- - Saturday, March 7, 2020

“Our democracy depends on confidence in the fairness of the vote, and on the losers’ acceptance of election results,” University of California political scientist Richard L. Hasen writes in his new book, “Election Meltdown: Dirty Tricks, Distrust, and The Threat to American Democracy.”

“Until recently, this point was so obvious that it was hardly discussed in relation to the United States, but the time for that discussion has come.”

Mr. Hasen has been in the forefront of that discussion, with his 2012 book, “The Voting Wars,” about the portent of the Florida vote controversy in the 2000 presidential election and numerous more recent journal articles about challenges to fair elections and reliable results. Six of those articles produce the spine of his short new book, which pinpoints four major threats to election reliability.

Mr. Hasen’s examples show that blame is shared by both national parties. Even more valuable than those examples of threats are his hopeful suggestions to combat those threats — at least in the long run.

Simple organization and clarity of style make the book accessible to ordinary concerned citizens; copious documentation, including 41 footnotes to his own work, make the book reliable for scholars of public affairs.

The four major threats he sees are:

• Growing use of supposed election security measures that are in fact efforts to suppress voting by those legally eligible to cast ballots. The social science research that has been done on the impact of such measures on election outcomes suggests that they seldom are a stand-alone reason for a candidate’s loss; the more important issue, Mr. Hasen argues, is that they rob voters of the dignity that should be accorded every citizen. 

• “[P]ockets of incompetence in election administration,“ which “have enabled both Democrats and Republicans to raise cries of rigged or stolen elections that appear increasingly credible to hardcore partisans.” Malice is not usually what is behind the foul-ups, Mr. Hasen maintains, and the situation will improve only when we recognize that the real problem is not deliberate malfeasance but officials who are too poorly trained or too uncommitted to do their jobs well. 

• “[O]ld-fashioned and new fangled dirty tricks.” That involves anything from disinformation campaigns on social media to actual hacking of voter registration rolls and, at least theoretically, results as reported on voting machines. Where once an unethical partisan might have spread damaging untruths about an opposition candidate to friends and neighbors, today’s increasingly sophisticated technology exponentially expands the reach of such misinformation, since “anyone can post false information today on Twitter or Facebook with no repercussions.” 

• “[I]ncendiary rhetoric” from candidates and party officials in which unsubstantiated claims of misdeeds and “stolen” elections undermines public faith in the electoral process. He reminds readers that “the sky is not falling when it comes to how elections are run in most places, and hyperbole to the contrary is unhelpful.”

Outlining problems is the beginning of a national conversation, but only a beginning. The real issue is how to solve those problems. Mr. Hasen warns: “We have to act now to take steps so that the next time there is a razor-thin election — and there will be one, sooner or later — our civil society will be strong enough to withstand foreign and domestic efforts to tear us apart.”

“Election Meltdown” offers a set of prescriptions to combat the problem. Some could be managed this year — convening a bipartisan panel of elder statesman to vouch for the results, allowing the courts to settle election disputes, putting together mass public demonstrations to pressure the loser into conceding — but he admits that “the bad news is that none of these steps is likely to be successful in a protracted conflict over election results.”

He is persuasive that to prevent an election meltdown the country has to commit to — and stick with — policies and practices that will take a long time to have the necessary impact. He acknowledges that many of his proposals are not very sexy, but that does not make them unimportant.

They start with improving the administration of elections by, for instance, disseminating best practice advice to the thousands of local election officials, pushing for better technology, establishing federal standards for voting machines that will withstand cyber attacks. Mr. Hasen writes: “The electoral process is ‘critical infrastructure’ that needs continual attention from national security professionals.”

Even though running elections is a local responsibility, he insists that the U.S. Constitution “gives Congress ample power to require that states cooperate in protecting voter registration databases, voting technology, and infrastructure.”

His ultimate answer is a citizenry that recognizes the central importance of trustworthy elections and recognizes threats to that process and demands that they be addressed. “The longest-term project is civics education for children and adults on the importance of the rule of law, democratic legitimacy, and peaceful transitions to power following fair elections.”

It is a campaign that needs support across the whole political spectrum — and should get it.

• Washington journalist Daniel B. Moskowitz has covered elections for more than half a century.

• • •


By Richard L. Hansen

Yale University Press, $27.50, 187 pages

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