This primary election season, recognize that secure elections require public trust

Written by Derek Monson

June 3, 2024

Originally published in Utah News Dispatch.

A major presidential candidate convicted of 34 felonies uses the verdict to bolster his campaignAccusations of “bullying” over candidate debates. Intra-party battles between moderate and extreme wings of the party. Sitting governors booed and physical altercations at state and national party conventions.

It must be primary election season in America.

In many states, voters will soon be casting ballots to nominate candidates for office, and some have already done so. As voters, election officials and policymakers fulfill their civic duty in the coming months, this principle should drive how we discuss elections: The secure and fair elections that are a foundation of American self-government require high levels of trust and confidence from the public.

With the 2024 presidential race being a reprise of the 2020 election, this election year seems bound to raise many important questions about voting and election policy. In addition, some states will debate how they nominate candidates for office to run in the general election. All will consider in some fashion how to maintain the best balance of convenience, security and trustworthiness in voting.

What should be top of mind for all of us the proper way to respond to attacks on the integrity of election outcomes from losing candidates or their campaigns, and how best to support election officials who face undue criticism and even personal threats against their lives.

Sutherland Institute, where I work, recently began a yearlong exploration of these questions at the Election Trust Forum: an event co-sponsored by the Gary Herbert Institute of Public Policy at Utah Valley University and the SNF Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins University. This event and an ongoing stream of research, analysis and commentary throughout this election cycle represent a commitment to relentlessly pursue the answers to important voting and election policy questions.

One thing is certain: The power of average voters to choose their leaders through secure elections that evoke public confidence is what gives legitimacy to our self-governing republic. For elected officials who have taken an oath to support and defend the United States, this means that promoting public trust in secure elections is a solemn public duty. For citizens and voters, this means that promoting public trust in secure elections is both a civic duty and a matter of enlightened self-interest in maintaining the power of the people manifested through voting. 

Of course, if our preferred candidate loses an election and blames it on fraud or vote suppression, it is natural to wonder if they are right. But in every state across the country voting is protected by dozens of layers of security that make widespread voter fraud practically impossible. Voting today is also more convenient and accessible than it has ever been.

 This means that our patriotic loyalty to our republic requires us to reject misinformation from even our preferred candidates for office that would suggest that either voter fraud or voter suppression is driving election outcomes.

Of course, election policies and processes can always be improved. For instance, when I recently put the question of how we build or restore public trust in elections to MIT election researcher and professor Charles Stewart, he noted that the research clearly indicates that trust grows when voters have a positive experience with voting. This suggests that any negative experiences in voting in a primary election may be doing the opposite.

While political insiders obsess about the latest legal drama in the presidential race, we ought to be focused on issues of greater import, like seeking to improve elections and election security measures. As we do so, we must remember that the need to maintain and renew the health of our constitutional republic and American democracy demands a recognition that our elections are already fundamentally secure and trustworthy.

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