Merloe provides strategic advice on democracy and elections to U.S. and international organizations. He is a former director of election integrity programs at the nonpartisan National Democratic Institute for International Affairs.
The U.S. political environment is suffering from toxic polarization, with election deniers constantly spewing noxious vapors to negate belief in the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election, the integrity of election administration, and the honorableness of their political opponents. The constant pollution has blinded many from seeing the real state of things and is causing others to close their eyes to avoid the irritation. The resulting diminished public confidence and perhaps participation in elections creates more precarious conditions in 2024 than it faced in 2020 and 2022.
I’ve learned an important lesson from observing elections in more than 50 countries: Even when elections are credible, if a large segment of the population is made to believe otherwise their outcome and the fate of democracy can easily be placed in jeopardy. Unfortunately, that is a central feature of the present electoral circumstance, and concerted action is needed to mitigate that damage and prevent it from worsening.
The likely, if not inevitable, injections of poisonous targeting, deep fakes and other AI-aided attempts at creating information disorder – generated by domestic actors who believe it will aid their essentially authoritarian cause and by foreign advisories that are locked into extraordinary high stakes competition with the United States – are also going to make 2024 elections more risky. Their messages will be honed to different communities and demographic groups to maximize toxic effects.
Increase positive messaging
Proactive outreach is essential to mitigate the immediate effects of the toxicity and for an environmental cleanup in the longer run. Mobilizing multigenerational, trusted voices at the national, local and micro levels and helping them reach out will be necessary on a scale not previously seen. Everyone’s voice needs to be raised in 2024 – with those we know and others we can reach – in defense of credible election processes, for active participation, and for democratic governance. Because ultimately we influence each other.
That challenge requires planning and action by community groups, religious and labor leaders, service organizations, bar associations, community technologists, online communicators, traditional media and election authorities.
Such efforts are underway by nonpartisan initiatives in key states like Courrier Newsroom, Votebeat and Keep Our Republic, by some election administrators, and by various grassroots organizations. But, we need to think of the 1960s efforts of major civil rights organizations around the Voter Education Project, add modern communications platforms, expand and move ahead vigorously to reach millions of people.
Beware election vigilantes
Election “vigilantism” is another manifestation of toxic polarization.
Extreme forms of it were demonstrated in 2020 by armed videographers who filmed Arizona voters depositing ballots in official dropboxes. And now we witness by death threats and “swatting” that target election officials and judges who have defended legitimate vote counts and impartial application of the law to election violators. Protections need to be strengthened for election and judicial officers along with significant penalties for harassment of officials and voters.
Other forms of election vigilantism include disruptive and unjustifiably aggressive actions by some partisan poll watchers and “challengers,” particularly concerning voter registration, voting and ballot counting. There is a national effort by election deniers to recruit, train and deploy zealous partisan poll watchers that amassed perhaps 20,000 people across the United States in 2022 and which is looking to expand its numbers in 2024. There is a real risk that such actors could play harmful roles in the upcoming elections.
Support election officials
To mitigate potentials for electoral process disruptions and voter intimidation, election officials need to require training (including codes of conduct) for parties, candidates and others who are to serve as poll watchers, “challengers” or observers. The Bipartisan Policy Center’s Policy on Good Faith Election Observation provides constructive, detailed approaches to address this. Another antitoxin to election vigilantism is nonpartisan election observation based on internationally recognized principles organized by respected groups like The Carter Center.
Two years of steady harassment of many election officials and numerous frivolous information requests and lawsuits have led to a large number of officials resigning and a potential shortage of poll workers on Election Day. The resulting gaps in experience, knowledge and potential staff shortages increase stress on remaining officials and open potentials for bad-faith actors to join the ranks and pose inside risks to election security. Examples in 2020 of officials illegally providing access to electronic voting devices to election vigilantes in their vain attempts to discover digital wrongdoing illustrate one insider threat.
Improve hiring, training and tools
Officials need to be vigilant in recruitment of election staff at all levels and review and update training and internal codes of conduct. Maintaining and enhancing data security and decision-making protocols for rapid response to digital problems and responses to disinformation are likely to be crucial, as are dedicated lines for collaboration with the Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency. At the same time, states’ legal frameworks should provide for expedited procedures to counter county or state election boards that refuse to certify results and set forth effective means to hold refusers accountable.
The battle for real elections and democracy in the United States also continues on other fronts, including defending voting rights, establishing non-discriminatory districts free of extreme political gerrymandering, and countering hate speech and the normalizing of incitement to politically motivated violence. Voices, such as the NAACP Legal Defence Fund, League of Women Voters, and Brennan Center for Justice, are highlighting a wide variety of threats and ways to counter them. Organizations like the Election Reformers Network are advancing policies to address longer-term mechanisms for credible elections. These efforts, along with those of election officials, deserve support.
The actions we each support and those we decide to take are also vital. Democracy places responsibility on every individual to defend it.