The American people are experiencing a collapse of trust in institutions. Edelman’s annual trust barometer shows 53 percent of Americans distrust both the government and the media. And Gallup reports that confidence in the mass media has dropped to its lowest level ever, with only 32 percent of respondents saying they have a great deal or fair amount of trust in the media. So Americans trust the government less than before, and increasingly distrust the free press to act as a watchdog.
In this overall context of skepticism, elections have also taken a hit. A nationwide survey conducted just days after the election, demonstrated that one in five Americans do not fully trust that the national election results were accurately tabulated. It also revealed that trust reached only 56 percent among African-Americans. While this is disturbing, it really isn’t surprising given the declining trust in institutions and the widespread confusion the media and American public have when it comes to the current voting technology systems.
While there’s no silver bullet, we see technology as one of the solutions to bridge this growing gulf. Technology can’t retroactively build trust in the 2016 election results, but investments by the U.S. government in technology could help Americans build trust through more secure, transparent and accurate elections.
Amidst a continuing swirl of stories about potential “election hacking,” people who voted using machines had more confidence in the voting system than those who voted by mail or by paper ballot. And with good reason, as not a single voting machine has been found to have been hacked. Voters agree that well-designed technology is simply more accurate and more secure than manual elections. And in a country in which there are very few things 80 percent of people agree on, 8 in 10 voters surveyed said upgrades to voting technology would strengthen and build their trust in elections. That number is even higher in minority communities, where 92 percent of African-American voters and nearly 9 in 10 Hispanic voters and voters with disabilities want better technology.
These findings represent a clarion call to invest in voting technology to improve citizen’s trust and bring the voting experience to the 21st century. Smartmatic’s post-election survey found that 69 percent of voters support initiatives to advocate for or fund improvements to voting technology in the U.S. – a staggering level of agreement in an increasingly divided electorate.
So, what needs to happen?
The conversation about fake news and election integrity has already started – something we celebrate. Politicians, the media and all the stakeholders in the election ecosystem must take the lead and bring to the table the facts so that every voter is well informed about the reality of the U.S. voting system, its many virtues and the areas where improvements are necessary.
Given increased threats to the security of U.S. democracy, it’s more important than ever to ensure that votes are both impenetrable from outside attacks and protected from inherent human error to address any confusion that surrounds the election system. Institutions such as the Elections Assistance Commission and the National Association of State Election Directors, together with vendors, NGOs, and the academia, should join efforts to update security standards and make sure those are implemented.
To enhance trust, transparency protocols should also be improved nationwide. This involves making sure that comprehensive pre- and post-election audits become a common practice. The auditing mechanisms to be implemented must allow the average person to verify that results are legitimate, not only the tech savvy.
Rebuilding the trust in media and government may take a while, but we can start now rebuilding trust in elections.