How the Science Community Can Secure Our Democracy

July 1, 2022 | 9:52 am
A cityspace of buildings in Milwaukee, WI, with a Shephard Fairey mural on the side of one building reading, "Voting rights are human rights"Tom Barrett/Unsplash
Michael Latner
Senior Voting Rights Fellow

Scientists and science advocates have a crucial responsibility in the coming months to help local election agencies ensure free and fair elections. Here’s what you can do, starting today.

When the January 6th Select Committee hearings began, I urged participants to highlight the threat of future election violence as a tactic that will be used to overturn future elections. To date, the hearings have demonstrated how the Trump conspirators’ legal tactics relied on coercion and violence, from the intimidation of election workers in the Moss family to the former president’s personal involvement in targeted attacks against local and state officials, in order to sow enough chaos that they might get state legislators to select fake electors and subvert the 2020 election.

It is increasingly clear that, as Committee Chair Thompson warned, we will not have “close calls” but “a catastrophe” if conspirators successfully infiltrate administrative positions to oversee and certify future elections. More to the point, Committee member Adam Kinzinger (R-IL) concluded in response to threats to his own family and countless election officials, “There’s violence in the future, I’m going to tell you. And until we get a grip on telling people the truth, we can’t expect any differently,”

We now have a sharper image of precisely what the strategy to overturn the next election looks like. Cleta Mitchell, a leading co-conspirator who was on the phone call when former president Trump asked the Georgia Secretary of State to “find” enough votes to declare him the winner, and who initiated the request to John Eastman to outline the legal strategy for overturning the 2020 election, is leading an ALEC- and RNC-affiliated effort, ironically branded as an Election Integrity Network, that not-so-subtly identifies several stages where election observers and workers will disrupt the election process:

  1. Target non-profit groups engaged in election activities and use “who are they really?” narratives to spread distrust and disinformation,
  2. Seek opportunities to remove “ineligible” voters from registration databases, 
  3. Challenge local rules governing the custody, transportation, and location of ballots, voting materials, and tabulating equipment,
  4. “Get knee deep in voting by mail and absentee voting in your county”–a literal quote from their guide
  5. “Prepare for observing and reporting improper (ballot) curing…” that is, the process of identifying and correcting ballot errors.

The list goes on, and might not sound so threatening if it were not coming from the central figures who attempted to subvert the last presidential election. Their goal is to challenge, disrupt, and delay the certification of election results, especially the processing of mail ballots.

If Congress fails to take action this summer to implement standards and procedures for the fair and accurate processing and certification of future election results, we are in grave danger. But regardless of what Congress does, we need honest and accurate election integrity implemented locally to preempt these attacks, ensure that election results are certified well ahead of deadlines, and mitigate the harms done to voters.

Start here by contacting your local election office to find out who your administrators are and ask them how you can serve to ensure fair and accurate election outcomes. Depending on your skill set and capacity, there are a variety of roles that you can plug into (in addition to voting!):

Participate in planning and emergency election management

People who are skilled at organizational management, administration, or systems and design thinking can aid local election offices in planning and emergency management. Help to plug your local agency into the network of Centers for Election Excellence at the US Alliance for Election Excellence. The Alliance provides tools, training, and resources for local administrators, including cybersecurity and emergency management protocols. Every polling place and ballot processing facility should have a plan for potential conflict and disruption of services.

Bringing together election officers with designers, technologists, and others with expertise is one of the most powerful ways that the science community can build out a resilient election infrastructure for the future. That could involve linking up your local administrators with management technology, like the support that US Digital Response is providing, or helping to design voter-friendly election websites by utilizing templates such as those provided by the Center for Tech and Civic Life (CTCL). As Whitney May, Director of Government Services for CTCL stated in a recent High Turnout Wide Margins podcast, as groups like hers come under attack (CTCL administered third party grants to elections offices in 2020, including the contribution from Mark Zuckerberg) in 2022 and beyond, the best response is for everyone working to ensure free and fair elections to celebrate their work and show that “we’re sticking together, we have each others’ backs.”

Help manage and monitor registration and vote-by-mail databases

Anyone with experience using spreadsheets, basic statistical programing, or database management can help their local election agencies keep voter registration and vote-by-mail databases updated and error-free. These databases require constant updating, especially around election time, and third-party monitoring and assistance can ensure that new voters are added to the system without error, that those who request absentee or mail ballots receive them, and that all ballots are generated and get to voters in a timely matter.

Find out what information is contained in your jurisdiction’s voter files, and help local agencies be able to produce regularly updated (daily or weekly in the months leading up to an election), machine-readable updates at the individual or precinct level. A good deal of data on previous years’ registration patterns is typically easily available to use as benchmarks. You can help with quality control using simple precinct-level analyses and graphical descriptions of registration levels for precincts, party registration levels, and the like.

Reporting these data can set expectations about patterns of turnout and partisan vote distributions, while analysis of outliers is a great check against administrative errors. Having real data available is one of the most effective means of mitigating the spread of disinformation.

Regular monitoring of mail ballot applications can also help ensure that applications are not rejected due to administrative or other errors. You can work with your local election administrators to set up systems to ensure that voters are quickly notified of any problems with registration or application status and given the timely opportunity to make sure they retain eligibility.

Conduct and share turnout forensics

Similarly, those experienced with using databases and geographic information systems (GIS) can put those skills to work on election results as they come in before, during, and after Election Day. Election forensics refers to a suite of data-driven methods and tools used to identify irregularities in election returns, and many are relatively easy to implement with local election agencies.

With regularly provided reports of ballots returned, processed, and rejected, and post-election party and candidate vote shares at the precinct-level, simple graphical methods (histograms, timeline plots, etc.) can increase transparency, identify irregularities to report to election administrators, and make it easier to counter disinformation.

Crucially, these same methods can be used to identify inequalities in ballot rejection rates, and improve ballot curing processes by providing additional oversight and capacity to fix administrative errors.

Engage potential voters susceptible to authoritarian messages

You can help ensure election integrity whether or not you have the skills needed for the above actions. Everyone can and should be making sure that people use their right to vote as we head into November. As my colleague Sophia Marjanovic recently articulated, you can help stop the spread of disinformation and engage infrequent (or “low-propensity”) voters through deep engagement in your own community.

Identify those who are susceptible to disinformation within your own social networks (relatives, co-workers, neighbors), as well as potential voters located in low-turnout precincts. We need messengers to counter narratives among low-propensity voters that cast doubt on the electoral process.

Publicly track and report election information/disinformation

Finally, you should share any analysis that you conduct with local news sources and be a resource for local reporters. Also report any irregularities or evidence of discriminatory practices or outcomes with the Election Protection Network. They have a hotline, 866-OUR-VOTE (866-687-8683), that you can share with others. Be part of the election protection network in your community. To learn more about how you can counter disinformation in your community, you can access the UCS Disinformation Toolkit.

The opponents of democracy will seek to disrupt and delay vote counts at local election agencies across the country in their effort to manipulate the certification of election results at the state level. We all have a responsibility to make sure that the votes of our neighbors are counted and certified in a timely manner, and to ensure that no eligible voters are excluded from the process.