Election administration, once the behind-the-scenes work of democracy, has taken center stage in the public sphere. Voters are no longer focused on just their own ballots, but on the entire election system—following and entering national debates about voting machines, poll watchers, voter registration list maintenance and more.
Add the spread of election misinformation, disinformation and malinformation, collectively known as MDM, to this heightened public attention, and the average voter can easily become confused about what’s what.
If you’re a legislator, you can help.
Whether you’re a social media Luddite or a TikTok pro, all lawmakers are influencers. And as community leaders with firsthand experience running in elections, you are well positioned to explain how your state’s elections work and to combat any MDM that corrodes trust in that system.
“Legislators are respected in their communities,” says Tennessee Rep. Johnny Shaw (D), “so they need to use that role to instill confidence.” Believe it or not, what you say, write, post or tweet can guide public perception on the accuracy and security of elections.
Of course, explaining elections and addressing MDM are not easy tasks. Elections are complex; MDM is pervasive. But, as Carly Koppes, county clerk and recorder of Weld County, Colo., explains, “Putting in the effort to help someone understand the truth can also make them an advocate for your local elections.” A single hard conversation could have long-lasting benefits.
NCSL does not have all the answers, but here are seven points to consider when talking to—and preparing to talk to—your constituents about elections.
1. Do Your Homework
Election officials frequently encounter what Charles Stewart III, an MIT political science professor and director of the MIT Election Data + Science Lab, calls “how-hard-can-it-be-ism”: How hard can it be to count votes? How hard can it be to conduct an audit? How hard can it be to process absentee ballots?
What these questions assume is that running an election is simple—but that’s simply not true. Whether your state uses all-mail elections or prioritizes in-person voting, elections are complex, and that’s often a good thing, especially when it comes to security.
Before you can explain the ins and outs of your state’s elections system to constituents, you’ll want to take your elections knowledge from the 100 level to 200-plus. One of the best ways to do that is to tour your local elections office(s). You’ll learn from the experts how your state’s elections are managed and get the information you need to respond to constituents’ questions. Plus, you’ll strengthen your relationship with your local election officials—and that can pay off down the road when crafting election legislation.
2. Be an Advocate for Your State’s Elections
You might not love everything about your state’s elections system, but that doesn’t mean it’s fatally flawed. Every state has mechanisms in place to ensure security and accuracy, and highlighting those features in your state can create a powerful defense against MDM.
Recent research has found that MDM spreads faster in online environments than the truth. One way to mitigate that is through “pre-bunking,” preempting MDM by correcting (or debunking) false claims in advance. The rumor control guide from CISA, the U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, offers examples for pre-bunking election MDM.
Sometimes constituents raise concerns about how another state runs elections. Kim Wyman, CISA’S senior election security advisor and former Washington secretary of state, cautions against the “Our state’s elections are good, but I’m not so sure about others” attitude—such narratives sow doubt in elections more broadly.
Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett handles such comparative questions by emphasizing federalism: “Other states have all adopted the policies that work for them, and they’re working just as hard as we are to follow their law and to count every vote accurately.”
3. Amplify Other Experts
Having all the answers is hard; fortunately, you don’t need to. Election officials and their websites are readily available resources that can answer many constituent questions.
In 2019, the National Association of Secretaries of State launched a public information campaign to promote election officials as trusted sources of information. Sharing voter information directly from your state and local election offices and using the campaign’s hashtag, #TrustedInfo2022, on social media can help voters go directly to election officials, rather than to your office (or worse, purveyors of MDM), when they have questions about polling place locations, how to request an absentee ballot and more. (The TrustedInfo2022 Supporter Toolkit offers sample social media content.)
Supporting local election officials and poll workers can also build confidence in elections and those who run them. “These election judges are your neighbors, your community members,” Koppes says, “and they’re taking time out of their lives to contribute to our living and breathing government.”
4. Choose Your Words Thoughtfully
With 50 states, Washington, D.C., and five territories each running elections with varying terminology, it’s no surprise that voters often get confused. “Advance ballots,” “mail ballots,” “by-mail ballots,” “mail-in ballots,” “vote-by-mail ballots”—all are phrases used to refer to absentee ballots, for example. When talking about elections, try to be consistent with what your state’s election offices use—making terminology consistent between state law and everyday practice could be good too.
Beyond consistency, the words you use matter. For example, Tammy Smith, the administrator of elections in Wilson County, Tenn., urges legislators to say “remove from the voter rolls” rather than “purge” when referring to voter registration list maintenance. After all, keeping voter registration rolls accurate and current is an important part of an efficient and secure election; the negative connotation of “purge” can cast doubt on a routine process.
It can also be alienating to use technical jargon that voters might not understand, and thus might not trust. “Bring it down to the fifth-grade level,” Koppes says.
5. Watch Your Tone
Tennessee Rep. Tim Rudd (R) puts it plainly: “Don’t mock people.” Even if a constituent’s concerns strike you as ridiculous, ridicule won’t be a productive response. “Listen to them, let them get it out, and then see what you can work on together,” he says.
Sometimes, constituents might not know what your state’s laws are—that you do in fact prohibit voting machines from being connected to the internet, for example. Koppes encourages legislators and others to “show people the laws.” That way, they don’t need to just take your word, and doing so might establish common ground on which you can have a calm conversation based on the facts in your state.
6. Encourage Constituents to Get Involved
People can learn a lot about how elections are run and what safeguards are built into the process by serving as poll workers. So when constituents reach out to you seeking information during election season, urge them to sign up. Being a poll worker is a great way to learn the nuts and bolts of elections—plus, poll workers get paid, and in some states, attorneys, realtors and accountants can receive continuing education credit.
What about people who want to be poll watchers? “Encourage people who want to be poll watchers to be poll workers,” says Tennessee local election official Smith. After all, election officials often struggle to recruit enough poll workers, and our elections can’t run—polls can’t open, ballots can’t be counted, voter questions can’t be answered—without them. Plus, poll workers undergo specialized training and can become spokespeople for how elections really work.
7. Decide When to Engage and When to Abstain
The phone calls, emails, tweets and Facebook messages you receive about elections might seem like a never-ending game of whack-a-mole, and it’s just not possible to respond to every single one. Instead, consider when it will be most meaningful to respond. That concerned constituent who lingers after your town hall? Yes, definitely. That Twitter user with six followers? Probably not.
Having a litmus test for what’s worth your time and effort can help you manage multiple priorities, but it can also help squash the spread of MDM. “You don’t want to amplify the small things,” as Hargett says, so responding to a troll—even with a smart debunk—might be counterproductive.
In short, addressing election MDM is not easy, and legislators will need to find the style, stories and substance that work best for them and their constituents.
We hope these suggestions help, and if you have examples of what works for you, we’d love to hear about them!
Amanda Zoch is a project manager in NCSL’s Elections and Redistricting Program.