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December 31, 2023 ABA Task Force for American Democracy

How Federalism Plus Polarization Create Distrust in American Elections (and Experimental Evidence for a Potential Solution)

Massachusetts Institute of Technology Election Data and Science Lab/UC San Diego Yankelovich Center


This paper looks at the role of federalism in increasing polarization and how that relates to perceptions of trust in elections. It empirically shows that many people do not trust the elections in states with different partisan policies, despite elections being run much the same way across those states (e.g. Californians less likely to trust Texas elections, Texans are less likely to trust California elections). With this baseline, the paper details an experiment the authors conducted to evaluate whether messaging from one state about election integrity increases the trust in that state’s elections in a different state. Videos of election officials discussing election integrity were shown to voters from California, Georgia, Colorado, and Texas, and the study found that those videos increased citizen confidence in elections of other states, regardless of partisan identification. The report provides the data from the research to support this and then makes recommendations based on these results. 

Key Findings/Messages

  • Voters are most likely to distrust the election processes of states that are usually controlled by the other party, despite little difference in how those elections are run.
  • Nonpartisan messaging can improve Americans’ trust in the integrity of elections, regardless of partisan leanings.
  • Federalist/decentralized approaches to election administration carry the added risk that voters will not trust other states' elections and will know very little about how they are run. 

Key Recommendations Made

  • Information campaigns around nonpartisan administration of elections should be run to improve public confidence. These should focus on messaging from nonpartisan election officials in a sustained campaign.