Analysis: Messing With Elections Messes With Democracy

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Elections depend on trust — on the idea that the declared winners and losers were the real winners and losers.

So how’s that going right now?

“In a democracy, people have to have faith that elections are being run fairly, so that losers will accept the results and fight another day,” says Rick Hasen, an elections lawyer and professor at the University of California-Irvine. “That’s been taken for granted in this country and, effectively, no longer can be, with so much stress on our system and so much agitation that undermines confidence.”

He’s written a book — Election Meltdown: Dirty Tricks, Distrust and the Threat to American Democracy — that went public Tuesday. That’s the day the Iowa caucuses started coming to pieces.

“Confidence is the system,” Hasen says. “We don’t have a single election system. We have all of these pieces that fit together so that there’s legitimacy to the process. At some point, that can break down and you could have a substantial number of people who say, ‘This is broken, and I don’t believe this was a fair election.’ That’s what I’m really worried about.”

Tom Perez, head of the Democratic National Committee, asked for a “recanvass” of the results in Iowa after days of confusion produced a muddled picture of who won the popular vote in the state’s Democratic caucuses and who was entitled to its delegates.

Hasen contends four things threaten elections in America: voter suppression, pockets of incompetent election administrators, dirty tricks and misinformation, and hot negative rhetoric about voters, voting and vote-counting. Iowa’s political adventure fell victim, apparently, to two, and perhaps three, of the four: incompetence by party election administrators, a rhetorical outpouring of condemnation about the way the caucus was conducted, and if complaints from Democratic Party leaders are confirmed, a vote-reporting hotline disrupted by a flood of calls from Republican dirty tricksters.

It makes for a timely book, but it doesn’t bring much joy to anyone trying to buttress confidence in American democracy.

He puts most voter suppression efforts at the feet of Republicans and cites the Texas effort to remove 95,000 people from the voter rolls after the 2018 elections — a boondoggle based on faulty information about the citizenship of those Texans. One result: David Whitley, appointed Texas secretary of state by Gov. Greg Abbott, failed to win the Senate approval required to keep his job.

Bungled counts like Iowa’s often involve big-city Democrats, he writes. Dirty tricks and misinformation are as old as politics but are boosted now by social media and other tools that make it easier and faster to tamper with information and, in some cases, with elections themselves. Season it all with the words of leaders at every level who question whether voters are qualified, elections are properly conducted, and results are clean and fair, and you have a the perilous mix that he says is a threat to democracy.

The book makes some recommendations about shorter- and longer-term solutions, and Hasen had a hard time with this year’s elections. “The short-term stuff is where I struggled the most, and I’m actually convening a conference of leading experts in law, media, tech and politics to ask what those triage steps might be,” Hasen said. That livestreamed conference — “Can American Democracy Survive the 2020 Elections?” — will be at the end of the month, and he said he hopes it will result in a report “about things that should be done” by early summer.

“Part of the problem with Iowa is that people didn’t know they wouldn’t get the results before they went to sleep,” he said.

Sleep on this: The Texas primaries start in less than two weeks, with the early voting leading up to the March 3 election. The state appears to be rumbling along to a normal election, but it has had its moments.

Top election administrators moved to avert a potential delay in election day reporting in Texas this week, saying they’ll collect the primary results tabulated by political districts, the better to allow parties to allocate their delegates. Without that, the overall results would come in hours or days before anyone found out which candidates would take Texas support to the national convention. Texas runs a primary and not a caucus like the troublesome affair in Iowa, but vote-counting and delegate tabulations are at the root of Iowa’s problems in reporting results.

“Additionally, we will report the Presidential race by Congressional and Senate district as we have in years past. You will see these added to the ENR data entry screen [used by local officials to send election data to the state] in the next few days,” the secretary of state’s office said in a memo sent Thursday to election officials.

That’s one less thing to worry about. After Iowa, the people collecting and counting the votes are hoping the election headlines are about who won and who lost, and not about them.

That’s one way to build confidence.

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