It’s no easy feat running an election. There are many moving parts, important legal strictures and an immovable deadline: election day. Once the votes are in, the count begins where speed and accuracy are essential. The people who organise and deliver our elections are essential to maintaining our democracy. Without the ‘behind-the-scenes’ effort, we couldn’t vote in a smooth and seemly fashion. And for many years, we’ve overlooked these ‘democratic heroes’.
Some election workers are now longing for those days of unappreciated obscurity as they face new challenges. In the US, for example, allegations of electoral fraud have turned diligent civil servants and civic-minded electoral volunteers into objects of hate with individuals receiving threats and having their lives turned upside down. As Shaye Moss told the January 6 Congressional Committee, she and her mother, who supported election efforts in Atlanta, Georgia, were vilified by the former President and his supporters who accused them of electoral fraud, forcing them to retreat from public life. You can watch her moving testimony here.
A survey of election workers in the US in March 2022 said that 1 in 3 knew someone who had resigned because of threats and that one in six had personally experienced threats. In the wake of such ugly incidents and threats, experienced by many electoral officers, there has been a spate of resignations and a concern that many districts and local authorities may not be able to recruit sufficient volunteer poll workers. This could lead to fewer polling places and further tensions as lines grow longer.
Fortunately, the November 2022 elections in the US, though not without some difficulties, proceeded well and peacefully. But not without some effort. In some states where tensions had been particularly high, officials provided additional security, including moving vote tallying to more secure locations, police presence and the use of cameras. In Pennsylvania, election workers were paid more to hit recruitment targets and they also made a significant effort to shut down misinformation as quickly as possible. In Nevada, they emphasised transparency and tried to share more information about how elections work and are administered. The US federal government has been more explicit in sharing information about how elections work and dispelling misinformation in its rumor vs reality toolkit.
In England, where elections are administered by local authorities, elections have largely been trouble free. But some worry that may change in the May 2024 set of local elections. For the first time in England, outside trial areas, voter ID will be required. Voter awareness of this remains lower than it should be and some people may become angry if they feel their right to vote has been infringed. Couple this with increasingly complex legal requirements for polling places, and the general lack of resources in local government and election administrators are in for a tougher time, as Peter Stanyon, the Chief Executive of the Association of Electoral Administrators explained for LGIU.
To make sure polling places remain calm on election day, some councils are bringing in additional security and liaising even more closely with the police. The New Statesman has outlined some of the fears and concerns and highlighted the number of people who had been turned away in pilot areas. In the US, where voter ID is required in some states, a provisional ballot system can allow people to vote and bring ID later during a ‘curing’ period, which can be an important safety valve for tensions as well as safeguarding people’s voting rights. There’s no such provision in UK law.
When voters are faced with long lines because of additional checks or get to the polling station only to be turned away, frustrations are bound to rise. Some people may be tempted to take out those frustrations on the people they see in front of them: election workers. And the vicious cycle of threats and intimidation leading to fewer people volunteering and making voting more frustrating might then continue. This undermines the essential fabric of democracy.
Some countries put a great deal of national or regional effort into ensuring that there are enough volunteers to prepare, on election day, and for the count. For example, Canada’s Inspire Democracy programme has support for potential candidates, voters and volunteer or short term election workers – casting them as a vital part of the democratic process. In Australia, the national and state election commissions all have recruitment pages that emphasise not only valuable work experience, but the importance of the civic role. The Tasmanian Election Commission has a multimedia page with information videos and a behind-the-scenes radio clip about what goes on in running an election, making it look both important and even kind of fun.
As we face increasing misinformation on the global stage around elections and as elections sometimes become more complicated to run, we need to adequately resource elections with adequate money and security, skilled people, and toolkits and training to counter misinformation. Just as important, we need to re-cast working in elections and helping voting to run smoothly as a key role in making democracy work.