Ensuring US elections are accessible, secure, and trustworthy

Working in bipartisan pairs, canvassers process mail-in ballots in a warehouse at the Anne Arundel County Board of Elections headquarters on October 7, 2020 in Glen Burnie, Maryland. The ballot canvas for mail-in and absentee ballots began on October 1st in Maryland, the earliest in the country. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

When I joined the Hewlett Foundation in early March 2020, I inherited our strategies to combat digital disinformation and to support campaigns and elections. One of my first tasks was to make sense of how to integrate and refresh these lines of work. But the wave of events that followed—the emergence of the pandemic, the need to drastically and quickly reorganize how to run U.S. elections given the incredible public health concerns, the upswell of public reckoning with longstanding racial justice problems, and more—soon convinced our team that a full re-envisioning of our strategy was warranted. Though this process—known at Hewlett as a grantmaking strategy “refresh”—occurs regularly in all program areas at the foundation, it was new to me. With the support and insights of our external partners, grantees, and internal colleagues, here is a look at the activities and values that helped us create a new strategy to support trustworthy elections.

The task of devising a grantmaking strategy to support elections in 2020 was at first overwhelming, simply because the need seemed so vast. Where do you even start? We began with a few lessons observed and learned in real time in 2020, focusing particularly on the centrality of effective elective administration. Election administrators worked tirelessly and pulled off an incredible feat under unprecedented conditions in 2020. The massive effort that was necessary to make sure the elections happened, especially in the context of chronic underfunding, underscored the need for significant investment in election administration infrastructure. A focus on elections also overlapped well with the experience of our team and the work of many of our grantees.

As time progressed, the challenge became even clearer. The insurrection on January 6 offered a glimpse of a nightmare future scenario: that in the future, a majority of Americans would not accept the results of an election. There are so many laudable efforts—electoral reforms, power building, and community organizing, redistricting, and many more—that offer crucial improvements to our elections system. Still, I couldn’t get away from the nightmare scenario that division, disinformation, conspiracy theorizing, polarization, racism, and other nefarious forces would continue to grow, and in future elections the losing side would not accept the result.

If people do not trust in and abide by elections, that’s the ballgame on democracy. Voting in elections that don’t mean anything—that is endlessly litigated or worse, overturned—is not meaningful participation. More than that, the project of civic participation and power-building and access will (and should) continue for decades. The threat we face to the legitimacy of elections could come to a head in the next few election cycles. Looking at all of this, with the knowledge we gained from our previous investments in elections and various election post-mortems, I felt strongly that Hewlett could be most effective in this space by helping to build or shore up the elections system such that it can weather what will almost certainly be a series of highly contentious elections to come, while also investing in the expansion of voting access.

The goal of our grantmaking in our refreshed strategy to support trustworthy elections is to ensure the United States has a fully funded and professionally managed elections system in which every eligible voter can easily and securely vote and in which citizens, including those whose candidate or party loses, trust in and abide by the results. We have identified four outcomes representing what success in this grantmaking strategy might look like over the next 5 years:

  • Government policymakers at the state and federal level enact more effective solutions to begin to counter the wide range of negative impacts of digital disinformation on elections.
  • There is an increase in stable, flexible government funding for state and local elections officials to better plan for and meet local needs.
  • State adopt policies and practices that bolster voter trust in elections results, including among voters whose preferred candidate or party loses.
  • All eligible voters, including those from historically disenfranchised communities, can readily and securely cast a ballot. As part of an intentional learning strategy, the U.S. Democracy Program will spend the next two years identifying promising and feasible pathways that best support this effort.

Our strategy paper discusses in-depth what this will look like—supporting groups in countering disinformation and its impact on elections, ensuring effective election administration, and supporting access for all voters. We are hoping that these three strands of grantmaking will create a healthy information environment to inform voters, election administrators that can do their jobs with sufficient resources and without harassment and intimidation, and elections that all voters can easily participate in and trust.

We cannot know for sure that this will work, but our intention is to proceed with humility, a focus on learning, and to be led by the experience, expertise and guidance of our grantees—who already include many of the leading voices in these areas. As a relatively new grantmaker, I’m excited to see the process unfold and ready to continually adapt the strategy as we learn and as the need changes. Overall, I’m excited to support the excellent work of so many who have devoted their work to strengthening the foundation of an equitable and participatory American democracy.

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