Skip to main content

Rebuilding Trust in Elections Starts at the Local Level

U.S. election commissioner says voters tend to trust their own election officials more than they do officials from other jurisdictions or the federal government.

By Grace Olson  |  July 10, 2024
Christy McCormick Election Assistance Commission

As the presidential election approaches, voter confidence in the U.S. election system remains paramount, and many election officials are working hard to be transparent and open about the voting process.

Christy McCormick with the U.S. Election Assistance Commission sat down with NCSL to discuss what election officials and legislatures can do to support voters’ trust in the election process, everything from the legislative role to how artificial intelligence and deep fakes are impacting voter trust.

What does trust in elections look like, and what can we do to build faith in our elections?

I was recently at a conference, and we had a panel to talk about elections and election confidence. There was a gentleman on the panel, Don Nguyen Yu, an international elections expert, and he gave a little example about trust in elections and faith in elections. He talked about the election of a pope. The results are accepted by over a billion Catholics worldwide. Nobody protests or says that there was fraud involved. I think it shows that in many ways, there just has to be some faith in elections.

I don’t know that we have necessarily a spiritual element in our elections, but we definitely need to have some sort of faith in our elections for them to be successful. I would say that people, in general, tend to trust their own election officials more than they do election officials from other jurisdictions or from across the country.

“I don’t know that we have necessarily a spiritual element in our elections, but we definitely need to have some sort of faith in our elections in order for them to be successful.”

When you know your own election official, you trust that election official and you believe that election official is doing the best job possible, and maybe not so much the neighboring counties or the state or the federal authorities. I think there’s a little bit of a lack of trust the higher you get in that hierarchy.

It’s also important for elections to be run credibly. They have to be professional; they have to be run efficiently. They also have to be open for everyone who’s eligible to vote. You know, if certain elements of society are left out, there tends to be distrust in the outcome.

Do you know if faith in elections is declining, and does that relate to how the nation feels about government or any institutions?

There have been some studies showing that there’s less faith in government in general, especially in big institutions. We don’t have any specific measurement of faith in elections, but at least anecdotally, we know that people are upset.

The more people get involved, and the more they get to know the way elections are run, the more they’re going to trust them. We need to be accountable in the election space, and we’re not going to be doing trustworthy jobs if we’re not responsive.

Folks are paying attention to the details of election administration in a way that they just haven’t in the past. They are bringing things forward, and I think election officials are really quite responsive.

What could legislators address that might help promote confidence?

We need to tighten up on our processes to make sure we’re all doing audits, and audits need to be communicated to the voters. This is how we test the results, and we need to be honest about what those results show.

Tell the voters we found a couple discrepancies. We’re not always perfect. I think that if voters know the results of an audit, they are going to trust the results of the election more.

Another thing is tightening up on chain of custody. It would be great if those all could be bipartisan teams, making sure that each step has eyes from both interested major parties.

We can also do better with voter education. Most folks don’t know what it takes to get a ballot out to them and back and counted.

We can also talk about list maintenance. It’s one of the most important things we have because we hear all kinds of things about more voters voting than there are people on the list. We need to make sure that we are using the best methods that we can and to clean voter rolls to make sure that they’re good lists, they’re updated, and we’re not allowing people who aren’t eligible to vote.

If you think about what legislators can do, what’s in their purview to do on the communications front?

One of the reasons we’re seeing some lack of confidence in the elections is the numerous changes that are happening in every state right now. Legislators are on their partisan sides passing big election bills. People like stability and consistency. Each side wants to make sure that they get their legislation in, but I think the voter sometimes sees that as gamesmanship.

What is helpful for voter confidence is that the legislators can come together and find common ground on things that will provide more integrity in the process instead of staying in their partisan camps.

“Each side wants to make sure that they get their legislation in, but I think the voter sometimes sees that as gamesmanship.”

They need to highlight transparency as well, making sure that voters know what’s going on and not confusing them by continually changing the rules.

Legislators could also help by talking about this in their town halls. This needs to be a conversation between the voters and the legislators. Let’s not assume that voters want to see certain things. Let’s talk to them and find out what they do want and tell them what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.

I’d like to think of legislators as thought leaders in their communities. If they have confidence, their voters are more likely to have confidence. The losing legislators or the losing candidates have to talk about having confidence in the results. They may not like the fact that they lost, but if they abide by the result, it helps their voters also accept the result.

One of the things we had in this country for many years was a peaceful transfer of power between winners and losers, and people gracefully conceded. We’re seeing less and less of that on both sides of the aisle.

Will AI and deep fakes of anything about election administration have an impact?

We may see disinformation about times of voting, when to vote and where to vote. We might see that on more of the local level, but it’s probably a pretty small impact at this point.

Our election officials and our legislators need to be aware of the possibilities of those things happening, keep vigilant and watch what’s out there on social media. We’re trying to provide some best practices to election officials on how to deal with AI.

The good part of AI is it can help election offices that might not have the resources to do all the things that big election offices might be able to do, so we’re working on some of those recommendations for AI, as well.

This is going to be an interesting year of training on how to identify deep fakes and how to quickly debunk them. Every four years, election officials have to add something to their list. How to protect their trusted information is what’s on the docket this time.

Grace Olson is an intern in NCSL’s Communications Division. The responses have been edited for length and clarity.

  • Contact NCSL

  • For more information on this topic, use this form to reach NCSL staff.