Voting is the foundation of a healthy democracy. Elections are fundamentally about everyday citizens expressing their views and participating in government. Legitimate election outcomes are predicated on a process that is free and fair for all qualified citizens. The American electorate deserves a modern, voter-centric election system that runs efficiently and inspires trust in electoral outcomes.
As we learned during the 2000 presidential election, problems with election administration can have serious ramifications on the public’s perceptions of electoral fairness. More recently, concerns over foreign influence, coupled with unsubstantiated allegations of widespread “rigging” during the 2016 presidential election, called the resiliency of the election system — and the legitimacy of the outcome — into question.
Despite these challenges, we believe that the election system remains resilient. In a time with a renewed spotlight on electoral fairness, and in consideration of the ongoing challenges that states face, the Democracy Fund seeks to better understand our election system’s most salient dynamics. Starting with the framing question, “to understand the election system in the United States, you need to understand…” we used systems thinking to identify three key factors that create pressures for change, both positive and negative: “effective election administration,” “public trust in elections,” and “decision to vote.”
The American election system is decentralized — as long as there is no conflict with federal requirements, localities have a significant amount of flexibility in the way elections are run. Election processes are determined by local, state, and federal requirements; administrative rules; and rapidly changing technology. Since election rules are highly varied among states and local jurisdictions, systems thinking helps us grapple with the complex nature of elections and allows us to find common occurrences that apply to every election.
Improvements to the election system will require legal and administrative changes, technological upgrades, and partnerships between election officials, lawmakers, and other key stakeholders. Many of these stakeholders were invited to participate in the generation and iteration of our Election Administration & Voting systems map. It is our hope that the map reflects our thinking about the election system and serves as a guide for Democracy Fund to do our part to improve the voter experience.
The Election Administration & Voting systems map, which you can explore here, examines the relationships between election administration, public trust in the system, and voter engagement. It also considers the impact of election law gamesmanship and its effect on election administration.
The multiple factors are organized in a series of subsystems or “loops.” Loops are characterized by the connections made between individual factors, and reflect how the increase (+) or decrease (-) in the significance of a given factor affects other factors. Taken together in the context of their respective relationships, these factors yield a “core story” with positive and negative dynamics.The image below is a close-up of the core story that emerged within our broader analysis.
The core story illustrates how ineffective election administration can lead to decreased public trust in the system and decreased voter participation. When the public does not trust or engage with the system, public pressure for policy changes emerge. That pressure point sometimes leads to bipartisan agreement that, under ideal conditions, leads to changes improving election processes. At other times, policy proposals can be vulnerable to election law gamesmanship, which does not lead to improved election administration.
For more detail about the Election Administration & Voting system map, please refer to our Project Overview and our loop-by-loop summary.
The Election Administration & Voting systems map is not the final statement about how elections should be run. Rather, we hope it serves as a framework that will be refined through the input of others concerned about elections. The map will change with new insights and developments in how voters in the system behave, as well as changes in policy and election administration.
Kumu — a Hawaiian term for “teacher” or “source of wisdom” — is a powerful visualization platform the Democracy Fund uses for mapping systems and better understanding relationships. We invite you to explore the map and its elements in Kumu. As you do, we hope you will provide suggestions for improvement in describing the election system.
Please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org to share your feedback or to sign up for continued email updates on this project.