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The Canvass | April 2022

April 4, 2022

7 Considerations for Talking to Your Constituents About Elections

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, 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 the U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) 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 — Chose 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. (See NCSL’s note on terminology in Voting Outside the Polling Place.) 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 — Chose Your Tone Thoughtfully

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 it!

Further Reading

The Long Fuse: Misinformation and the 2020 Election, Election Integrity Partnership

Three Election Administration Podcasts

Life’s all about perspective, and if you ask the NCSL elections team, three new podcasts about election administration is a big deal (and in this case, a big number).

  • Dead Men Don’t Vote,” by the TrustTheVote Project—a subset of the OSET Institute, a nonpartisan organization focused on voting technology—is aimed at helping voters better understand the nuts and bolts of election administration by debunking, and pre-bunking, common misconceptions about the voting process. The inaugural episode lays to rest the question, “Do dead people actually vote?”
  • High Turnout, Wide Margins,” by Brianna Lennon, county clerk in Boone County, Mo., and Eric Fey, director of elections in St. Louis County, Mo. OK, this one isn’t “new,” but we find it noteworthy. It features conversations with local election officials and other subject-matter experts on topics such as voter education, cybersecurity and much more. Lennon and Fey also talk with election officials from outside the U.S., providing a unique international perspective on elections.
  • VoteCast,” by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, is hosted by Commissioner Don Palmer, who guides listeners through topics such as voting equipment verification, vote counting and election certification. The podcast took a hiatus in 2021 but is back this year with new content. The most recent episode features Florida Secretary of State Laurel Lee, who discusses planning ahead of this year’s midterms.

A Q&A With Michigan Rep. Ann Bollin

Michigan Rep. Ann Bollin (R) has represented House District 42, located in the southeastern part of the Wolverine State, since 2018. The district includes the city of Brighton, where she served as the township clerk from 2003 to 2018.

Can you talk about how your experience as a former election official informs your work as chair of the House Committee on Elections and Ethics?

In Michigan, local clerks are the ones who administer elections, and I was a township clerk for 16 years. There are approximately 1,600 local clerks in the state, and I served in a town with a population of 19,000. But I also come from a county that is both exurban and rural, so we had part-time and full-time clerks, and that exposed me to how different jurisdictions work.

What are your election priorities this session?

My first election as an observer rather than an administrator was 2020. What became clear to me was that we have many election best practices that we need to put in statute, so my efforts have been primarily focused there. We’re also learning from 2020, which was the first general election since the passage of Proposal 3, which established no-excuse absentee voting, same-day registration and more.

Based on meeting with the secretary of state, with county clerk and local clerk associations, and my own experience, elections start and stop with compliant voter rolls. We have legislation on the governor’s desk that would remove dead voters and people who have not voted in 20 years from the voter rolls (HB 4127 and HB 4128, respectively).

The goal is to protect the vote and advance democracy. We give a lot of thought and consideration to ensure that every eligible voter can vote freely, safely, independently, securely.

What would you like to see for the future of Michigan’s elections?

I would like to see us put into statute the postelection audit processes. I’d like to see our voter rolls updated. And I’ll also continue to pursue more consistent training practices for election challengers after that bill (HB 4528) was vetoed last year.

I’d like to look at election funding, as well. It’s important our clerks have the resources they need, but there’s no role for third parties in financing elections.

What aspect of Michigan’s elections makes you the proudest?

We have some of the most dedicated and talented clerks in the country. They take their role very seriously, and our elections are only as good as those who administer them.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Legislative Action Bulletin

  • As of April 1, 32 states, Washington, D.C., Guam, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands are in regular session.

  • Wisconsin is in special session.

  • Thirteen states have adjourned sine die, and four states do not meet in 2022.

As of April 1, 1,793 election bills have been introduced across the nation. So far, 28 states, Washington, D.C., and Guam have enacted 74 bills.

Poll workers remain a popular topic for election legislation, with 68 bills introduced so far relating to compensation, training, responsibilities and—new this year—protections. Two bills—one in New Jersey and one in West Virginia—have been enacted. See below for a brief analysis of legislative trends on this topic.

For a complete list of the 68 bills relating to poll workers and more, see NCSL’s Elections Legislation Database.

Poll Worker Compensation

Illinois HB 3733 and New Jersey SB 65 would exempt poll worker wages from affecting unemployment compensation.

Louisiana SB 369 would increase pay for poll workers to $150 per day, and New Jersey AB 208 (enacted) raises pay from $200 to $300 per day.

Mississippi HB 108 would authorize mileage reimbursement for poll workers who must return to the registrar’s office after the polls close.

New York SB 8332 would exempt income earned by poll workers from being included when calculating public assistance benefits.

Poll Worker Training

Illinois HB 4536 would require the state board of elections to establish training materials and guidelines.

Kentucky SB 77 would require the county board of elections to add ranked choice voting to its training for election workers.

Maryland HB 702 would require that training materials include the ways in which election judges can assist elderly and disabled voters.

New York AB 4323 would require training to be offered at least quarterly and would require the creation of a program for certified poll worker trainers.

Youth Poll Workers

Alabama HB 369 would authorize one high school student to work as a poll worker at each polling place in the county.

New Jersey SB 138 would allow minors age 16 to 18 to serve as election workers.

Selection and Political Composition of Poll Workers

Arizona HB 2710 would allow each political party’s legislative district chairperson to designate qualified election board workers if the county chairperson doesn’t do so.

Massachusetts SB 2554 would allow poll workers to be appointed without regard to party, voter status, residence and more within six weeks of an election if there aren’t enough qualified poll workers by then.

Michigan HB 4876 would require election inspectors to file an affidavit indicating political party affiliation.

Missouri SB 670 would authorize each major political party to offer a list of election judge candidates and makes provisions if not enough qualified candidates are provided.

Poll Worker Protections

California SB 1131 would establish the Address Confidentiality for Election Workers Fund.

Illinois SB 2931 would make aggravated assault against an election judge, either to prevent their performance of official duties or in retaliation for performing official duties, a Class 4 felony.

New Mexico SB 144 would prohibit intimidation of election officials and workers.

Oregon HB 4144 would allow election workers to request to keep their addresses exempt from public records disclosure.

Poll Worker Shifts

Alabama HB 448 would allow election workers to work split shifts on Election Day.

West Virginia SB 191 (enacted) allows poll workers to work both full and half days.

News Worth Noting

MIT Releases Elections Performance Index for 2020

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Election Data + Science Lab, which has compared election administration and performance across the states since 2012, recently released its Elections Performance Index of the 2020 election. The index includes 19 election administration criteria, including voter turnout, accessibility for people with disabilities and number of rejected ballots. It does not include policy choices, such as automatic voter registration or voter ID, that are the purview of lawmakers. 

Supply Chain Issues Disrupt Provision of Election Materials

A shortage of paper for ballots, envelopes, inserts and more is sparking concern among election officials ahead of the 2022 midterms. Supply chain issues and labor shortages threaten increased costs and hefty delays as paper providers struggle to fulfill orders. The specifications for ballot paper—size, weight, thickness—are unique and can include special features such as watermarks. U.S. Election Assistance Commissioner Christy McCormick urges election officials to order raw materials early and practice flexibility, when possible, with materials and design.

Report Underscores Importance of Election Observation

The Alliance for Securing Democracy and The Carter Center released a new report on best practices for facilitating nonpartisan election observation. As mis- and disinformation following the 2020 election continues, the report says nonpartisan election observation can provide an opportunity for voters to learn firsthand about the election process, potentially giving them greater faith that the country’s elections are free and fair. The Carter Center has deep experience with international election observations

Utah Bill Prohibits Double Voting

Utah’s recently enacted election reform package, HB313, is comprehensive in its scope, but we’ll mention just one element: It makes clear that no one can vote in any election more than once, regardless of whether one of the elections in question is in a state or territory other than Utah. In other words, no double voting across state lines!

NIST Offers Recommendations for Voters With Disabilities

The National Institute of Standards and Technology released new recommendations to promote equal access and usability for voters with disabilities. The report identifies barriers for these voters in specific aspects of the voting process: voter registration and the National Mail Voter Registration Form; absentee/mail voting; in-person voting technology; polling locations; and training and documentation for poll workers. It also offers recommendations for improvement, including a broad provision to “integrate the disability community into all aspects of voting.”

White House Releases Report on Native American Voting Rights

The White House has released a new report with approaches for addressing and mitigating challenges to voting in Indigenous communities. Unequal access to early voting and dependence on an unreliable mail system are among the challenges outlined.

And the Award for Best Picture Goes To…

You’ve probably heard about the historic win for “CODA” (and perhaps some other happenings at the Oscars, too), but what about how the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences determines the best picture winner? Unlike other categories, best picture is decided via ranked-choice voting, the same method used for elections in Alaska and Maine, and many municipalities, including for the first time last year, in New York City’s mayoral primary. Learn more about the academy’s process here.

From the NCSL Elections Team

Many of you are looking forward to a well-earned breather after your legislative session ends. Here at NCSL, we’re looking forward to hosting you in our hometown, Denver, for NCSL’s Legislative Summit, Aug. 1-3. Please join us for a series of events that will appeal to election geeks of all stripes. In the meantime, we want to hear your stories, your worries, your kudos and your proud moments.

—Mandy Zoch, Wendy Underhill and Saige Draeger

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