NEW YORK FOREIGN PRESS CENTER, 799 UNITED NATIONS PLAZA, 10TH FLOOR
MODERATOR: Good afternoon and welcome to the latest briefing in the New York Foreign Press Center’s 2022 U.S. Midterm Elections Series focused on voting rights. I would like to welcome our FPC members as well as our 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.
Now for the ground rules. The 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. Lisa Bryant. Dr. Bryant is the current chair of the Department of Political Science at California State University, Fresno. She has worked with several nonpartisan organizations to better understand voter behavior and increase voter registration and turnout. Her work has been published in several journals, including American Politics Research, Political Behavior, Electoral Studies, and Publius: The Journal of Federalism. Dr. Bryant currently serves on the National Research Advisory Board for the Electronic Registration Information Center. In today’s briefing Dr. Bryant will explore voting rights and the ways in which people will cast their ballots in the 2022 midterms.
And with that, it is my great pleasure today to introduce Dr. Bryant. Over to you, ma’am.
MS BRYANT: Hi. Thank you for having me and thank you for all the interest in this topic. It’s something I feel very passionate about. So I am going to start today – I know it’s very interesting speaking to the foreign press because often in speaking to American press there’s sort of assumptions built in about what people know about our election system. So I’m just going to start with a short background about sort of the current state of our election system and the electoral landscape in the United States. So I hope this is not too repetitive for people, but I think it’s a good starting point.
So an important thing, I think, that – it’s true worldwide, right, that election landscapes – no two elections are the same, that the context surrounding the election, the candidates, the current events going on happen all the time. One thing that is maybe a little bit more unique about the American election landscape is that our policies and processes are also constantly evolving. So there are hundreds of state-level changes in policy about election code between every election cycle. The United States also has an extraordinarily high number of elections that go on. So we’re going into the federal midterm elections, and some states, like California, do a model of what is called consolidated elections where we put all of our state and local and federal elections on the same ballot to try and reduce the number of elections that run at any time. But many states don’t do that. So, for example, Louisiana will vote in the federal midterm election in November and then they have a state election in December, not even a month later. And so voters can experience different processes and different rules in different elections – even in the same state, even in the same jurisdiction.
So our very decentralized system of elections where the states have control over how elections are run – not the federal government – and then to some degree even local jurisdictions can choose to run different voting models makes it very messy and very confusing.
So, for example, like here in California, we have – counties have the option to adopt what is called the Voter Choice Act, which makes voting very accessible to people; it sends everybody a vote-by-mail ballot, we have vote centers that are open for 11 days, right. Some counties can opt out of that. They don’t have to adopt it. It’s not mandated by the state. So a neighboring county could have voting only on Election Day in person, and then your family or friends across the county line have 11 days to be able to go vote. So those very different processes make for very different election experiences and make for a very messy and confusing system.
It’s widely accepted in the United States now that Election Day is a misnomer. We don’t think about elections as being Election Day anymore. There’s still that buildup and excitement thinking about Election Day and going and getting your “I Voted” sticker, which is very popular in the U.S., right. But really, most places are – run elections as an election week, and for some places even election months.
So 16 states in the United States right now are already casting ballots for the November election. People are casting those ballots by mail, and soon in some of those places early in-person voting will take place. But there’s already been over half a million ballots cast for the upcoming November election even though we’re still a month out, right. And that makes our election process and election administration interesting, I think, and exciting, and opens the door for lots of challenges to election code because voters all experience a very different type of election experience, right.
In terms of, like, federal oversight for U.S. elections – and I think because some of you are probably from places where their elections are run federally and there are more consistent rules and more consistent code across all jurisdictions across a country – we have very little federal oversight over elections. We have a Federal Elections Commission, but they primarily really only look at campaign finance. They don’t really look at election code or the process of how elections are run. And then we have an Election Assistance Commission, and the Election Assistance Commission was created primarily to distribute federal funds that will help jurisdictions update their equipment, provide some guidance on what are good policy, best practices. They really don’t have any enforcement mechanisms. They don’t have any way to make jurisdictions adopt best practices or to adopt certain policies.
The one area where they have gained some traction is in the voting equipment that we use. So there are federally certified vendors that the federal government has tested the voting equipment, made sure that that voting equipment is secure. And so states have to use equipment that meets federal requirements. States can then have their own stricter requirements and they can put vendors on the list. They can reduce the number of vendors on the list that meet state requirements, but they have to at least meet the federal requirements. Otherwise, they won’t qualify for any federal assistance in their equipment and the certification of that equipment. And so that is one place where the Election Assistance Commission has gained some traction in enforcement.
Most of the changes – the American election landscape has really changed a lot since 2000. So most of you probably know the 2000 election was George W. Bush, was very contentious in the United States, and many people believe that it was decided by the Supreme Court because the Supreme Court ordered the state of Florida to stop counting the ballots and that whoever was the victor at that time would become the president. That really, for the first time in U.S. history, put a lot of focus on how elections are run in the country.
Prior to 2000, Americans pretty much believed that our elections were fair, that they – I mean, let me back up. Civil rights and voting rights aside, right, talking about the actual process of counting the ballots, election – people pretty much believed that our elections were run pretty well, that they – there was no reason to lack confidence that your votes were being counted correctly. But the spectacle of seeing the counts and the recounts with the hanging chads and the butterfly ballots in Florida made people start to question the way that our elections are run, the type of equipment that we were using.
And so a commission was formed, a bipartisan commission was formed to try and look at our elections closely and see where there were areas that needed to be improved. So starting in 2000, we started updating our voting equipment, outlawing old, like, lever machines that we knew malfunctioned, getting rid of the butterfly ballots that caused the problems in Florida and things like that. But we also saw the introduction of more election reforms to try and make voting more accessible to voters. So we saw more of the states adopt no-excuse absentee ballots. And that term can be confusing.
So no-excuse absentee ballot and vote by mail are nearly but not perfectly synonymous. So a no-excuse absentee ballot means you don’t have to provide your state a reason that you want to vote by mail. In some states still today in the United States, you have to provide an affidavit to the state stating why you can’t vote in person. Some people view this as intrusive by the state because you might have to disclose medical reasons, you might have to disclose reasons – a death of a family member or that maybe you’re a caretaker for a family member. That in sort of the American individualism landscape, it’s seen as more information than the state really needs, right. You should be able to request a ballot from the state saying, “I can’t make it on Election Day, I want to exercise my right to vote, and so why do I have to provide you all of this very personal information?” But some states really feel that you need to justify why you can’t be there to do your civic duty and vote on Election Day.
We also still have five states that don’t allow vote by mail. And so some people say that that – in a time where all of our time is pretty constrained and it’s difficult to get to the polling place sometimes on Election Day – we vote on a weekday in the United States. We vote on Tuesdays. And so people are working, especially if you’re an hourly worker – maybe you have small children, maybe you’re working and in school – it can be difficult to get to the polls during those working hours. So absentee ballots or vote by mail is seen as a way to expand the franchise and invite more people into the system and to be able to vote at a time that’s convenient for them and that works for them in their schedule, and there are some states that still don’t allow that. And so that’s one place where we’ve seen a push and say this is a voting rights expansion, right? This is a way to increase the opportunities for more people to participate by offering absentee voting or vote by mail, as most places call it today. But we saw a move away from requiring a reason to do that and towards just allowing people that option without having to provide some justification for it.
We’ve also seen a move towards what we call early in-person voting, which is the fact that vote centers are not just open – or precincts; some places still call them precincts, some call them vote centers – we can talk about that in Q&A if you want. But the Western part of the United States, which is very expansive and things are very far apart from each other, has really led the way on creating what are called vote centers. And a vote center is a place where you can vote at any location within your county, so as long as you’re registered to vote in that county, you can go to any location you want. You’re not assigned geographically to one in your neighborhood. Whereas a precinct model of voting is based on the idea that you live at 123 Main Street and you have to go to the precinct at the school down the block from you where the 600 of your closest neighbors also vote, right? And you’re not allowed to go to a different location in your city. You have to go to that one because that’s where they have your ballots with all of the people for your district, right? Your school board member, your city councilor.
A vote center model uses what’s called a ballot-on-demand system, where you can give them your information, they can pull up your address, and they can print the ballot in real time that matches your jurisdiction. So the West, because it is so large and we travel further distances than in the East, has been really at the forefront of adopting vote centers and moving towards that model and away from the precinct model that’s very – that’s still pretty popular in the Eastern United States. So we even see, like, regional differences in how people vote in the U.S., which is kind of interesting to think about.
But we saw a big push towards early voting, allow more – the motto is sort of more days and more ways, right, so you can vote early in person, you can vote absentee, you have a longer election period. And these I think are really popular reforms and the narrative behind them is almost always a voting rights narrative. It’s almost always about expanding access to voting and including more people, providing more opportunity, reducing barriers, reducing costs, right – not monetary costs, but the cost of time. And so those are all sort of things we think about as voting rights.
MS BRYANT: When I’m asked to talk about voting rights in the United States today, I think sometimes the idea of blatant, obvious voter suppression is what people have in mind, right? If we think of, in the U.S., old Jim Crow-era laws where people have to take literacy tests or pay poll taxes or people simply couldn’t vote because they were a particular race or ethnic group or gender, right? Those types of voting rights fights are – by and large have fallen by the wayside. The types of voting rights cases we see today tend to be a little bit more discreet, right? So do we see states limiting the number of locations in a particular jurisdiction? And if that jurisdiction happens to have a high racial or ethnic minority population, was that a motivating factor for reducing the number of voting locations?
Or in some places – famously in, like, Cincinnati, Ohio, for example – you would have polling locations in neighborhoods that were densely populated with a large black population and they would have fewer poll workers working or they would have fewer machines to process ballots, and then that would result in longer lines and longer wait times.
And the allegations behind that is that if people have to wait a much longer time, then they’ll leave line and they simply won’t vote, right? They’ll have to go home and cook dinner and pick up their kids and things like that, and so they simply won’t vote. So you’re either making voting less convenient for people or you are potentially intentionally trying to turn people away from the polls by making it difficult and time-consuming to vote. And so that’s one of the places where we see voting rights challenged.
Voter ID is another place where we’ve seen voting rights challenged in the U.S. in the last decade or so. Requiring – some people say everybody has ID, but we have some evidence that that’s not true, that people who live in densely populated urban areas, that don’t drive, might not have ID. Elderly people who don’t drive anymore are less likely to have ID. Minority voters, especially low-income minority voters, are less likely to have ID.
For those who don’t know, in the United States, the government doesn’t provide your photo ID. You have to pay for it. So when you go to get your driver’s license, it can cost anywhere from about $18 to $35 to get your driver’s license. There have been states – and this has been federally – it’s gone through federal courts and found to be true – there were states that enacted photo ID requirements and then reduced the number of DMV locations, or Department of Motor Vehicle locations, where you could get a driver’s license. And this was in Alabama. And they reduced them coincidentally in counties that had high minority populations. And so that was found to be an act that was aimed at – reducing access to a photo ID coincided with requiring that as – to vote, right? And so that is the type of restrictions on voter access and the voting – voter suppression that we are seeing today. So it’s not as blatant as it used to be.
I just want to talk a little bit about 2020 and some of the election reforms that came out of 2020; as we head into 2022, some of the things that people are thinking about and, quite frankly, some election officials are concerned about heading into 2022 and even into 2024.
So in 2020, obviously, we had for the first time really in U.S. history – recent U.S. history, anyway, sort of post-Civil War/Reconstruction-era U.S. history, there were real threats to election workers. We had poll workers across the country that received threats from voters that if elections didn’t turn out the way they wanted, that they were going to – there was intimidation, that they threatened violence against some poll workers. There were places where this was more concentrated: Arizona, Michigan. Both of those states had to put poll workers in secure areas during especially recounts and audits. They had to have sheriffs guarding them. The governor of Michigan had a kidnapping threat against her. The secretary of state of Arizona had death threats against her. The secretary of state of New Mexico had death threats against her. So there were several election officials in the U.S. that received threats, and poll workers too.
And poll workers in the United States, which I do want to talk about – poll workers in the United States are largely what you could call a volunteer army of workers. For the most part, people volunteer to be poll workers. They do get paid a small stipend in most places, maybe a hundred dollars for the day, which is a very, very long day. It’s from 6:00 a.m. to usually 8:00 p.m. at the earliest, but often to midnight. And historically, poll workers were seen as people who just wanted to do their civic duty. They wanted to give back to their community. They wanted to be involved in the election process. Lots of times, it’s – it was retirees. Our average age of a poll worker in the United States is about 67.
And so when you had to recruit poll workers for one day of – one long day of volunteer work, it was a little bit easier to get people. It has, with the creation of early voting, with expanding our election period to a couple of weeks, it’s become more difficult because older folks say that they can’t – it’s too energy-consuming, they can’t work that many days in a row for that long. People who maybe aren’t stay-at-home moms or retired or unemployed often say they – it’s too difficult to juggle their schedule around for that many days. So there are already challenges to recruiting poll workers in the U.S., and that’s become even worse after 2020 because now people are worried about intimidation, they’re worried that there’s going to be threats to them if they try to show up and do their job and allow people to vote who have the right to vote; that some poll watchers, which is a totally separate group of people that we can talk about – they’re worried that some poll watchers will try and intimidate them or harass them. And so people are not signing up to be poll workers. And election clerks have to recruit anywhere from 500 to thousands of people to run the elections on Election Day, and it’s become very, very difficult for that to happen.
So that is a big challenge in this election season, is just not enough people to actually run the polls. And so election clerks and local election officials are still really scurrying to get people to work. And that’s a big effect of 2020 that we should be concerned about.
I do want to talk about poll watchers. I just mentioned them. So for those of you who maybe don’t know, in the United States the political parties are allowed to put a designated watcher in an election site. So in your precinct or in your vote center, there can be a Republican and a Democrat. Third parties don’t really engage in it, but potentially there could be a Green Party or a Libertarian or something, too. Those people traditionally have been allowed to stand directly behind the person who is checking in voters and to confirm that yes, their ID was checked correctly or they stated their name and birth date and address correctly or things like that.
If a party member feels that the voter checking in is not the person who’s on the voter registration list or that their ID didn’t look right to them, they have the authority to challenge that voters. So they can tell the poll worker that they challenge that person, that they want more confirmation that that voter is actually the voter as they’re presenting themselves. This has become a voting rights issue for the trans community and the LGBT community because some people have issued driver’s license and their photograph on it – because in some states, licenses are four-year, some states five-year, some states 10 years – so their photograph may be – they may be male presenting or female presenting, but they now, when they show up to vote, are a different gender. And so people have been denied access to the right to vote for that.
Forty percent of trans people say that they’ve had difficulty getting access to the ballot because of issues like this, where they’re being denied based on their gender profile not matching the way that they present at the polls. So that’s another sort of voting rights issue that doesn’t really get talked about a lot. There’s not a lot of coverage. But it’s a thing that comes up, and it’s one of the challenges of voter ID, right, is that – and I think something maybe has a question about that.
But voter ID, it’s a difficult balancing act between securing the election and making sure that people who have the right to vote are the people who are casting their ballots versus taking away somebody’s right based on a technicality that a driver’s license is expired or that maybe it doesn’t have the correct address, or maybe no longer present as that gender. And so their identity is questioned. Right?
And so those are challenges that we have what are called street-level bureaucrats. Often, it’s not the high election officials that are making these decisions. It’s these poll workers and these poll watchers that are making the decisions. And that can seem inequitable and unfair to voters. And so that’s another place where voting rights is murky, right, and how we protect rights.
I know I’m almost out of time. I have a lot more things I wanted to talk about, and if you want me to stop and start taking questions, I think –
MODERATOR: Yeah. No, happy to do that. Let’s go ahead – thank you again for your very informative presentation. Appreciate you sharing your expertise with us. 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. Will call – when called on, please enable both your audio and your video and identify yourself with your full name and your media outlet. Please go ahead. I already have Pearl Matibe as the first taker. Pearl, please go ahead and unmute yourself and ask your question.
QUESTION: Thank you very much, and good afternoon, Lisa. It’s been very interesting listening to you. Power FM, South Africa. So my question I just wanted to find out is generally when the U.S. is seeing other countries – given the fact that we’re foreign correspondents – having elections, they tend to have their own observers and this kind of framework of how to assess whether that process is free, fair, or credible. So in view of these domestic elections, is there an independent body or a combined coalition of people who themselves are possibly looking at those – that assessment, that election management process, that full set of rules, to make sure these things are happening the way that they should? And is there – who is doing the voter education? Is the voter education incumbent on each state, or how is that seen so that voter education is standardized or equal all across the country?
MS BRYANT: Okay. Great questions. Okay. So I will – first, about observation of elections, so the United States does invite foreign election observers to come and watch U.S. elections. Just as we go to other countries, we do have people come here and watch them. Generally speaking, they usually observe in large metropolitan areas, so places like New York, D.C., Los Angeles. Interestingly, those places tend to be, for the most part, very good on election registration and following policies.
They often don’t go to very rural areas like, say, the upper peninsula of Michigan, right, where you have what we would call unprofessional election administrators or nonprofessional election administrators. That’s not a judgment on how – when I say unprofessional, I mean there’s not necessarily any official training or certification required to be the election official in these small jurisdictions. And so the rate of professionalization of the people is very small. And that’s where you’re more likely to see errors or misapplication of the rules and policies. And often election observers don’t get to those areas. So there is some observation, but I would say that maybe not always in the right places.
Domestically, the Carter Center has a very long history of foreign election observations and foreign election research, and going to Africa and South America and Asia to study elections and how elections are run. And after the 2016 election, they had never done work in the United States even though they’re a U.S.-based organization, but they started an American elections project. And so now they are actually observing elections in the United States.
They’re starting with three states this year, Arizona, Pennsylvania, and Michigan, because all three of those states had big challenges in 2020, not only mishandling of ballots – I mean accusations of mishandling of ballots, right? All of the audits showed that things were processed correctly. All of the lawsuits essentially were rejected and thrown out. But they got a lot of media attention as there being issues in all three of those states, and you may recall, right, Arizona had the full audit; Michigan had several audits; and Pennsylvania had absentee ballots backed up for days, and so – and then they had audits after that. And so that’s where they’re starting their three observations. So that’s sort of the current state of who’s watching elections officially in the U.S..
Your second question was – I’m sorry, can you repeat your second question?
QUESTION: Absolutely. My second question was on voter education –
MS BRYANT: Oh, yes.
QUESTION: – and to what extent the equitability across the United States that the general public is receiving of voter education.
MS BRYANT: Yes.
QUESTION: And is there a coalition of people doing it? Is it institutionalized? Is it from states? Like – because that is one of the very core elements. If we’re taking a look at the basic set of things that need to be in place for a election then to be considered free, fair, or credible, voter education is a really key tenet. So I’m really interested to find out about that. Thanks.
MS BRYANT: Yes. Yes. Okay. So that’s actually a great question. So the Help America Vote Act of 2002, which was passed in response to 2000, which talked about how to update our election administration and election infrastructure, required states to come up with a voter education plan in order to be eligible to receive federal funds to update their elections equipment and election systems. States submitted plans, but many states never implemented those plans. And so the federal government, when I said they don’t have a lot of authority to enforce, right, they could require that states submit them, but there wasn’t an enforcement mechanism to make sure that states were actually implementing those plans.
So there is a lot of variance across states by who is actually conducting voter education and what constitutes voter education and to what extent it’s being carried out. So most all states have a chief election official, which in many states is a secretary of state but in some states it’s a lieutenant governor. There are a few states that still do not have that office. That office is supposed to make public all of the rules about election code in that state, what the election policies are, but they’re all supposed to educate voters about how to register, when to register, where they can vote.
As far as voting locations and things like that goes, it goes down to the county level. So countries also are responsible for voter education. In some states, it’s very strict. So here where I live, for example, my election official has to reach out to me with at least two direct mailings letting me know that there’s an election coming up, letting me know where I can vote, that I can vote absentee if I’d like, I can vote in the inperson if I’d like, right – lay out sort of all the rules.
We also in California have a voter education guide – a voter information guide where it tells you all of the candidates that are going to be on the ballet, the different ballet propositions, and it provides pros and cons about the different propositions based on different groups that have submitted statements on the ballet initiatives or the constitutional amendments. Many states don’t do that. And so it is very – again, like voter experiences, the amount of educational information you receive from the state or your local election official varies widely by the jurisdiction that you live in. There isn’t really a uniform voter education plan across the United States.
And so in a lot of places, third parties – nonpartisan group or partisan groups – fill in that gap and fill in that role. So in the U.S., I think, one of the groups that does a lot of voter education and that a lot of people look to as a credible and reputable organization to do this is the League of Women Voters. The League of Women Voters is largely seen as influential in most states. They do a lot of work on policy, but they do a lot of work on voter education and voter registration. Other third-party organizations step in to do this as well. And then to some degree, the political parties – the political parties are really more about voter mobilization and getting people out to vote, but part of that is education.
So there has been some sort of renewed interest in who are the reputable, nonpartisan organizations that we should be able to look to for good information about elections. But I think, again, it’s because things are so decentralized and the experience and the rules are so different across every jurisdiction, it becomes really hard for any one organization to step in and do all of that work nationwide. I don’t know if that was a helpful answer, but —
MODERATOR: No, thank you that was enlightening for us. And thank you, Pearl, for that question. I’ll turn to Sulaiman Daud. Please go ahead and unmute yourself, sir, and please announce your full name and your media organization a well.
QUESTION: Hello, Dr. Bryant, thank you for giving us this briefing. My name is Sulaiman from Singapore Mothership.sg. I have actually two questions, if you have the time. The first is – or they’re actually connected. So we know that there is a very significant case being heard by the Supreme Court, Moore v. Harper. I’m not entirely sure the implications of that decision, but I’ve read a few articles that seem to hint that this case may give state legislatures the power to decide how elections go within the particular state.
And I also have read that the U.S. Senate is – they may reach deal over the electoral count act reform whereby you close certain loopholes of the sort, the kind of – the kind of – inspired the January 6 Capitol storming. So my question is: How worried are you, actually, that the Supreme Court case may affect democracy in America as we know it? And could the electoral count act reform actually help to kind of mitigate whatever the Supreme Court decides? Thank you so much.
MS BRYANT: I think the two of them are sort of inherently related. So with Moore v. Harper, the state legislature case, I’m actually fairly concerned about that case, I will say. I think that most states – so the idea is that when a state’s electoral count is certified – so we count the ballots, the counties submit those to the chief election official, the secretary of state. The secretary of state, there’s a certification process where any outstanding ballots have to be remedied. Ballots that are out for cured have to be counted – things like that, which I don’t know if anybody – we can talk about curing ballots, too, but – and then audits have to be conducted. And then after all of those things have happened, the state certifies the election, and they report the results to – this is only – to the – this is matters – we’re talking about presidential electors, right.
So – and then they present those to the state legislature. The state legislature is actually in charge of calling the electors together and then recording the vote of the electors. And those are then sent to Congress to – in a diplomatic packet or whatever – and then that’s how they count the Electoral College. So electors meet in states, and then they send the results of that, the state legislature, to the Congress. If a state legislature had the authority to not accept the certified results from the chief election official and to determine that they did not believe that to be the true winner of the state and send the electors that they believe, what they determined, not as election officials, not as the people who have counted the ballots, that would be – I would say – a grave threat to our democratic processes in the United States.
I think that there may – I think most states would reject that idea. I don’t – I think most states would say, this is not how we run things in the United States and that’s not the process that we’re going to follow. But there would be some states that I think would be happy to run with that power. And, again, I think – I don’t know how much people know about how state legislatures work in the United States, but state legislatures are also not inherently professional.
And so some states – California – has a professional legislature where it’s a full time job, and the people are paid a salary, an actual salary that they can live on, and that they are expected to be full time legislators. In some states, it is – New Mexico for example – the state legislature is paid a per diam to go to Santa Fe, and it’s pretty low. It’s less than $100 a day. And they meet for only 30 days a year and in even years. And in odd years, they meet for 60 days a year because those are called budget years. And so – and then in Texas they only meet every other year.
And so there’s one variation in the qualifications of state legislatures, in their backgrounds, the education levels, the professionalization. And in many places, the people in the state legislature just really aren’t qualified to be making those decisions, so I think it’s actually a pretty scary potential decision coming down from the Supreme Court.
And that is – I shared a lot of personal opinion, but in terms of the Electoral Count Reform Act that’s trying to say that that your electors have to vote the way that your state has voted, and it’s trying to get rid of the faithless elector problems. We don’t really have faithless elector problems, but the idea that faithless elector problems exist, right, so that’s a big thing.
MODERATOR: Thank you so much for that. I’ll turn to Maral Noshad Sharifi. Maral, if you could please unmute yourself and state your organization name. Thank you.
QUESTION: Hi, yeah, so I cover the U.S. news for Volkskrant, which is a Dutch national newspaper. Thank you so much for talking to us. It’s all very interesting. So a lot of the Republican candidates that are going to run for the – for Congress are supporters – believe in the Big Lie. I think it’s even more than – I think it’s even a majority of people. And I’m very interested in how – are there – are election officials taking any kind of preparations in order to deal with possible allegations of fraud on Election Day? Like, how are they preparing for that? Do you know?
MS BRYANT: Okay. Yeah, so they are trying to make – set up things to have very transparent processes. So one of the big changes that we’ve seen since 2022 is the recording of more processes so that things are – there’s digital records of everything that happens. So for example, I mentioned ballet curing earlier. When you send in a vote-by-mail ballot in the United States, many states do a signature match on your envelope. They scan the signature or in some places they have people visually look at it. They compare it to your signature on your voter registration form or your driver’s license record because most states have your election information – your registration can pull and connect to your driver’s license information – so it can pull your signature off of your latest driver’s license and match that.
Say that your signatures don’t match. Well, that ballot gets essentially rejected. You also get notified your ballot has been received but your signatures don’t match. You have the opportunity – 10 days or whatever – to come in and cure your ballot, to remedy it, to make it right. So it means you have to go in and you have to update your signature. You have to provide photo ID and evidence that you are the person who sent it, update your signature, and affirm that that actually was your signature, right.
That process has become more transparent. So they’re scanning the signatures, they’re showing the ballots that are getting rejected. In some places they are using webcasting to show the counting process to go on. They’re inviting more people to come and watch the process. Audits are now being streamed by – in a lot of places and they’re going to be streamed so that people can sit at home and watch the audit process and the counting process. So I think that’s one way that election officials are trying to combat the big lie is by saying: our processes and our chain of custody, we follow the same processes all the time, you’re welcome to observe them, you’re welcome to come and be part of the process.
One risk of that, of course, is that some places have seen supporters of the big lie trying to fill positions, and there really are no important positions, like sitting on absentee control boards – so the absentee boards are the ones who confirm all the absentee ballots, or sitting on – acting as poll workers. And with the idea that they might try to or attempt to reject ballot – voters that they don’t think are legitimate voters or they don’t think they’re actually registered or their driver’s license is expired or something like that.
And so election officials are actually concerned because our election codes are ill-equipped to be able to reject people from doing that public service, so there are not a lot of ways – so election officials in several places have mentioned to me that they know there are people who support the big lie and believe in the big lie who are signing up to be poll workers or to be precinct judges and precinct captains, and there’s nothing in the books that allows them to deny that person the right to serve. And even if that person potentially – if the person harasses voters, they could have them removed by the sheriff’s department, but there’s nothing preventing them from signing up for the next election, right? And so our election codes are not equipped to deal with some of the influx of, for lack of a better term, conspiracy theorists who are trying to essentially – like to become more a part of the process and sort of infiltrate working in the election system. And that’s happening – even at, like, some of the county levels you have people who are (inaudible) running to be county clerks and to be election officials themselves, and so —
QUESTION: They can change those codes.
MS BRYANT: They can change them, yes. The state legislatures can change the election codes. But a lot of them have not done that yet in response to 2020, and so —
MODERATOR: I’ll turn to Thiago Amancio. Thiago, please unmute yourself, show your video as well, and please state your full name and your media outlet. Thank you.
QUESTION: Hi, thank you very much. I am Thiago Amancio from the Brazilian newspaper Folha de São Paulo. So as you said, we have many election deniers running this year for important offices that deal with election rules, such as secretary of state for example. If these people are elected, do you think this could impact the 2024 election?
MS BRYANT: Well, I’m going to give you my optimistic point of view. So my optimistic view is that once people get in office and they actually see how elections are run – because people can run for these offices and have no experience being an election worker or being a poll worker, and then once they get into office they’ll see that there is a very clear set of guidelines that they have to follow in order to run the election. And so the optimistic side of me that believes in policy and believes in good bureaucracy thinks that they will come to realize that they bought into a myth that was based on misinformation and disinformation and just simply being uninformed.
The more pessimistic side of me would say that they could potentially feel empowered to try and sway the election or to try and not enforce some policies. I don’t know that it would be widespread enough to influence the 2024 election. I think that we’ll have to see how many people actually end up filling positions where they’re running elections. But it is something I know that election officials and people who study election administration – it is very much on the radar and people are paying attention to.
I just don’t – I don’t necessarily want to speculate yet. I’ll just say that I believe in the processes, and I believe that at the end of the day that the election code is actually a good thing, that it – that it directs election officials in how to conduct elections and how to run a fair and free election. And as long as people follow the code, right, which is the tricky part – as long as people follow the code, I think that it will be okay.
MODERATOR: Thank you so much for that. I will go ahead and ask a question that was submitted in our chat by Mien Nguyen from Thanh Nien agency in Vietnam. So the question is: “I can see U.S. media noticed many states’ efforts to control access to the ballot – for example, some Republican-controlled states that have enacted more restrictive voting laws since the 2020 election, many of them aimed at suppressing Democratic turnout and vice versa. What roles will the U.S. press play to help make the best use of their right to vote in this case?”
MS BRYANT: Ah. Thanks, Mien. I didn’t get to that part of my talk because I ran out of time. But yes, you’re right, states like Georgia and Texas in particular have made it more restrictive in terms of what you have to include on your ballot, so now including your driver’s license number or your Social Security, last four digits of Social Security, your date of birth. And if people forget any one piece of that information, then their ballot can be rejected.
So to be clear, that’s on your – that’s if you vote by mail and that’s on the outside of your ballot envelope, not on your actual ballot itself. You don’t have to identify yourself on your actual ballot where you cast your votes, but on the outside envelope.
What the media can do, I think – and the media does a little bit of this when they’re covering the policy changes – what I think what they can do is in stories leading up to elections, some point reminding people that including other pieces of information on your vote-by-mail ballot, the deadlines for requesting a vote-by-mail ballot have changed. So for example, Georgia narrowed the window to be able to not only request a ballot, but then also to be able to return that ballot. They cut it in half.
And so reminding people about when the ballots need to be returned, when they need to be requested, what voter registration deadlines are. We didn’t really even get into that, but voter registration deadlines vary from state to state. They are, again, another thing in the United States that is not consistent across states. So states like New York, you have to register four days before the election. States like Minnesota register on Election Day.
So reporters, if they are doing – especially local reporters, right? If they are doing any coverage on elections, just simply even having like a box in an article that has a reminder about here’s the registration deadline, here’s – make sure you do these things on your ballot. I think the big story is of calling out these changes and saying: is this really an election security measure, or is this a way to potentially reduce the number of people who are voting? I think those are important stories.
But in terms of thinking about it from like a voter education perspective, like – I think it maybe it was Pearl that asked this question – I think the media can play a role in voter education by simply repeating those policies anytime they do a story about elections, right? It could be about – it could be about somebody running for office, and then just a simple, “As a reminder, the deadline to register to vote is blah, blah, blah, and return your ballot by the deadline in that state.”
And I know that there’s always a crunch for the number of words you can have in a column, but it is – it could be a very useful voter education tool the media could embrace.
MODERATOR: Thank you for that. There is a pre-submitted question from Olivier O’Mahony from Paris Match, France. He asks: “I would love to have a clarification about the notion of alternative slate of electors during the presidential 2020 election that was brought up by election deniers.”
MS BRYANT: Great. So this was part of the – supposedly part of the big Trump plan was that – so in the United States, for people who don’t know, prior to the election a party has to provide a slate of electors to the chief election official, often – mostly the secretary of state. So this would be, for example, in my state, right, the 55 people who are going to cast the votes on behalf of the state, they can’t be heads of the party, they can’t be elected officials. Usually they are what we would call party insiders, people who run the political party organizations at the county level, and it’s sort of your reward for being a loyal party member that you get to be an elector. And so – sometimes they’re big donors, right?
And so you turn those names into the secretary of state ahead of the election. There’s a certification process that the secretary of state certifies that you are eligible to be an elector, and you can only be an elector for one party, right, so depending on who wins in your state. And the fake electors or the alternate slate of electors is this idea that the Trump supporters would supply certifications that were false certifications for people who could then show up to be electors, and then they could vote not necessarily the way the state voted but then they can vote for Trump, and that this could potentially change the outcome of the election and make sure that Trump was the one who was quote/unquote “faithfully re-elected,” right, because the false electors would be falsely certifying him as the victor instead of who actually won the state.
Usually an alternate slate of electors does not have sort of nefarious purposes. It is really just simply a safeguard that if an elector cannot serve due to weather or health or something like that, that an alternate could go in and replace. It wouldn’t be somebody who was going to go in and be – a faithless elector is a person who – say that the state of California goes to the Democrat, right, that they will show up and, say, cast their vote for the Republican even though the state went for the Democrat, because it is a roll call vote and each person as an elector gets to verbally cast their vote. And so there have been instances of people being a faithless elector and not casting their vote the way the state went.
Some states have policies that then allow that person to be fined or there to be some sort of charges brought against that person for not faithfully executing their duty as they certified they would. But some states, there are really no repercussions. That said, it happened very, very rarely. And so the idea that in seven states that Trump supporters can propose this alternate slate of electors and then potentially flip those states by serving and then voting for Trump even if he didn’t win those states, it’s a crafty scheme but I don’t necessarily think it would – that it would work. And so.
MODERATOR: That’s very helpful to know. I’m going to go ahead and ask one last question submitted by Jelena Stevanovic from Politika, Serbia: “Why is it so in America that many people talk about voter suppression just because one is required to register, have an ID, or prove that he or she is an American citizen in order to vote? All those things are regular procedure in developed democracies, such as the UK and France, yet no one questions whether the UK and France are real democracies.”
MS BRYANT: Okay. I think the answer is twofold. I think one is where the history of voter registrations came from in the United States. So we didn’t always have voter registration in the United States. It’s a progressive era change, which means it happened around the early 1900s, and it was born out of party machine politics. There are still – North Dakota, for example, in the U.S. still does not require voter registration. It’s not required by law. So I think the idea that you as a U.S. citizen, right, and the Constitution affords you the right to vote, and it doesn’t afford you the right to vote if you don’t have a driver’s license or an ID. It just says that you have the right vote as a U.S. citizen who’s over the age of 18.
And so I think the idea that voter registration rolls – first of all, when you register, you affirm your U.S. citizenship, you affirm to the to the government that you are not lying, and you provide evidence of your – either a driver’s license or a birth certificate, or you put in your driver’s license number and you attach it to an agency that has already confirmed your identity. And so if you’ve already done that with the state, why do you have to continue to do it each election cycle? Why do you have to show your ID every time you show up to vote, right? You’ve already confirmed your identity with the state once. You have to remember Americans are very individualistic, and this idea of low government intrusion or low government oversight resonates with a lot of Americans. So there’s that.
The bigger issue I think is actually about the inequitable applications of the law. So in some states you have to show voter ID and in some states you don’t. In some states the voter ID can be a pretty wide variety of things that you can show. You can show – if you’re a college student, you can show a college ID. You could show your Costco membership card – it has a photograph and your name on it. Some states accept that. Some states will accept pretty much anything that has your photograph and your name. I mean, your driver’s license could be expired, right? And so maybe you’re an older person who no longer drives and so you – but you still carry around your expired driver’s license for identification purposes. Some states will allow that.
Other states are very strict. It has to be a state-issued driver’s license or ID or a military ID and it is not allowed to be expired. And then there is what we would call sort of partisan motivations in choosing which IDs count. So for example, in Texas you might be able to use a hunting license but you can’t use your college ID. Well, hunters tend to lean more conservative – not exclusively, but they tend to lean more conservative – and so you’re allowing a little bit more flexibility for potentially conservative voters whereas college students tend to lean a little bit more liberal and might be more likely to vote Democrat, and you’re not allowing or affording that same opportunity for them to use a non-state-issued ID. And so even if they go to a state school, right, even if they go to the University of Texas, that’s not an acceptable form of ID.
So it’s not necessarily always that people get very bothered about the fact that ID is required; it’s about the fact that it is inequitably applied to people across the United States. And like I said, it varies from state to state, right? And there’s no real evidence that voter ID reduces voter fraud, because there’s not a lot of evidence of any widespread voter fraud to begin with. It’s very rare – and we hear about cases here and there because people like to talk about anomalies, but it’s very rare for people to show up to vote and for me to go and present myself as my sister or something, right? I could do it, but it doesn’t happen that often. And so sometimes these laws are seen as a little bit restrictive without a real purpose or cause behind them. I think those are the reasons.
MODERATOR: Well, thank you so much for enlightening us all. We are now out of time. On behalf of the U.S. Department of State, I would like to thank Dr. Bryant for being with us today. Today’s briefing was on the record. I will share a transcript with everyone who is participating today, and it will be posted on our website, fpc.state.gov. Thank you all and have a wonderful day, and thank you so much for your time, Dr. Bryant.
MS BRYANT: Thank you.