Lessons From 2020: Strengthening Elections To Protect Our Democracy

A woman wearing a mask and carrying a ballot walks across the floor of a gym while being directed by another woman who is an election official.
An election official gives directions to a voter at Boots Ward Recreation Center, Powder Springs, GA on November 3, 2020. Photo by Michael A. Schwarz.

A record 160 million Americans voted in the 2020 general election and made their voices heard, a remarkable achievement during a year defined by overlapping challenges.

President Trump used his megaphone to try and delegitimize election results while a viral pandemic spread like wildfire through the country. But hardworking election officials across the political spectrum stood shoulder to shoulder to finish the vote count and certify the results, resisting Trump’s pressure to circumvent election procedures and overturn the will of a majority of Americans.

Trump’s misinformation campaign reached a crescendo when he incited a violent attempt to prevent the counting of the Electoral College votes in Congress at the U.S. Capitol on January 6. An armed mob attacked and occupied the Capitol building, delaying for hours the ceremonial tradition that signifies the transfer of powers.

While the attempt to overturn the election ultimately failed, the fact it was encouraged by the president reflects a deeper decay in public confidence in our democracy. Working to restore trust and confidence will be a major project for reform groups like Campaign Legal Center (CLC) to focus on in 2021.

CLC, working in collaboration with its partners at the National Task Force on Election Crises (of which CLC is a founding member and key contributor), issued a series of priority reforms that should be made to improve election administration and modernize the process by which we count electoral votes to strengthen our system.

Election Administration

In the face of 2020’s many challenges, the election itself was conducted relatively smoothly and multiple independent bodies concluded that the election was secure and free of widespread irregularities.

Despite efforts to create deliberate barriers to voting, turnout was historically high and more diverse than ever before. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the outcry of voting advocates like CLC, over half of states expanded access to vote-by-mail in 2020. At least 85% of voters had the option to bypass in-person polling locations and vote from the safety of their homes in this election.

However, while aggregate turnout was up, disparities were pervasive. Voters in the poorest neighborhoods in the country this year typically took longer to vote due to long lines.

This phenomenon is consistent with 2016, according to ProPublica. “Residents of Black neighborhoods waited 29% longer to vote in the 2016 election and were 74% more likely to spend more than 30 minutes at their polling place,” in that case as a result of, “fewer voting machines and poll workers in minority neighborhoods.

To move toward a more inclusive democracy, it will be necessary to invest in robust public education efforts about election mechanics. Further, voter registration should be modernized and automatic voter registration should be adopted universally. Also, a menu of voting options should be extended to voters of all ages, including early voting and mail-in voting.

Modernization of the Electoral College

Those who support the continued use of the Electoral College system say that the states “speak” to one another through the system and so it performs a vital role in promoting national unity and the constitutional system.

However, the multiple challenges to the votes of the people this year — expressed through the states and their votes in the Electoral College — teach us that the Electoral College is a fragile institution in need of review.

We can’t lose sight of this moment and move on with the false pretense that – just because an armed insurrection was prevented – our system is invincible. In fact, 2020 taught us that many chinks in the armor exist and should be addressed.

Along the way, many officials in key positions resisted pressure from Trump and recognized their obligation to the country. But what if a future election is closer and one party controls both chambers of Congress and a candidate from the opposing party wins?

More than 140 Republicans voted to overturn the election results, an anti-democratic repudiation of the duly certified election results. Congress would have needed to reject multiple states Biden won to overturn his 306-232 electoral vote defeat of Trump. But what if the Electoral College vote was much closer?

To avoid a worst-case scenario in future elections, Congress must reform the Electoral Count Act of 1887. Any revisions must provide clarity – and perhaps constraints – on the permissible grounds by which Congress may object to a state’s appointment of presidential electors or the votes cast by those electors.

Ambiguities in the current law were exploited by bad-faith partisan actors, feeding narratives that undermined public confidence in the election overall.

Combatting Disinformation

Learning a key lesson from 2016, the decision by most major social media companies to actively flag, contextualize, and in some cases, restrict the circulation of disinformation about election results, may have kept falsehoods from becoming even more widely accepted by voters.

Still, disinformation about the integrity of the election from Trump, his allies, and his family members spread far and wide. Troubling threats of violence against election officials and members of Congress were allowed to spread online.

In the future, regulators will need to contend with the rise of alternative social media platforms. Existing mainstream social media companies should delete rather than label disinformation, since users tend to spread disinformation quickly, and fact-checking is an after-the-fact mitigation strategy that still allows false claims to spread.

Social media companies must also clearly label trusted sources of information from election officials, so the public knows where election-related information is coming from.

Achieving a More Inclusive Democracy

Attempts to overturn a legitimate, democratic election took a toll on the country and likely caused lasting damage to the perceived legitimacy and long-term stability of American institutions and our system of government. We must work to reverse this backslide.

We are at an inflection point in our nation, and the world is watching. To maintain credibility in American efforts to promote democracy abroad, our leaders must stand up and reject the poisoning of democracy at home.

The first priority of the new Congress must be to pursue legislation – the "For the People Act," H.R. 1, which will strengthen electoral safeguards and bring Americans a more inclusive democracy.

Free and fair elections are the cornerstone of our democracy, and we owe it to ourselves and our future prosperity to safeguard them. The legitimacy and long-term stability of American institutions and our system of government are at stake. 

Corey handles media relations for the CLC voting rights and redistricting teams and creates online content. Follow @cgfromdc on Twitter
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