Decision 2024

Bipartisan report seeks ways to counter extreme polarization that has created distrust in elections

WASHINGTON — (AP) — Extreme partisanship combined with a complicated and highly decentralized voting system have led to a loss of faith in election results among some in the U.S., according to a bipartisan report released Tuesday that calls for greater transparency and steps to make voting easier.

The report noted that even in “normal times” elections are complex in a nation with thousands of voting jurisdictions and where the rules vary widely from state to state, and even between local governments.

“Of course, these are not normal times," it said, noting that rancor and rhetoric have replaced problem-solving. "Nowhere is this more evident than with the partisan gamesmanship played over the very heart of this great democracy — the way we elect our leaders.”

The report by The Carter Center and the Baker Institute for Public Policy lays out 10 principles for trying to balance equal access to the polls with ensuring the integrity of election results.

Among other things, it recommends election laws that are clear and well-communicated, easy but secure voter registration, regular audits of local voting procedures and transparency in counting the votes.

In part, the report says its recommendations are an attempt to address “a tumultuous period of domestic unrest, one of the most polarized in American history.”

The principles are part of a cooperative effort that began in 2020 between the two institutions. It was inspired by the collaboration between former President Jimmy Carter, a Democrat, and former Republican Secretary of State James A. Baker III in 2005, when they served as co-chairs of the bipartisan Commission on Federal Election Reform.

The two organizations have worked together on other issues, including several conferences on U.S. elections, but the principles released Tuesday are their first to examine the nation’s election system and policies.

David Carroll, director of the Carter Center’s Democracy Program, said the lack of uniformity in election laws and procedures represents “the beauty, the complexity and the challenge” of running elections and guiding public perception in the U.S. The country has some 10,000 voting jurisdictions.

Election integrity has been a concern in the aftermath of the 2020 election, as former President Donald Trump and his allies made false claims of widespread fraud and spread conspiracy theories about voting machines. Recounts, reviews and audits in the battleground states where Trump contested his 2020 loss repeatedly showed that Biden had won. Trump's former attorney general also acknowledged that there was no widespread voter fraud, and Trump lost dozens of court challenges, including several before judges he appointed.

Carroll said challenging election results and the integrity of the voting process is a relatively new development.

”Extreme polarization really has led, I think, to more questioning of election processes that, ironically, have only improved significantly over the last 25 years," he said. "So while the doubts have gone up, the processes have actually become tighter and tighter and better and better.”

Mark Jones, a political scientist at Rice University and co-director of the Baker Institute's Presidential Elections Program, said the majority of states have been making improvements to areas such as voter registration, flexibility in voting and voting technology.

“No state is perfect, nor is our goal to have every state be homogenous,” he said.

The group's principles are suggestions for making further improvements, he said. If voter photo ID is a requirement, for example, “make sure that everybody who needs one can get one without a great deal of effort or hardship," Jones said.

The groups also are encouraging states to have votes counted as close to Election Day as possible. Waiting a week — or several weeks — for an outcome undermines confidence in the system, he said.

Amy Cohen, executive director of the National Association of State Election Directors, said she had not seen the recommendations but said election officials are constantly trying to improve. She said there are “thousands” of elections each year and that each one is seen “as an opportunity to iterate and improve and get better.”

Election officials are aware that the length of time it takes to announce results can have an effect on some voters' trust in the outcome, she said. She noted that the timelines for counting mailed ballots are not directed by election officials but rather set by statutes passed by state legislatures.

“We need to normalize the fact that it just takes longer to tabulate election results accurately,” she said.

In the current environment, she agreed that educating voters about those processes should be a priority.

“Given the proliferation of false information about elections, proactive communication and communication in general has taken on a lot more importance,” she said.