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5 Indicators of the Health of Our Democracy

How the midterm elections play out — including how many turn out to vote, how election workers are treated and whether the results are accepted — will tell us a lot.

People wearing face masks lined up outside a brick building waiting to vote.
Fulton County, Ga., residents wait in line to cast their ballots during early voting in Atlanta on Dec. 14, 2020.
(Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)
Midterm elections are always closely watched to evaluate the mood of the electorate. But this year’s vote — the most significant one since 2020 and the subsequent attack on the U.S. Capitol — could also be the canary in the coal mine in diagnosing the health of American democracy.

On the national stage, Republicans in Congress have blocked efforts to address voting and election integrity, such as the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. Meanwhile, state-level officials have been busy. Some states have increased access to voting, while others have implemented draconian laws designed to make voting more difficult and cumbersome, and even made it easier to challenge the will of voters after the fact. November’s midterms will be our first opportunity to gauge the impact of these laws.

Over the last few months, the NewDEAL Forum’s Democracy Working Group convened state and local officials on the front lines of election administration, along with outside experts, to discuss both best practices and significant concerns. Based on those conversations, here are five key indicators of the health of our democracy to watch as voters head to the polls:

1. Post-COVID turnout: Despite 2020’s global pandemic, Americans voted in record numbers. And according to the Census Bureau, 2020 was the first presidential election in which a majority of those who voted (69 percent) cast their ballots early and/or by mail. Increased access to voting by mail, including no-excuse absentee voting, allowed citizens to participate in democracy while protecting their health.

While many states have retained and expanded COVID-inspired voting methods, others, like Texas, have implemented laws that restrict how, when and where people can vote. Democracy observers will be keen to know how those changes impact voter turnout, including the methods voters use, how their choices compare to the pre-COVID norms, and how results from previous midterms correlate with those from elections conducted under the new state laws.

2. Election volunteers: After the 2020 election, President Donald Trump and many other Republicans and conservatives falsely attacked the integrity of election officials and even volunteers. These lies led to violent threats targeting not only Democratic volunteers but also Republicans and independents. Experts worry that such harassment will not only lead election officials to quit, as it has in Gillespie County, Texas, but that such rhetoric will have a chilling effect on recruiting and retaining election volunteers.

Any threat against election volunteers and officials should be treated as a threat to democracy itself. Local, state and federal law enforcement officials must do all in their power to both protect election officials and bring those making threats to justice.

3. Election Day lines: Long lines at polling locations are an indicator of a broken system, not voter enthusiasm. Long lines have a suppressive effect on voting. But across America — and more likely in precincts with a high percentage of minority voters — long lines have become an Election Day norm. And it is easy to see why. Georgia has reduced the number of polling locations by 10 percent since 2013 despite an increase of more than 2 million voters. According to the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, states and counties with a history of racial discrimination closed 1,688 polling places between 2012 and 2018. Studies show that having to travel farther to a polling location disproportionately impacts and suppresses voters of color.

It will be especially important to watch for Election Day lines in states with a history of racial discrimination as well as precincts where people of color make up a majority of voters, and how turnout and wait times compare to the last midterms.

4. Accepting results: Accepting the will of the voters is a hallmark of our democracy. The 2020 election was the safest and most secure in American history, yet Trump and others spread lies and disinformation about the results. Unfortunately, many candidates on November’s ballot have embraced the Big Lie, Trump’s assertion that a conspiracy robbed him of victory. Will these people accept the results of November’s election whether they win or lose? According to The Washington Post, only seven of 19 Republican candidates in the most closely watched statewide elections have committed to accepting November’s outcome.

Particularly perilous to democracy would be elected officials in charge of election administration refusing to accept verified results. In key swing states including Arizona, Michigan and Nevada, Republican nominees for secretary of state cling to lies about the 2020 election, yet want to oversee their states’ voting in 2024. “If you can’t have trusted, neutral people running our elections, then you don’t really have free and fair elections,” Lawrence Norden, a senior staffer at the Brennan Center for Justice, told Time recently. “Then we’re not a functioning democracy anymore.”

Will 2022 see a reversal in anti-democratic rhetoric and a return to pro-democracy norms of accepting the will of the people? Or will there continue to be a slide away from respecting and accepting democracy?

5. Conspiracies and the media: Following the 2020 election, commentators on Fox News and other media outlets repeated false claims about the election, including lies about specific voting machine companies. Such conspiracy-mongering, with no basis in fact, helped further erode confidence in a free and fair election.

The media, no matter how an outlet tilts ideologically, must learn from past mistakes. Responsible journalists cannot be afraid to call out lies and frivolous lawsuits that seek to undermine confidence in elections. Further, unfounded conspiracy allegations cannot be given life because of an effort to report “both sides.”

Those of us who love American democracy will watch this election, and the reaction to the results, carefully. To the extent that the midterms reveal challenges to our democratic system, proactive state and local officials must have the tools and resources necessary to overcome those challenges. Making elections safer and more accessible is a crucial part of creating a more perfect union.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.
Debbie Cox Bultan is CEO of the NewDEAL network of 150 rising state and local officials and the NewDEAL Forum, which identifies and promotes innovative state and local pro-growth progressive policies.
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