piece to consider is the cost of the transition. The cost associated with moving to a federal model would be really breathtaking. Right now the localities bear most of the expense of running elections, and it would be a breathtaking undertaking to move to a federal system like that.
Can you speak more to what the cost of moving to a unified, national system looks like?
Kathleen: I'll share two pieces in terms of what we learned about finance. One, every state's election laws are different. States use the same words to talk about very different processes, and different words to talk about exactly the same thing. For a nationalized process, verbage, of course, would all have to be leveled out — that is a seemingly low bar for nationalizing, well, anything. However, in the discussions we have had, right away, this is where the conversation melts. The response is, we have no money, why would we spend what little money we have on standardizing language?
Two, there isn't much in the election environment around the country that wouldn't be significantly improved with a significant infusion of resources. In the study that Mitchell's referring to, we looked at a sample of states and we compared what counties claim as their election budget, versus what the election office claims that their election budget is. That shows us what the share of the election office would be.
We found it to be somewhere around the range of 0.5%. That's not a lot of money. We're getting the election administration system that we pay for, and I think that's something that's well understood in the election community at the local level.
Zooming in on just Brooklyn — there were lots of people who received ballots that were addressed to someone else. That mailing process was outsourced to a private company. What does that do to trust in the system?
Mitchell: Election systems are complicated. While the local election office is in charge, very few state governments have the capacity in-house to do their own printing of all their ballots, particularly if you've got a large population. So they outsource to vendors. Across the country, there are over 8,000 different election offices creating multiple different kinds of ballots for all the different precincts. The idea that we're going to have a perfect election is not realistic. There are redundancies and checks put in place, but accidents happen.
My understanding of what happened in New York is that it was a vendor problem and when the problem was recognized, the vendor stepped in and said they would bear the cost of reprinting everything. Accidents do happen and bouncing back is a real thing. Election officials need to respond immediately and positively in order to assure the public they are not top of this.
Kathleen: This is a complex system that isn't fully automated. There's a significant amount of human activity, and room for error. When mistakes are made and when accidents happen, we can choose the sort of narrative to push. We can play into the idea of a larger conspiracy, but I think that has longer-term consequences. Sure, the errors are disturbing. But, hopefully, the narrative that things are being corrected is the louder voice. It is up to the people telling the stories.
Mitchell: On both sides of the political debate there is this narrative that there is this giant conspiracy, that there are people in the shadows pulling all of our strings. The people running these elections are your neighbors. Like Kathleen said earlier, this is a hyperlocal function. This isn't this giant conspiracy. Accidents happen. People need to reframe how they are understanding what's happening in elections.
We've said the word narrative a lot in this conversation — how can we better step away from ‘narrative’ and story & into facts.
Kathleen: I have to commend the media. Over the last six months, the narrative has shifted to focus on the mechanisms of election night and on the idea that we won't know the results on election night. It has always been true that the results when the polls close on election night, we don't have the final count. If the ballots that were counted by that time were the only ballots we counted, we would disenfranchise millions of voters. That has always been true. This is an area that takes a long time to understand and I am heartened by the shifts in conversation that I have seen.
The loss of local media has been critical because your local paper or your local reporter has been replaced with misinformation and disinformation on social media.
We have a real job to do in this country to build a higher level of information literacy in all people. That's obviously a bigger problem that exists outside of the contexts of elections.
Kathleen: We have started to think about how to recast the way we think about all of this, which is through the lens of civic responsibility. The act of going to vote was in person and seeing your neighbors in the school gym or the church basement was such a part of our culture, and it is clear that it's something that people still value. People are still voting in person. The engrained civic responsibility of that act hasn't gone away. That piece is still there.
I can say that local election officials go to work every day with the voter in mind. They are focused on voter confidence, voter trust, and serving the voter. That's why they do their jobs. These jobs are not easy to do. These jobs are not glamorous, they're hard, and the people who do these jobs, as Mitchell said, are part of your community. They only want to do the job the right way. They want voters to trust the work that they're doing. They want their communities to trust the work that they're doing. Their message is not a partisan message.
How do we bolster the functionality of local offices?
Mitchell: In addition to getting involved — volunteering as a poll worker, for example — it is important to support local initiatives to increase the amount of money we are spending on the electoral system. We spend so little money on it, and people just don't think about it very often. Instead of insisting that your local tax base be as low as possible, we need to recognize that just a little bit of money would make a real difference in what these offices have the capacity to do. It affects who they can hire, how many people they can hire, what kind of training and support they can give people, and what kind of equipment they can purchase. There are also real disparities across election offices. What a local office in a small town is capable of supporting versus a big city offers is really different. The willingness to say, raise my taxes just a little bit to support this function is pretty important.
How would additional funds and resources need to be spent to support integrity, access, and finality?
Kathleen: Amongst the election community, the understanding is that you can have accuracy and speed and low cost, but you can't have all three at the same time. You can have two. In order to have all three, you need more money and more resources. General operating money at the local level is what is needed.
Mitchell: You need resources to build professionalism and capacity. That is a long-term process. It's not money for a specific function, it's money for a broader infusion of the things that we need to build capacity and professionalism.
What is the best way to fund local election offices?
Kathleen: There are two ways to do this. One is to increase the local allocation of existing local resources. I think it's important to recognize we're in a place right now where state and local resources are really challenged and stretched. The tax base for states and for localities, in particular, has been really challenged by the pandemic. That's real. The cake is kind of baked for the next couple of years with limited, limited resources. And so one of the questions would be whether there is a role for federal funding here -- perhaps a dollar, a voter or $2 a voter allocated across the country as permanent operating fund funding for local election offices.
Arnold Schwarzenegger and USC were in the news recently for trying to distribute money into certain areas — most of which seemed to be in the South — where people were complaining about polling places closing down or there not being enough PPE. Do you see that as a positive thing?
Mitchell: I think there's more than just Schwartzenegger doing this. There are other groups that are doing this. This is not something that I have studied in-depth, but what I hear anecdotally is that the groups that are trying to do this have met some real roadblocks in the places where they've been trying to distribute money. There is distrust about the political motivations behind the private money, and there is a fear about whether the outside money wants to change local practices. That has led to some pushback about receiving the money. I think this raises a bigger question about how government should be run and how the government should be resourced and about the role of private philanthropy.
We have dealt with these questions as a country before. If you look at the beginning of the country, services for widows and orphans were private. We didn't have any social service function. But, at some point, we decided that it creates further inequity when this function is left to charitable giving societies. We came to the conclusion that it would be more equitable if the government were to provide those functions.
Kathleen: Nationally and historically, as a nation, we have had a deep suspicion of the role of private money. And I say all of this being convinced that we need resources.
As a citizen, I'm embarrassed that this would even be the kind of thing that jurisdictions would need to consider.
I've seen some of the grant applications, I have seen the amounts of money these offices are asking for. These are not extreme asks. Elections are the way we measure democracy. All of us, regardless of political affiliation, should be invested in making sure that they are done right. We should be willing to fund this at a level that it needs in order to run effectively.
The difference between the way the government has to provide a service and the way a nonprofit can choose to provide service is exactly that — one is a choice and one is an imperative. The widows and orphans fund can choose who is eligible. The government takes all comers. The voting office takes all comers. The thresholds for eligibility are very clear — we are obligated to serve everybody. So while I applaud efforts like USC's, it raises a lot of questions. And in fact, I would be quite surprised if they were allowed to take the money.
Kathleen: There is also a question of what can be addressed without actual cash. What other resources do we have? What about the resources in the judicial system? We've defined a national role in this arena to balance out the competing constitutional claims of the national government and the states in running elections. The role of the federal courts here is important. The absence of judicial enforcement of long-standing, well-understood practices that protect voter access and voter participation has to be acknowledged. That has been a missing piece since 2013.
What happened in 2013?
Kathleen: In 2013, in Shelby v. Holder, The US Supreme Court made a portion of the Voting Rights Act essentially null and void. Since 1965, there was a formula that had been used that required particular states, and sometimes counties, to receive a prior review and federal approval of changes in their voting laws and voting practices. Things like redistricting and early voting periods had to be presented to the federal government. The Department of Justice would look at the changes states were making and decide if the changes were okay or not okay, if they were discriminatory or not discriminatory.
All change away from democracy seems to happen slowly, then all at once. I think Americans suffer from an inability to imagine that the version of democracy we grew up with could change drastically or disappear entirely.
Mitchell: Yeah. The other thing we talk about is how the parties are gearing up for this, the bevy of lawyers on both sides for court challenges.
We politicize the practice so much that election results will be the results of courts, as opposed to the voice of the people.
That’s something we should think more about — whether we really want to do that.
Kathleen: The default to litigation feeds mistrust. If everything has gone so far to hell that only the courts can resolve this, it feeds into cynicism on the part of voters. Voters should feel that they have some agency. I dread this election going to the courts, not because of any particular decision, but because of the impact that may have on the perspectives of institutions as a whole.
Mitchell: It changes the quality of our democracy. Imagine the courts become the final arbiter of all actions that are important at the federal level. That has to lead to a decrease in political ethicacy at the individual level. That has to lead to more voter apathy. That can't be good for American democracy.
Kathleen: No, it's on the path to wholesale disengagement. It will become self-evident that it doesn't matter how I participate because a court will decide anyway. Following the crazy train down the track, let's just not have elections — other countries don't, let's just not have elections. Let's just ask the courts to decide. In fact, let's not even ask them, they'll just tell us. It is disheartening to think that only 20 years ago it was almost unthinkable that the Supreme Court would become involved in the results of a state election process. Bush V Gore changed everything.
Are you hopeful moving forward?
Kathleen: In the profession, we are known as the optimists and the people who aren’t political hysterics. We are very much on the side of wanting things to work.
We think local elections are a good government story — a good government story every time. We see local elections surmount amazing challenges. We conducted local elections in New York City on 9/11, we began the process and then rescheduled them for another day. We conducted elections in Texas and Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina, when hundreds of thousands of people were relocated or dislocated. It comes down to the people who run the elections. They know how to do hard work, under really challenging conditions, with a smile. Their message is not a political message. There's not a political way to vote, there's only participating in democracy.