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June 26, 2024 ABA Task Force for American Democracy

Communicating with Voters to Build Trust in the U.S. Election System

Massachusetts Institute of Technology Election Data and Science Lab, October 31, 2023


This report explores why voters distrust American elections and surveys potential mechanisms to increase voter trust. The report argues that American attitudes toward election legitimacy are primarily based upon: 1. Voters’ individual experiences while voting; 2. What voters hear from the media, elites, and experts about elections. The report begins by exploring voter behavior and why voters come to trust or distrust the election. It then argues that simply increasing election security measures will not have a large impact on voter confidence; voters are largely ignorant of election administration procedures and rely on elite messaging to craft their perceptions. Instead, the report advocates using communication and messaging to influence voter attitudes. The report provides statistical evidence to support this claim and provides recommendations for best practices. 

Key Findings/Messages

  • The stability of democracy depends in part on public belief in the legitimacy of elections.  Messaging about elections can affect public confidence, but it seems easier to damage confidence than to strengthen it.
  • The speed at which election results are reported directly influences voters’ perceptions of legitimacy. Most voters say that if the results are not announced within a week, it would be hard for them to trust the final results.
  • Misunderstandings regarding the non-random processing of ballots negatively affects trust in elections. Voters who see margins change late in electoral counts are more likely to distrust elections.
  • Racial minorities often have low confidence that their own vote is counted, but their confidence in the accuracy of the national vote can actually be higher compared to whites.

Key Recommendations Made

  • Increase the transparency of vote counts. One proposal is providing live streams from ballot processing and counting facilities and/or post-election audits.
  • Election officials should leverage social media and other digital communication platforms to talk directly to voters. This can provide greater insight into the election process and help election officials directly combat misinformation spread online. 
  • Implement online ballot tracking.  Allow voters to track when their ballot has been mailed, received by a local election official, and counted.