20 small steps to restore faith in American elections

Reforms at the state level would work better than a one-size-fits-all directive from Congress

A voter casts a ballot at an early voting site in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 27. Each state’s election system is slightly different, which gives us an advantage in the fight against foreign interference, Grayson and Ros-Lehtinen write. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
A voter casts a ballot at an early voting site in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 27. Each state’s election system is slightly different, which gives us an advantage in the fight against foreign interference, Grayson and Ros-Lehtinen write. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted May 3, 2021 at 6:00am

The past year has seen some of the fastest and most complex changes in election laws and procedures in generations due to the pandemic.

Across the country, Congress, the executive branch, courts, state legislatures, governors, and state and local election administrators all responded — often without coordination — to the worst pandemic in a century, which happened to hit during a general election year.

These changes and the postelection reaction to them have spawned confusion and a raft of self-defeating policy proposals in states across the country. But there are commonsense reforms that our election system still needs.

First, it’s worth addressing the real problems facing our election systems. The scale and diversity of threats to election integrity is a problem by itself. Never before have our election systems been such a direct target of interference by hostile foreign actors, including nation-states with considerable resources like Russia and China. The combination of attacks against our election systems and mis- and disinformation, whether originating domestically or overseas, contributes to the greatest threat to our elections — mistrust.

This mistrust is largely undeserved. The Department of Homeland Security reported that, at least as far as foreign interference was concerned, the 2020 election was “the most secure in American history. … There is no evidence that any voting system deleted or lost votes, changed votes, or was in any way compromised.” Every state election administrator was also able to certify official vote tallies, and no court that reviewed the matter found a reason to question those certifications.

But any mistrust is itself a threat to elections. It’s not enough that elections have integrity; they must also be perceived to have integrity or the government can face a legitimacy crisis. To address this problem, the Secure Elections Project has published a new report, “Policy Proposals to Restore Faith and Trust in the U.S. Election System.”

The report includes 20 individual recommendations for state legislatures and election administrators to consider that would promote security, speed and transparency in the elections process across four domains: voter registration and information management; voter access and ballot integrity; canvassing, counting and reporting; and best practices.

Perhaps the most important recommendation is that each state’s chief election administrator be charged with keeping up to date on administrative and security protocols and recommending legislation to keep our election systems modernized.

Each state’s election system is slightly different, which gives us an advantage in the fight against foreign interference. By mixing and matching procedures and technologies across 50 states, six territories (including the District of Columbia) and thousands of local jurisdictions, changing the outcome of an American election becomes an enormously complicated and difficult process. This decentralized election system also benefits from the “laboratories of democracy,” in which innovations and policies can be tested in one state or locality without being imposed on the whole country at once.

Our report embraces this federalism by offering a menu of policies and reforms, rather than a one-size-fits-all solution. And it consciously omits any action by Congress or the federal executive branch. All too often, national-level election policies come in the form of unfunded mandates to the states, whereby the national government forces states to spend their own money on new projects —thereby forcing them to cut funding from other priorities or to raise state taxes because of Congress’ preferences.

In the best traditions of American government, our recommendations can be adopted by states according to their particular needs. In most cases, the reforms work best when combined — e.g., risk-limiting audits work best when every voting machine produces a paper backup — but states are free to pick and choose as they see fit.

Most importantly, the proposals in the report are outcome neutral. They are aimed neither at reshaping the electorate by changing the rules of voting and elections, nor at restricting the rights of legal voters.

The reforms are nonpartisan. Democrats would be wise to adopt them, and indeed many Democrats support many of them. Republicans would be especially wise to adopt them, as many of the proposals would reduce barriers to voting that most affect rural voters, such as access to polling places — not to mention the possible blowback Republicans could face for passing measures that, fairly or otherwise, are perceived as restricting voting rights.

For a variety of reasons, American elections face a crisis of confidence. Restoring trust in our election system is a national imperative. It will require leaders with bravery and imagination. But there are small steps we can start with and no time to waste.

Trey Grayson is a Republican who served as Kentucky secretary of state from 2004 to 2011. He is currently a member at Frost Brown Todd LLC and managing director of its public affairs affiliate, CivicPoint.

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen is a Republican who represented South Florida in the House from 1989 to 2019. She is currently a senior adviser at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP.

Both serve as chairs for the Secure Elections Project, which advocates commonsense, nonpartisan election reforms that prevent hacking and fraud without restricting eligible citizens from accessing the polls.