People, Not Pundits, Are the Key to Restoring Trust in Elections
The Carter Center is leading an effort to turn down anti-democratic noise around elections, neighbor by neighbor. Arizona is one of the first stops for their campaign.
The question, “Where does it hurt?,” can get a medical exam on track quickly. In terms of American democracy, no state is hurting more than Arizona. It’s one of the places the Carter Center, founded by the former president and his wife and dedicated to human rights, including free and fair elections, is leading the creation of a bipartisan, grass-roots network that can bolster trust in the work of election officials.
Nothing was more emblematic of the hollowness of charges that the 2020 presidential election was “stolen” than the unorthodox audit the Arizona Senate authorized, paid for mostly by election conspiracists and led by one. The audit’s assumptions dissolved when its work actually revealed a slightly bigger margin of victory for the certified winner.
Exodus of Public Officials
Even the audit findings weren't enough to prevent harassment and threats against public officials who had done their jobs with commitment and skill. A recent investigation by the nonprofit Issue One found that 80 percent of the chief election officials in Arizona counties have left their jobs since 2020.
The loser of the states’ 2022 gubernatorial election continues to claim, without evidence, to be the winner. The political climate is such that some wonder if this is mostly a way to campaign for a seat in Congress or a place on a presidential ticket.
Nathan Stock, associate director of the conflict resolution program at the Carter Center, has worked in conflict zones around the world, including the Middle East and Afghanistan. “One of my core takeaways from those experiences is that nobody’s special,” he says. “Americans are not magically immune to the forces of polarization, tribal identity or hate speech.”
With Carter Center colleague Avery Davis-Roberts, Stock is leading a project created to strengthen trust in elections and reduce the likelihood of violence. They are approaching these goals by building bipartisan coalitions of civic leaders in high-risk states, networks that can call on elected officials, candidates and political elites to abide by “rules of the game” that were agreed upon just a few years ago.
“If you lose an election, you can’t lie about it and say you didn’t lose,” Stock says. “You can’t spread disinformation designed to undermine confidence in electoral processes, you can’t spread fear or demonize specific groups in such a way as to make them potential targets for violence.”
Arizona is one of the high-risk states that is a priority for the Carter Center. The project there is led by a Republican and Democrat who bring decades of experience in state politics to the task.
Congressman Ron Barber, a Democrat, was with congresswoman Gabby Giffords when she was attacked by a gunman at a neighborhood event. He was shot twice. (There was no political motive behind the violence.)
The experience only increased his desire to work for the public, he says. He ran for and won Giffords’ seat when she resigned and was re-elected for a second term.
Barber’s partner is Republican Don Henninger, a veteran journalist who worked as managing editor of the Arizona Republic and publisher and CEO of the Phoenix Business Journal. The two have been collaborating since March 2022, and so far have brought about 300 people into the Arizona Democracy Resilience Network (ADRN).
“It’s turning into more of a grass-roots effort, because we have discovered that your most trusted messengers are your neighbors and your coworkers, not so much the institutions that we have relied on the past,” says Henninger.
Members meet online monthly to discuss what they are doing. The Carter Center has brought in consultants from Princeton’s Bridging Divides Initiative to provide intelligence that members can share with their communities or with law enforcement.
“They have been monitoring extremist websites for several years now and are able to provide a county-by-county picture of what’s going on in terms of planning for violence,” Barber says. “Unfortunately, Maricopa County is No. 1 in the nation for these kinds of threats.”
The appearance that election denial has engulfed Arizona, that its citizens are at war with one another, is mostly a mirage generated by partisan activists. Surveys by the Center for the Future of Arizona show that significant majorities of those who live in the state, no matter their party, believe the state’s elections are fair and that the results from the general election will be accurate.
Moreover, Henninger says, polling by the Carter Center finds that “the vast majority of us agree on almost everything.” That echoes findings of research about what matters most to Americans through the country.
About 70 of the network members are faith leaders, Henninger says. An interfaith day of prayer is being planned, to take place one year before the 2024 general elections, to “pray for safe elections and secure democracy heading into the year.”
Truth and Honesty
Jennifer A. Reddall is the sixth bishop of the Diocese of Arizona, the first woman to hold the position. The diocese encompasses more than 60 congregations.
“The Episcopal church has always been involved with social justice,” says Laurie Way, communications director for the diocese. “When Bishop Reddall came to Arizona, she wanted to implement more social justice ministries.”
Civil servants aren’t the only ones at risk from anti-democratic convictions. In May, a man who considered it wrong for women or members of the LGBTQ community to serve as church leaders set fire to a Presbyterian and an Episcopal church in Douglas, Ariz.
The bishop has sent information about the principles for trusted elections to congregants; some have joined ADRN. She has engaged with other faith leaders, Gov. Hobbs and legislators. Some of her churches have organized civil discourse workshops.
“I don’t have a problem being in the public square — Jesus was in the public square,” says Reddall. “But if you sort of overlay the flag on the cross, you lose some of the necessary critiques of both.”
A Lot of Work
“It’s not ordained that nothing bad can ever happen here,” says Stock. “Maintaining trust in our institutions, and collegial relations with our fellow Americans, takes a lot of work.”
Standing up for election officials — many of whom have left because of threats against themselves and their families — is another main goal of the ADRN, says Barber, “We’ve lost an incredible amount of institutional knowledge about how elections should be run.”
That’s not the only benefit of bringing civility back to campaigning. “No one is going to volunteer to count ballots or to help out if those who are doing those roles are targeted for violence and for threats,” says Reddall.
“Given the high turnover among election workers across Arizona, this trust-building mission is more important than ever,” says Ariz. Secretary of State Adrian Fontes. “I look forward to working with ADRN to support our election heroes.”
At present, the Carter Center is working in seven states. “We partner with other organizations who are maybe doing similar kinds of efforts,” says Stock’s colleague Davis-Roberts.
“Ideally, every state, every community would have a network that could help share good information about the electoral process, respond to emerging narratives about elections and help reduce tensions.”
[Editor's note: Those interested in getting involved in Democracy Resiliency campaigns can write to DRNinfo@cartercenter.org.]