During the first Presidential debate last week, moderator Chris Wallace asked the candidates how they would reassure the American people that elections will be safe, secure, and valid. The fact that Wallace raised this question underscores the importance of the issue of election integrity. With November 3rd just weeks away, there is heightened concern about efforts to undermine confidence in the election’s legitimacy. Such concerns get at the core of our democracy. Democracy only works when people have faith in the legitimacy of the systems and institutions that decide elections.
Recognizing the intense pressure this election will place on our democracy, More in Common conducted a large-scale survey of 8,000 Americans asking about their views towards the integrity of the election and our democracy more broadly. We also intentionally set out to identify where there might be opportunities to bolster Americans’ confidence in our election systems’ resiliency.
Many of our findings confirm that Americans are deeply concerned about the risks this election poses to our democracy. For example, almost half of Americans say that they do not feel that the US government is prepared for the election. Views on many issues are polarized— 85% of Democrats, but only 28% of Republicans think that mail-in ballots are a secure and valid voting method.
Yet we find a very different story when we look at Americans’ views towards their local communities. Trust in local officials to do what is right for the country is nearly twice as high as trust levels towards the federal government – 68 percent vs. 39 percent, respectively. Americans also share a strong attachment to democracy and the emotions invoked by voting – 87 percent feel voting is a way to improve the country. Such findings indicate there is an opportunity for Americans to work across political lines to bolster faith in our system’s integrity and resiliency.
If one tunes in only to the national conversations, the polarization around specific election concerns is apparent. Our findings reflect that: Republicans are primarily worried about voter fraud. Sixty percent of the Republicans we surveyed think it is ‘very likely’ mail-in ballots will be tampered with. Furthermore, 51 percent say that people who are not eligible to vote will be able to vote.
Democrats are mainly worried about foreign interference and voter suppression. Fifty-seven percent think that a foreign government will use social media to turn Americans against each other, and 56 percent expect election officials to discourage some people from voting.
Americans of all political ideologies express concern regarding what might happen after the election. Sixty-one percent of Americans feel there will not be a peaceful continuation of power if President Trump is re-elected. Nearly half of Americans – 48 percent – feel there will not be a peaceful transfer of power if Joe Biden is elected.
And yet, away from the clamor at the national level, there are signs at the local level that the democratic spirit is very much alive. For example, when explicitly asked about the qualities that characterize the communities they live in, eight in ten Americans say they can express their views through peaceful demonstrations. Fifty-seven percent say that people with different views treat each other with respect. Eighty-two percent say that “people in my local community have more in common than what divides us.” Americans also have significantly higher confidence in their state government and city/town officials to do what is right for the country than the federal government.
Recognizing this fact, we may be able to work to strengthen our democracy at the local level. Building off our survey findings, More in Common conducted message testing to find themes that can resonate across political lines to build confidence in our election systems’ integrity. Messages like the one below – that frame local election officials as trusted neighbors and friends – were among the most effective in increasing Americans’ confidence in the electoral process.
“America’s election workers are our neighbors and friends who work side by side to make sure every ballot is counted, fairly and properly. Our election systems are not perfect, but we can trust our local election workers/ to ensure the accuracy of this year’s election.”
We also find that local election officials are the most trusted messengers when it comes to election information. This might seem intuitive, yet in a polarized environment, it is crucial to underscore that there are messengers who can cut through the noise and engage Americans across the political spectrum.
A challenge we face as a nation is that the intensity and conflict around the elections derive power from the very uncertainty it generates. The more people feel anxious, the more they fixate on the worrying events unfolding on the national stage. This can produce a sense of helplessness and make people lose sight of their own agency and ability to bring about change. If people manage to tear their gaze away from the national spectacle, they might find communities of citizens committed to upholding the values that make American democracy great: freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, tolerance, and respect.