NEW YORK FOREIGN PRESS CENTER, 799 UNITED NATIONS PLAZA, 10TH FLOOR
MODERATOR: Hi, good morning, and welcome to the latest briefing in the New York Foreign Press Center’s 2022 U.S. Midterm Election Series, focused on election integrity. I would like to welcome the Foreign Press Center’s journalists as well as overseas journalists. My name is Mahvash Siddiqui and I’m the moderator. First I will go over the ground rules and after that I will introduce our speaker. Following our speaker’s opening remarks I will open the floor for questions.
And now for the ground rules. This briefing is on the record. Our briefer is an independent expert and the views expressed by the briefer are her own. Our briefer is not affiliated with the Department of State or the U.S. Government, and does not reflect the views of the Department of State or U.S. Government. Participation in Foreign Press Center programming does not imply endorsement, approval, or recommendation of briefers’ views.
For today’s briefing we welcome Dr. Pippa Norris. Dr. Norris is a lecturer in comparative politics at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, and has taught at Harvard for three decades. She is also the founding director of the Electoral Integrity Project. Dr. Norris has published almost 50 books. She’s ranked the second-most-cited political scientist worldwide, according to Google Scholar. She has served as the director of Democratic Governance Group at the United Nations Development Program in New York and is an expert consultant for many international bodies.
And with that, it is my honor today to introduce you to Dr. Norris. Dr. Norris, over to you, ma’am.
MS NORRIS: Thank you so much, and it’s a pleasure to be with you all. Clearly, the U.S. election has caused tremendous interest, but issues of election integrity are worldwide, and so having the international press as part of this is really important. I’m going to talk about the challenges which exist around the world, focusing on America and comparative perspectives.
And this is part of my work for the Electoral Integrity Project, which I established in 2012, well before any of the current controversies in the United States, and it’s now – I’ve handed on to a couple of very young colleagues who can take on that project. But it really is part of the broader issues of the challenges around the world.
So what is this about? Well, what I’d like to do is first just briefly mention the project. How do we collect our data? What’s the actual concept of electoral integrity? Because it is a loaded word? I’ll talk about the global comparisons over time. I’ll look at the U.S. elections by state, and then briefly mention public confidence in America in U.S. elections and the conclusions.
So the four claims I’m going to make are that, essentially, the United States is interesting in being somewhat exceptional. Most countries, including federal nations like Canada, have a central election management body to establish common standards, to provide technical administration and training, to share information, recommend reforms, and so on. And most electoral management bodies, or EMBs, are either independent – as in Australia or the United Kingdom – or they’re governmental, or they’re mixed. But the role of the United States Federal Government is exceptionally weak in setting standards, in sharing information, in providing reforms, and adjudicating disputes.
We can look at the problems which arise from this primarily by thinking about this through both expert and mass surveys. Expert surveys involve thousands of experts who focus on elections, primarily scholars; mass surveys are now accumulating as well, like the World Values Survey. So we’ve got a number of different datasets, both cross-national and time series. And when we look at this, as I’ll demonstrate, the expert surveys in particular rate the United States elections particularly poorly amongst comparable liberal democracies. If you look at countries such as Sweden or Norway or Australia or Canada or France or Germany, then the United States performs poorly according to the expert evaluations. But signs of electoral backsliding and problems of elections continue to be observed worldwide. And we can also drill down – we don’t simply have to look at the country level; we can look at particular provinces and states. We’ve done that in countries like Russia and Mexico, as well as the United States.
And what you can see is there are considerable variations in the performance of American elections from one state to another – from Georgia to Massachusetts, from Vermont to California. And these state variations really pose major challenges. In particular, for universal political rights and civil liberties, they vary from state to state.
So let’s sort of unpack and let’s look at the evidence to make these sorts of claims. This is the Electoral Integrity Project website. You can go there – www[.]electoralintegrity.org or .com – and you can find all of the details, the research, the data, the publications, the blogs, the news, and so on.
And what we can think about is that we can compare three different levels. We can look at the electoral rules – for example, the Comparative Constitutions Project. If you want to look at the electoral system, whether it’s, for example, proportional representation or whether it’s a majoritarian winner-take-all, we can go to the Comparative Constitutions Project. It’s a global project and it goes right back to 1789 and looks at all the changes in electoral systems at a formal, legal, or constitutional basis.
But that doesn’t actually tell us how elections work. On paper, elections might be really excellent, but in practice, of course, there is all sorts of manipulation and violations of standards. And that’s where the experts come in. Just like when you’re thinking about corruption – and we have Transparency International and the Corruption Perception Index, and we have many other expert indicators now like the World Bank – so we have expert perceptions of elections. And there’s two in particular: one is the Variety of Democracy Project at the University of Gothenburg, and that measures clean elections and it does it on an annual basis; and the other one is the Perception of Electoral Integrity Index, which is from my own project, at both state and cross-national.
And that’s a good way of thinking about performance on many, many different issues. And by the way, we use two socs; we find they are strongly related. That gives us some idea that the experts are, in fact, independent but they’re reliable. They give a good assessment of how the election works.
And then we also need to drill down even further to think about the citizens themselves. How do they feel about their own elections? Do they believe that they’re honest? Do they believe that they’re fair? And again, we have a number of sources: the World Values Survey, which is available online, worldvaluessurvey.org; you can look at any country, you can look at the most recent wave, and you can see how citizens feel about their elections. There’s a battery of items, which I included in the last wave and in the current wave, which we’re just finishing right now, and that covers over 100 societies. And the Gallup World Poll also has a question on the honesty of elections, and that’s done every year.
So what is electoral integrity? Well, we build on the international commitments. So it’s not my view of electoral integrity, nor is it a partisan view. It’s about the international commitments and global norms. And so these are a series of authoritative conventions, treaties, protocols, and guidelines, right from the beginning of the United Nations – when political rights were a part of the Universal Declaration – through subsequent amendments and expansions, for example in the mid-‘60s through to date, for example on electoral observers. And we have international conventions. And they’re universal, so it’s again not about a particular American standard or British standard or German standard; they apply to all countries worldwide throughout the electoral cycle. That’s important.
In other words, we shouldn’t, as journalists, just look at the end state. We shouldn’t just look at an election date and its aftermath because elections can go wrong and be problematic and flawed right from the beginning of any established cycle, so over a four-year cycle or period. And we can think about this as the pre-election period, the campaign itself, polling day, and its aftermath. By contrast, electoral malpractices are the violations of these international commitments.
So we try to be neutral. Obviously, you cannot be totally neutral; everything involves values. But at least it gives us some basis in which to judge. This is how the electoral cycle works. It’s developed, in fact, by the UNDP, Development Program. And you can see it emphasizes 11 different steps. For example, what is the law? How are the procedures in practice, the more detailed administration? How do we create distinct boundaries, and how do we revise those? How do we get voters on the register, a fundamental challenge, particularly in countries transitioning towards democracy and in large countries which don’t necessarily have effective census records? How do we think about party registration? What’s the law? Are all parties able to stand or are some deemed illegal? How do we think about campaign media, that ultimate problem, and particularly if it involves all the journalists, and is there a skew or is there a balance? Are there plural voices or is there a state control? Is there censorship and are people in media bubbles, or are there diverse sources of information?
Campaign funding is another major issue. Media money – how much can people buy? Advertising, for example? And again, is it balanced? And in the words of one of my colleagues, is there a level playing field where every candidate and every party has a voice and can put their views over so the public can find out about them? How are the voting processes working? And again, often we focus on that in America, but as you can see, it’s part of a much broader set of steps to have an effective election. The vote count – is that accurate? Is the vote tabulation transparent? Is it observed? The declaration of results: are they timely or are there delays? And what’s the adjudication process? Is there any sort of disputes amongst parties? And then the election management body which oversees the election, whether it’s governmental or whether it’s independent.
And it’s a cycle because, of course, one election leads to the next, and you change one aspect of this and the whole chain can get broken. So, for example, if you take boundaries, if there’s gerrymandering and the boundaries are drawn to represent the parties rather than the voters, then clearly that can flaw all the other aspects. Similarly, if you find that there are limits in campaign media and we can’t hear all voices, then that’s a fundamental problem for the choices at the ballot box.
So in the electoral cycle, let’s think of this as we need to report on elections throughout, even the technical aspects in the so-called smoke-filled rooms. We shouldn’t just focus on the results and the outcome.
Now, PEI, Perceptions of Electoral Integrity, comes out with an annual report. In this case, the latest is done by Holly Ann Garnett in Canada, Toby James in the United Kingdom, and Madison MacGregor, who’s the research assistant. It’s an annual survey. It covers all national parliamentary and presidential elections held since mid-2012, when the project started. We exclude only minor parties – sorry, only minor countries, i.e. those with populations where it’s very difficult to get data below 100,000 population. We have over 10,000 experts, and these experts are primarily scholars who’ve been verified as having published or having teaching expertise in the field of elections. And PEI-8, the latest wave, includes the assessment by four and a half thousand experts, 480 elections over time because it accumulates, and 169 countries annually. And it publishes its annual reports, including sub-national surveys. All the data is available for free once it’s been cleaned and verified.
And this is what we asked our experts. So it’s a standard set of 49 survey questions, and we ask them one month after the election. And we say to them, in your view, when you think about the election in your country – and we mentioned which election it is, a presidential or a parliamentary election – do you think, do you agree election laws were unfair to smaller parties, and a five-point agree/disagree statement and election laws favored the governing party, election laws restricted citizens’ rights, et cetera, et cetera. So each stage is broken down so we don’t just rely on one question but we have for each stage a variety of different items which are both positive and negative, some are good, some are bad, and people can then evaluate the quality of their elections in their country. And we involve, by the way, domestic experts, half of those, as well as international experts.
MS NORRIS: So these are the sections which we’re covering – the core claims; the project itself, the Election Integrity Project and the website and what’s available there; the three different levels, UN, and the definition.
MS NORRIS: So we have three different levels, which we talked about, and the concepts that we emphasized – the international concept, the 11 different steps of the electoral cycle, and the PEI, what are we asking people. So this is the survey. These are the sorts of questions that we ask our experts. And we have basically positive and negative questions throughout the electoral cycle, so for each item people can agree or disagree that this related to their own election.
So who are the experts? Well, what’s important, of course, is that there’s also people who are both domestic and international, and we can find those political scientists with some expertise in a research group, professional association, or with some publication, and with university employment.
So what’s the actual result? What does it look like when we come to make some comparisons? Well, first, are the results reliable? So first we want to say are experts actually coming to the same agreement. So we have two different surveys, one of which is by the Variety of Democracy Project; one of which is by the PEI, the Perception of Electoral Integrity. And each of these picks its own experts, uses its own methods, and does this on an annual basis. What can you see? At the bottom, we’ve got the Clean Elections Index, which is from the Variety of Democracy Project on a one-point – hundred-point scale, and on the vertical index we have the Perception of Electoral Integrity index, which is my own one. And what you can see is that there’s a strong correlation between the summary indices of both independent projects.
So the top ones there, they’re marked Finland, Iceland. The Nordic countries always come out well, but so do a number of other countries which is the new democracies – Benin, for example, before the contemporary problems; Latvia comes out well, Mauritius comes out well, Botswana, Kuwait, Tunisia – and that was, again, before the change in the presidency in there. So both experts in both surveys seem to say these are the countries which have the positive elections.
And then if we look down at the bottom, we can see a number of contests which have problems in all of these – in both of these surveys. Venezuela, for example, where Maduro managed to really limit the opposition; Azerbaijan and Chad, real problems going on there; Burundi, with conflicts; Congo; Egypt, where there was an opening and then things closed down under President Sisi; Afghanistan, where there some elections but high levels of corruption and violence and, of course, ultimately the collapse of the regime; Ethiopia, where there was an opening, et cetera. So it seems that both surveys come to the same broad comparison. We can evaluate the quality of the elections.
Now, what does this look like if we think about the experts themselves? Again, does it matter if the experts are, for example, older or younger, if they’re women or men, if they’re liberal or conservative? And when we look at this, we look at the current evaluations, what we find is all of these social characteristics are insignificant. They don’t actually affect the evaluations. The only one that does and which proves to be significant is race, but all the others turn out to be insignificant. So experts have external validity with another survey. They have internal validity in terms of their characteristics.
So let’s think about United States, which is obviously the news item on everybody’s mind, what can we see about that. So this gives us – PEI – a summary hundred-point index broken down by the different regions of the world cumulatively from all of our surveys, and what we can see is that if we look first at the Americas, the United States comes out with a score of 57. So it’s about the same as Trinidad and Tobago or Brazil, which is going through its elections with Bolsonaro, Colombia, Granada, Suriname.
But a number of other countries in the region are actually doing a lot better. Costa Rica, for example, shows a very stable and effective democracy. Uruguay, the Switzerland of Latin America; Chile, according to the experts – in other words, the United States is kind of middling. Now, of course, there are many countries in the region which are worse: Haiti because of the lack of state capacity to actually run effective elections; Honduras; Venezuela, as I mentioned earlier; Guatemala with high level of corruption; but the United States is kind of average.
Look, however, at Europe and look at the scores there. And these are color coded, by the way, in traffic lights so you can see broadly how they compare, and again in Europe we can see that Finland, Sweden, Denmark, but also Estonia – a new democracy – Norway, also Lithuania, also the Czech Republic have better quality elections – substantially better. And again if we look around the world, I’m sure from your own region, you can spot different countries. And we can see Taiwan, for example, in Asia does very well, but of course Jordan and Bahrain do badly in Asia. And if we look at Africa, again, Cape Verde does well. There are problems, however, in many countries in Africa in terms of the quality of elections: of course, in Zimbabwe and Madagascar.
How does this vary more broadly by type of government, by type of regime? So here’s what we want to do is look at liberal democracies; electoral democracies which basically have elections but haven’t institutionalized all the other aspects, like strong legislatures or independent courts; electoral autocracies, which are more problematic; and closed autocracies, which have really flawed contests, only one party, or no elections at all. Just focus on the liberal democracies, the first column, and immediately you can see that the United States ranks very badly out of all of the different countries which are liberal democracy. And even when we compare it with electoral democracies, it’s still not doing that well.
So what we’re trying to say is that there are controversies going on in American elections right now, but if we look at independent evidence, it appears that our problems – this is what the world looks like, and as you might expect, we have a very positive performance in green in Scandinavia and Europe by and large; we see, again, some positive performances in Latin American by and large with some exceptions which we’ve mentioned; Central America has some problems; Canada does well. The United States, turns out, as we said, to be very similar in the category to a country like Brazil or a country like India, both of which have some flaws. And we can also see more major problems, for example, in West Africa and in Central Africa and in other parts of Asia in particular countries.
Now, what about the change? Has there been backsliding? So so far I’ve shown you just a kind of static position – the average across different elections – but let’s look also at the changes from the first election that we studied in 2012 to the most recent. And some countries have had, for example, a military coup. Some countries have had a change which has been radical in which they’ve made backwards towards autocracy. Some other countries, however, has moved forwards and have become much more democratic during that period. What you can see is that by and large there has been backsliding, a slight decline across large parts of the world – not everywhere but across many countries. And so the problems that we’re observing in the United States, are actually ones which are found in many places – even in a country like Australia, even in a country like India, which has had a longstanding tradition of elections, we can see that there are fundamental problems in the quality.
Now, how has it changed in America over time? Everybody assumes that because of the controversies that we’re now having in America, it might be that the overall quality has gone down a great deal. The Democrats claim that there is high levels of voter suppression, particularly with minority groups. And then Republicans claim that there’s high levels of electoral fraud. So let’s stand back from these debates and from the party politics, and let’s say what does the evidence shows us. And this is the PEI index we can see – we can see that the PEI index, in fact, hasn’t changed that much over five years in which we’ve actually managed to look at the election and carry out our surveys. It went up in 2018, but as you can see it’s actually fairly static.
But if we look at more details, in particular at different elements in this, not just the overall 100-point index, we do see there’s a decline, particularly in the results section over the most recent elections. It went down sharply. In 2012 there was no controversy; everybody accepted the elections and the outcome, and there were very few court challenges. And it goes down dramatically in 2016, when there were challenges in particular from Republicans to some of the outcomes, but we can see it goes up again in 2017 and dramatically down, of course, because of the disputes and the continuing issues and January the 6th, which eventually ended with widespread violence and indeed there were fatalities in some cases.
So we can see that the election in America is problematic, both globally and in terms of some specific issues. Let’s break that down further, though, because we can look at it by state. And we always really need to do this. There’s such variety of elections in different countries around the world and across different provinces and areas. And so what we do is that we look at each of the different steps and we go right away through from the law, through the boundaries, through the voter registrar, et cetera, et cetera. Then you look at it across all the different 50 states, and we do again color-code it by the traffic lights. So if you want to say which is good, those are the ones which are heaviest in green, and which are the most problematic across all the different levels are the ones which are in orange or in red.
And what jumps out? Well, most of the controversy is really about vote results. As you know, that’s where there have been endless court disputes, endless claims of fraud, and changes in state laws in terms of other aspects. But if you look at the experts’ evaluations of the 2020 U.S. elections, the most recent ones for which we can compare, across all the different states it’s the boundaries, it’s the districts, it’s gerrymandering, which actually started in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which is seen as one of the weakest stages where the districts are drawn primarily to benefit the parties and to benefit the incumbents.
So this is a problem, particularly with redistricting, when it’s based on inaccurate census information which miscounts certain groups, or where essentially they’re not competitive districts. Parties on both sides build up very strong majorities, and they – also when they think about minorities, use certain districts in order to under-represent certain minority communities. That’s a problem.
And what you can also see is that there are some other problems, according to the experts, in American elections, in particular electoral law. As you know, there have been hundreds of changes in state legislatures which have tried to amend the law, and they’ve gone in both directions in the sense that in Massachusetts, for example, by coincidence yesterday I got my mail ballot. It came immediately in a very prompt fashion. I filled it out, I sent it back, and I had every confidence because the mailing system and the way in which we can fill out a postal ballot has become easier in Massachusetts. You don’t even need to give, for example, any reason to claim a mail ballot; it just comes automatically.
In many other places, however, the laws have been tightened to make it more difficult to vote. Now, whether or not that’s going to affect turnout we’ll have to see. It’s likely that the 2022 election is going to have record turnout. And often people compensate, so if the election is more difficult to vote, they’ll actually make more effort because they feel they want to make sure that their vote counts. But what we can also see is that the election law varies tremendously, just as you would expect, from one place to another. So in a place like Vermont it’s very easy to vote. The electoral law is very transparent and clear. In other places it’s much more difficult.
And we can see across that it’s not the vote results which have been the primary problem or the vote count in particular or the vote process; it’s other aspects in America, according to our experts, like the role of the media and the role of campaign funding.
Campaign funding used to be more regulated, particularly in 1974 when the major legislation came through in order to try to clean up after Watergate and it made campaign funding in America much more transparent than it had been in the past. Problem is the Supreme Court intervened and now there’s a lot of what we term dark money in elections. And this makes it very difficult to trace who is actually the donor who’s giving the resources in many cases, and the adverts don’t necessarily make it very clear. And it’s estimated in the current election that there is essentially a doubling of the expenditure from the previous midterm election just on political advertising – a record level.
So this is how the states vary, and I’m very happy to talk about particular controversies, for example in Georgia or in Florida or in any of the other cases, in Nevada. The particular weaknesses which I think are going to emerge in 2022 concern in particular the electoral procedures, which are – I think have gone – have only become more problematic, but also the actual electoral management, because in many cases what we have, on the Republican side in particular, is electoral deniers. They are challenging the results of the 2020 election despite the court results and all of the different tests which have said the election was – had integrity. And if these get into office, which is entirely possible, these are the people who are going to be running elections in each of the different states, and that is likely to increase the controversy in 2024.
So what else can we say, and then open it up for questions. We can look at the changes in electoral integrity as well. We don’t just have to look at it today. We can look at it over time, and we can again see that a number of states, according to the experts on their electoral ratings, have gone down. So we can see Georgia, we can see Texas, Wisconsin – tremendous controversies there – Florida. And many of the cases which are going to be the swing states in the presidential election are also ones where we see high levels of controversy.
It’s also color-coded so you can see that in fact in many of the states which are dominated by the Democrats, like New Hampshire, Vermont, Oregon, we can see, according to the experts, the ratings are positive. But we can also see that most of these fall below the line. In other words, things were better in 2016 than we can see, according to the experts, in 2020.
What are the problems which experts thought were there in 2020? Accepting the integrity of the election by all parties, the number of disputes. Clearly, this process started with Florida in 2000. It’s nothing new. The Bush v. Gore election there which saw the butterfly ballot also created challenges, but remember also that once the courts adjudicated and the Supreme Court said that George W. Bush had won, then immediately Gore said okay and he conceded. Nowadays, it’s not simply the former president who challenged the election, but a number of other people running for elections have also challenged the outcome despite the evaluations by the experts and other indicators.
Public trust has gone down. Threats of violence have gone down*. That is a fundamental issue. And again, there are all sorts of challenges going on, particularly because of the ubiquity of guns in America. Legal disputes about the process have got worse. Public protests have got worse. Attempts at voter suppression, et cetera, et cetera.
Has anything got better? Well, yes. After COVID, effective contingency plans for emergency conditions, according to the experts, did improve. The convenience of advance voting facilities, the way that I could just vote, for example, by mail well ahead of the elections. And various other things, like official information about how to vote. Those have also got better. But by and large, most of the list is red, not green.
Conclusions: public confidence. What’s happened with public confidence? Well, this shows you a different set of data. This is from the World Values Survey and the Varieties of Democracy Project. So what we’ve got is how far the public expresses confidence in its own elections based on a national survey which was conducted by the World Values Survey. And it’s a simple question. It’s a four-point scale that was included for the first time in the current eighth wave, which just finished this year.
So low confidence or high confidence goes across the horizontal axis. Look at the vertical axis, and that is an expert judgment from Varieties of Democracy Project about the quality of free and fair elections. And to emphasize also, I’ve color-coded this so that the countries which are in green are ones which have freedom of expression, meaning plural media, lack of censorship, variety of different sources of information, ability to express yourself openly, no problems with dissent.
By contrast, we have closed societies which were in red which, according to Varieties of Democracy Project, are ones which have state media or high levels of state control over journalism, attacks on journalists, and a variety of other ways of suppressing criticism of the government.
What do we see? Well, the takeaway, quite simply, for everybody is that in the countries which I’ve labeled green – in other words, the open societies – there’s a strong correlation, there’s a relationship, between how the public has confidence in its elections and the actual quality of the election according to the experts. So both are very positive in Japan, in Canada, in Chile, in Australia, in the countries which were in the green at the top. By contrast, where there are problems in elections, like in Guatemala or in Mexico or Tunisia or Peru, then the public tends to have less confidence in elections as well. And the United States is highlighted as being in the middle of the distribution, and we can see that essentially they’re not as positive in terms of public opinion or in experts as a number of other countries like Australia.
But look at the closed societies. Look at the ones where there’s state control of the media or there’s lack of freedom of expression. These are the countries in red. And what you can see is the opposite pattern. In other words, the more that the government can control what information the public hears about, in particular how far it controls dissent, how far it suppresses the opposition criticisms, how far it suppresses independent journalists and the free press, in those countries, the worse the quality of the election, the more the public has confidence in them.
In Myanmar, with a military junta, for example; in Iran, with the Ayatollah, limiting in particular what the media can show in terms of the current protests on the streets; in places like China, where there’s tremendous punishment for independent internet bloggers; in places where the government has high control – Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan – there, the public expresses confidence but they have very little information. And in contrast, we can see some countries like Iraq and Jordan, which also are closed societies, which, according to the experts, have slightly better elections, but the public has less confidence. So it’s a complicated old world, but the public in open societies tends to agree with the experts and have confidence if the election actually works, as you might expect.
So the conclusions. Most federal nations do have an elected body, which manages the elections, either in a government department or as an independent body. And EMDs are really essential. They provide all the infrastructure to make sure the election works administratively. They provide training for officials; they share information about best practice. They recommend reforms; they adjudicate disputes. And we can just look at north of the border, elections Canada – are there any election disputes? Yes, there are, but are there also effectively high levels of electoral integrity? We’ve already observed they have. And the federal body obviously works with the provinces that administer elections, but it sets standards across the whole country. The same is true in Germany, where the districts and the provinces run the elections – it’s a federal country – with a government department providing the support and regulation.
In the United States, of all the federal bodies is exceptionally weak. Do we have a Federal Electoral* Commission? We do, and that is meant to control financing, and it’s essentially broken because of partisan gridlock. Do we have an Electoral* Assistance Commission? We do, but it’s not well funded. It came about quite recently after the HAVA Act, Help America Vote Act, but it really does not intervene in many of the standards of elections, even basic things like hours you can vote, how far the ballot box is away from your home, how far you have a right to vote and be automatically on the register. And a variety of other very detailed aspects of the administrative election is done at local level, not just in the state but sometimes in the actual local area.
And what that means is all you need is one or two areas which have administrative problems, maladministration, and that can really challenge the quality of election and create tremendous disputes about the outcome. And all that we need in 2024 is one or two localities in one or two swing states to really have those sorts of issues, and immediately people lose faith and confidence in the quality of their democracy and their elections. The performance of elections can be reliably monitored through both public opinion and through expert assessment, and we now have that data. And unfortunately, the United States is rated poorly and there are signs of electoral backsliding worldwide. And we need to do this more. Obviously, journalists need to report on the state elections, but also we need to have election watches on different areas where people look at the quality of the outcome and they look at the process and therefore we get more information to really work out what are the real problems versus what’s the partisan rhetoric.
So I’d like to just say that more information is available if you want to go to the EIP. These are just some of the publications that we’ve produced on different issues. We’ve published on Latin America. We’ve published on Africa. We published on Australia. We’ve published on election contention, electoral integrity, American elections, et cetera, et cetera, election finance. Tremendous number of resources, all available: electionintegrityproject.com.
And I look forward to hearing your thoughts. I apologize that we didn’t manage the start properly, but we managed to catch up hopefully, and I look forward to your Q&A and seeing where we go. Back to you.
MODERATOR: Thank you, Dr. Norris, for sharing your expertise with us, and appreciate your very informative presentation. To the journalists here, Dr. Norris has kindly offered to share her presentation with all participants, so stay tuned for my email after this briefing. Dr. Norris, I stopped screenshare, but we can go ahead and turn it on if you want to go to any of your slides when the journalists have any questions. We have about 15 minutes to noon. If you’re able to stay another ten minutes or so beyond noon, we would greatly appreciate it, but you don’t have to.
So let’s go ahead and open the floor for questions. If you have a question please raise your virtual hand and wait for me to call on you. When called on, please enable both your audio and your video, and identify yourself by your full name and your media outlet. You’re also welcome to type your question in the main chat room.
Great. The first question goes to Mien Thuy Nguyen. Please go ahead and unmute yourself, Mien, and please announce your media house as well. Thank you.
QUESTION: Hello. Sorry I cannot turn on my camera —
MODERATOR: That’s okay.
QUESTION: — but I’m here. Yeah, I’m Mien Nguyen from Thanh Nien. I’m based in Ho Chi Ming City, Vietnam. And I really thank Dr. Norris for her a very – so many information, but the one that I really want to hear, I cannot until now. I want to know about the policies that safeguard U.S. elections, because to Vietnamese you really care about the foreign interference in the U.S. elections, but until then I could not hear Doctor Norris mention it. Can you, please?
MS NORRIS: Yes, I’d be delighted. Thank you, Mien. So foreign interference was very much a challenge in the 2020 presidential elections. Interestingly, while I have seen some initiatives in order to try to improve cybersecurity, there’s been almost no discussion of that in the media, in the midterm elections. And I think that there are some important reasons why that might be the case. But in 2020 – I mean 2016, of course, there were real questions, as there were in Europe, about challenges to domestic media and the ways in which, in particular, Facebook and other social media had interference by people in particular who were from other countries but posing as average Americans, but – essentially spreading hate speech and very negative images of both parties – but primarily of the Democratic Party.
I think that what’s happened is that since then, the social media in America have really learnt some of those lessons. Facebook set up a big unit in order to monitor election coverage, and it changed some of its policies. Twitter has done much the same. And there are obviously many, many other social media outlets which are available, but I think that we’ve learnt some of the lessons about foreign interference through social media in covert ways, which means that it hasn’t been as much of an issue so far in the election of 2020.
It is entirely possible, however, that it might come back for 2024. In particular, for example, as you might have heard, Elon Musk is talking about taking over Twitter, and one of the things he proposes to do is to reduce some of the filtering which is going on, including a lot of the staff. He’s proposing a 75 percent staff cutting at Twitter, and the staff are very much part of the monitoring units which have been seeing if there is interference either in this issue or in other forms of conspiracy, because there are many other conspiracy theories which are – which obviously are spreading as well.
So I think social media has temporarily caught up, but there’s no guarantee that they’ll continue to act as an effective filter. And this is still a major threat to the quality of the information, and misinformation and disinformation, of course, is being as spread as much by domestic sources as it is by foreign sources. So that’s – that hasn’t changed, but it doesn’t necessarily need to come from abroad because basically there’s enough conspiracy theorists in America to spread it all by ourselves.
MODERATOR: Great. Thank you so much, Mien, for your question, and thank you, Dr. Pippa, for the response. I’m going to go ahead and turn it to Jan Kaliba. Jan, could you unmute yourself and please announce your media house? Thank you.
QUESTION: Yes, hello, can you hear me?
MS NORRIS: I can.
QUESTION: Great. Thank you for doing this. I have a technical question about the newly established Institution of Election Police in Florida. Do you see it as a measure of election integrity, as the governor claims, or a measure of voter suppression, as his critics say?
MS NORRIS: So the – so the governor has basically tried to make this a big issue, and the problem is that it’s been a very politicized issue when he claims that there’s widespread fraud, and he’s brought 20 cases in particular before the court to try to prosecute, and these are often cases, when you look at the detail, which have arisen primarily through error and mistakes. People thought that they could vote because they were sent a ballot card, when in practice they can’t because of their past penal – they had some issues with the law in the past and so on. There’s very, very few cases of intentional voter fraud which are being prosecuted, either in Florida or around the country for that matter.
And the electoral police, I think, is a symbolic gesture, again, as a kind of gesture to say: look, we are concerned about fraud and we’re doing something about fraud. But reality is that there really isn’t a fundamental problem according to the courts and according to the evidence that’s been brought before the courts. So it’s more symbolic politics. I personally don’t have a problem with using effective security around polling places. I don’t even have a problem even with using things like identity cards, which are not used in America but they are used in many other countries like India. I think that ensuring integrity so that people have confidence in elections is fine; that’s not a problem. It becomes a problem if you allow that to turn into any form of pressure on voters so they don’t feel comfortable going to the polls or they feel that they might be discriminated against or they feel that their private act of voting might be becoming public.
And it’s not so much the election police which I think to be a problem – although it’s just a waste of money – it’s more that in many states they’re allowing poll watchers from a very partisan perspective to get into an area of the polling booth – a polling station, sorry – which I think is inappropriate. If you’re being scrutinized by people, and they’re wearing t-shirts which are very partisan – although that’s banned; sometimes it’s not – then voters don’t feel as comfortable going to the polls. And we should make sure that there’s a cordon sanitaire, that there’s clear area which in many states there is a law that says any poll watchers or any security forces have to be within a certain distance of the actual privacy of the polls. I think that’s good practice in every country. And I think it’s something that we should do in Florida as well as all the other states as well. But it can be a form of intimidation, Jan, absolutely. (Off-mike.)
MODERATOR: Great. Thank you so much, Jan, and pardon me for interrupting. I’ll turn to, Felicia Akerman. Felicia, please go ahead and announce your media outlet. Thank you.
QUESTION: Hi. My name is Felicia. I’m from the Swedish newspaper Dagens Industri. Thanks so much for taking the time today. You touched on these down-ballot races this year for offices where – that carry a lot of responsibility for the management of elections in states, and I was just wondering if you could expand a little bit on how worried we should be about the fact that a lot of these races we’re seeing candidates who are definitely election deniers from the last presidential election, how big of an effect that can have in the future.
And then a sort of follow-up to that is I’m wondering if this is a particular problem in the U.S. that these offices are held by publicly elected officials and thus sort of implicitly tied to partisan politics.
MS NORRIS: That’s right. So that was something I was trying to put as one of the key messages. If you have professional, independent public servants who are in these offices who are nonpartisan, as we do in Sweden and in many other countries, then in fact you have a confidence in your public service, then you have confidence in the way the elections is run. As soon as you put partisans in charge, then you’re introducing a weakness, and this is a longstanding weakness. It’s the way that American elections have been run for years and years. The problem is that as the Republican Party has become more into election denial, that has been basically a touchstone of faith in order to get selected and nominated in the party because of the grassroots and the primary process, so we’ve got more and more election deniers in office.
And again, the only reason, really, why 2020 worked was because even Republican officials were able to stand up and they expected certain norms and responsibilities of their job to uphold the law and to make sure that if they felt that the election was working well – for example, in Georgia – and then they felt that they should declare the results, and the courts backed them up. If that goes – if that norm disappears because election deniers become secretaries of state responsible for running elections, and they exercise their power in ways which are partisan in a very explicit way, then we’re going to end up with disputed outcomes.
And as I said, all you need is one or two states which are the swing states to do that, and immediately nobody’s going to agree on the outcome. And given what we’ve already known about January the 6th, given what we know about the potential for violence, given what we know about the organization, for example, of the Proud Boys and other local disputes after the last election, this is the fundamental problem facing us, I think, in the next two rounds. And it’s what keeps me up at night. It’s what really makes me concerned.
So it’s a combination, Felicia, of a structural weakness, the way these elections are decentralized; a structural weakness in the way that they’re partisan; and then the added pressures of claims both of fraud from the Republicans and the appointment of election deniers. And it feels to me as though we’re like the Titanic heading toward the iceberg. We can all see this iceberg. We know what’s going to happen and we can’t turn it around.
The Democrats haven’t managed to put effective legislation. There was a great bill, H.R. 1, where they tried to improve electoral administration and didn’t manage it. And as a result, even though everybody knows that this is a fundamental problem, we’re just heading there. And 2020, 2022, 2024 is a fundamental challenge.
QUESTION: Could I have a super quick follow-up on that?
QUESTION: I’ve been very – it’s been interesting to watch the debate around this. It’s very much focused on the particular candidates this time around. I have not seen as much discussion about the sort of structural law here, having elected officials in these positions. Am I missing something, or is that a part of the conversation that hasn’t really started?
MS NORRIS: No, it’s the way that journalists and the media have covered this in traditional ways. It’s easy to focus on the personalities, and that is (inaudible). And if you focus on a particular state and you focus on the candidates, et cetera, are they or are they not Trumpy – Trumpy, as we call them now? Are they election deniers? And that’s a good way of doing it.
The structural issues are taken for granted in America in a way that they’re not in many other countries. If you look at the countries in particular which have gone through major reforms, a lot of countries have introduced an official electoral management body in only recent years, one which is independent, is a quango, is at arm’s length from the government.
The United Kingdom is an example of that. Twenty years ago, it used to be that elections were run by local authorities, and then the Blair administration introduced a national election body for Wales, Scotland, and for England. That is now being revised in the UK. There’s actually a new report that just came out yesterday about the electoral management body and its role and what it should be doing and so on. But you have an EMB, and most countries around the world have an EMB.
But because of the Constitution, the responsibilities for elections is seen as primarily the responsibilities of states, and the partisanship of, again, the public service in America means that partisanship is just taken for granted and Americans don’t even understand the structural differences between the United States and most other countries because they don’t look abroad. They don’t look at how elections work in other countries at all, really, because they’re focused so much on their own country in many, many ways.
So – and also, by the way, they don’t look abroad because they take for granted democracy. They think America is democracy, we’re a beacon of hope for the rest of the world, and so people should be emulating us versus us emulating Canada. And I think one of the primary things that we need to do after the election is to bring together some of the core electoral management bodies from comparable post-industrial societies and talk amongst ourselves and bring them in contact with the American officials.
There’s a very good – there is still a very good set of electoral officials in office, and they’re working very hard and they’re often under-resourced, and they have been there often for many years doing the same work. They’re not all partisans in a very direct way, but that’s being eroded. And local officials are being threatened and people are leaving the job because why would you be a public servant if you’re going to get threats to yourself and to your family and to your home. This is outrageous behavior that we’re now moving into because we’re so polarized,
And older poll workers, by the way, this is the background of the local polling station – when you go into a polling station, it’s all volunteers. But they’re primarily in – people who have retired. And those people are not willing to do the – to volunteer for this job if they feel that either they’re being threatened or they’re just given no thanks for this rather thankless task, et cetera.
So the quality of electoral administration is going down. And if you want to look at the number of election deniers who are standing as secretary of state and in other offices, then the New York Times has got a very good document quite recently which has looked exactly at the numbers. And it’s, I think, around the number – about two-thirds of the Republican candidates are election deniers, depending on how you define them. So it’s an awful lot.
And again, I shouldn’t dispute the fact that there are still very good public officials in office trying to do their best and committed to electoral integrity fully and committed to having a good service, but polarization is just so bad that they haven’t been able to necessarily win office for the next time. So they’re being replaced increasingly by candidates who will be in favor of denial. And in Nevada, in Arizona, in Wisconsin, in Georgia, we’re going to get lots and lots of disputes.
The American – the American democracy held up in 2020 and 2016 because of informal democratic norms, not because of the law. It held up because people were willing to uphold certain standards. And if those norms have eroded, which they have, then you can’t guarantee that the law in itself is strong enough in order to protect us and protect electoral integrity.
I’m sorry to sound so negative or whatever, you know. I think we should –
QUESTION: Thank you so much for answering my question. I appreciate it.
MS NORRIS: It’s a very good question. Very, very apposite. And I could have given you another talk just on the problems with the 2020 election, but I think an overview was so much more appropriate. And what you really need, of course, is to have another briefing after the election when we look at what problems have emerged and analyze that in diverse ways.
MODERATOR: Well, thank you, Felicia. Dr. Norris, can you spare about five more minutes or do you have to run?
MS NORRIS: No, I’m good.
MODERATOR: Great, excellent. I’m going to ask you one last question that was submitted by Bas Blokker from NRC, Netherlands media organization. “Why are progressive politicians and organizations so opposed to voter ID restrictions? In countries like mine, the Netherlands, they are very strict voter – there are very strict ID rules and turnout there is usually much higher than the United States.” So basically, voter turnout and ID rules are much higher than in the United States. I apologize; I’m reading this verbatim. “Would you say, based on what you have researched, that election integrity in the U.S. as a whole is an – in an alarmingly bad condition?”
And there’s a follow-up question. “If not in the U.S. as a whole, are there districts or states that are in bad shape as far as election security and integrity is concerned? And which are these states?” Over to you, ma’am.
MS NORRIS: So the answer to the last two is yes and yes. It is alarming. But it has been alarming for many years; it’s just got progressively worse and it’s getting worse even more so as we go along. I very much agree.
I am bipartisan in the sense that I believe that you should have voter ID. I see no problem in that. If you look at a case like India, you have 800 million voters, all of whom have voter ID. They have a photo ID and they have their photo and their name. They go to the polling place, and there is the list of who can vote, and there is the photos so that people can immediately be identified one against the other.
In America, however, the problem is cultural traditions and norms. And so in particular, people are so suspicious of voter suppression because the history of civil rights primarily, and therefore the problems for the communities of color but also for other issues of voter suppression, which have been there historically for many years in certain – in certain states. And so people have been anti-voter ID. There’s also a libertarian tradition in America, which is against voter ID in principle. So for those reasons, people have pushed back.
But my ideal, if I could get it together, would be to bring together the key actors in the Democratic Party and the Republican Party to say, look, what reforms on both sides could be seen actually to be a compromise, that – where we could come together and find a more effective way of running American elections? And a simple idea would be yes, on the one hand, Republicans demand voter ID; okay, let’s go with that. If we can do it at no cost to the voter so it’s automatically available, it’s free, and everybody can have the same photo ID, or we simply use whatever ID already officially available, normally driver’s licenses.
On the other hand, for the Democrats, I’d say, maybe the Republicans could agree to things like uniform opening times. Why should it be that one area should have opening for your polls from, say, 8:00 to 6:00; another one should have it from 10:00 to 9:00; and there are different ways of running elections, and all those local details in different areas. And I would also reform a number of – many other aspects of elections where, again, I think there could be some bipartisan areas of agreement.
And you might think that the hours in which a polling station opens is trivial. It isn’t. If you have people who move about the country and they don’t know what time their polling station is open, of course turnout is going to go down. I would also argue that we should have things like weekend voting, as many other countries do, so that it’s much more flexible, and that we have a variety of other standard practices, which give something to the Democrats and something to the Republicans.
The problem is, of course, we’re so polarized in America and the issue has become poison so that having any sort of agreement, even on basic principles, has become almost impossible. And maybe if we have a crisis, that is an opportunity to reform. Maybe it was sort of like Florida, that highlighted these issues so much in 2000 that we got the Help America Vote Act and money from Congress to improve the quality of elections in 2002. Maybe we have to have the same crisis before we can actually get to any sort of effective outcome. But that’s a kind of positive spin. And it’s entirely likely also that the more the crisis, the worse things get because we lose trust on both sides of the aisle.
I think we have one more person who wanted to have one more question here.
MODERATOR: Yes. If you have time to spare, I’ll go ahead and read out David Leask’s question. He’s from The Herald in Scotland. “A little question for Professor Norris,” he says. “What do Americans say when you show them their ranking on election integrity?”
MS NORRIS: So we’re – rather like the Corruption Integrity Index, what we try to do as an organization is give you your independent evaluations, and then we let people on the ground use it as they wish. So for example, in Pennsylvania, you know it’s been one of the major areas of controversy. We showed the weaknesses and the strengths of the Pennsylvania elections according to our experts, and then a number of advocacy groups took this up and have proposed a number of legislative reforms which they felt could be appropriate. We’re not there to tell the state how they should run their elections. That would be totally inappropriate.
But we are there to say, if you compare America with the world, America is not doing well even though we’ve always assumed that America was a beacon of light for democracy, but not so much on elections. And if you compare your state, we do see some positives and we also see some negatives. We also see areas that every single state should improve, and I’d highlight things like media and money. Media in particular is fundamentally a problem because of the lack of balance, ever since Reagan got rid of the balance requirements for television news during a campaign.
And money is – again, very little debate, or serious debate, other than particular advocacy organizations about the role of money in politics. But the amount of money being spent, like I said, has doubled between 2018 and 2022, according to some of the organizations who are tracking expenditure on political advertising expenditures and so on. And you can look at those quite easily. And dark money is a problem. In particular, many of the donors are also election deniers, which means that those candidates have to be accountable to their donors, and that’s why you get certain candidates who are successful and other candidates who aren’t, in the primary process.
So we need to reframe the problems. It’s not the problems which, in fact, either the Republicans or the Democrats argue are the key issues. It’s not voter suppression, I’d argue, primarily. It’s not voter fraud. That’s a myth. But there are fundamental weaknesses that America should address. And if you want a model of what could have been done, if you google H.R. 1, which was the big attempt which was – came through to the Senate to be debated I think two years ago now, or maybe it was just one year ago now, that had a comprehensive set of reforms. It was really a good bill, and it got absolutely nowhere because of the lack of a two-thirds majority, and it wasn’t even seriously debated. And maybe it overloaded the number of reforms, but nevertheless that for me is a great model of reform which America should address. But whether or not any reforms get through will depend on the outcome of the elections, so we’re in the vicious cycle in American elections right now.
MODERATOR: There is one final, final question. Are you – can you spare one – about two more minutes, kindly?
MS NORRIS: Of course.
MODERATOR: Excellent, thank you. Michaela Kuefner of Deutsche Welle asks, “Where would you expect to see the epicenter of disputes? Arizona, because all candidates regarding election deniers are there?”
MS NORRIS: Arizona, Nevada, Wisconsin, Georgia, Texas, Ohio perhaps, Pennsylvania. I mean, it’s the big states which are the most controversial. It’s the purple states where there’s the highest levels of competition. And it’s the states where the governor and the secretary of state are election deniers, if they get elected, and they’re often supported by those who believe in conspiracy theories, and by the grassroots – grassroots Republicans who believe firmly in elections.
And the problem, quite simply, in the states is not just about having election deniers in office; it’s the fact that both sides in these disputes believe equally that they’re defending American democracy. So there’s no way out. Republicans honestly believe, genuinely, in election fraud. We know from all the best evidence that hasn’t occurred on a widespread scale sufficient to in any way overcome a result. Democrats believe passionately in voter suppression, particularly for black Americans and for Hispanic Americans and for other minority groups.
And so both sides have dug themselves in. We’re like in the First World War. We’re in the trenches on both sides. There’s no No Man’s Land anybody is willing to come forward on. And if you disagree about economics, that’s fine. If you disagree about social policy, that’s fine. Disagree about foreign policy, that’s legitimate. But when you can’t agree on the rules of the game and when we don’t have an umpire that’s neutral, like an EMB, then you end up in conflict and confrontation and potentially even violence. And as you know, people have been talking about a civil war. I don’t believe that that’s what’s going to happen, but incidences of violence are entirely possible because they’ve already happened. And that to me is a breakdown of how any democracy could actually operate.
Sorry to sound at the end a negative note. I’m sorry; I wish I could be more positive to everybody. But we’ll see. Maybe things turn out better than expected. Again, by the way, last thing – 2018 was actually much better than people expected. Things worked quite well. But since then, 2020 and the January the 6th has made everything more polarized.
MODERATOR: Thank you so much, Dr. Norris. We are, unfortunately, out of time. So on behalf of the U.S. Department of State, I would like to thank Dr. Norris for being with us today and enlightening us all. Today’s briefing was on the record. I will share a transcript with everyone who is participating today, and it will also be posted on our website, fpc.state.gov. Please share with me any media stories you publish based on any of the elections briefings we have hosted thus far. The Foreign Press Center and the briefers work extremely hard to put these together, and we would really appreciate your follow-up with us. Thank you all, and have a wonderful weekend, and thank you so much again, Dr. Norris, for your time.
MS NORRIS: Thank you very much. Very much a pleasure.
MODERATOR: Thank you.