Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has blocked a House election security bill from being considered in the Senate. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg News)
The Senate Intelligence Committee recently released the first volume in what will be a series of reports on Russian interference in the 2016 election. Here’s the most startling thing we learned: Russian hackers targeted election infrastructure not just in 21 or 39 states, as previously reported — but in 50 states. These efforts ranged from scanning state election websites to test for vulnerability to gaining access to the Illinois voter database and being “in a position to delete or change voter data,” according to the Senate report, though no evidence has emerged that any data was actually changed.
In response, the committee made recommendations to ensure a more secure 2020 election. Election experts have long been calling for many of these actions, including increased communication between federal, state and local election officials; mandatory post-election audits; and updated voting equipment. Many of these measures were part of a bill that the House passed, the Securing America’s Federal Elections Act, which the Senate Intelligence Committee endorsed in its report.
But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has effectively blocked this legislation from being considered in the Senate. So where does the public stand on these issues?
There’s a bipartisan consensus about election security
No one will be surprised to learn that Democrats and Republicans have had very different views about various election issues. For instance, for years most Republicans have considered voting fraud to be a serious threat, while most Democrats have not. In keeping with past polling results, our survey for the 2018 Cooperative Congressional Election Study (CCES) found that 67 percent of Republicans are worried about voting fraud, while only 42 percent of Democrats are. This data comes from an original team module of a nationally representative sample of 1,000 adults we fielded as part of the 2018 CCES, an annual survey administered by YouGov.
We also showed respondents two general statements about elections and asked which they agreed with more: It is important to make “voting as secure as possible, even if voting is less easy,” or to make “voting as easy as possible, even if there are some security risks.” A large majority of Republicans (79 percent) want to make voting more secure, while only 52 percent of Democrats agree.
But that divide falls away when we ask voters about election security.
Consider two items that the Senate committee recommended: using voter-verified paper audit trails, which it considered a minimum requirement, and mandating post-election audits. The report acknowledged that these would be costly but concluded that “the benefit of having a provably accurate vote is worth the cost.”
Voters in both parties agree overwhelmingly, pollsters find.
Here’s what they agree on.
Keeping a paper trail for each vote. In the 2014 pre-election CCES, 80 percent of Democrats and Republicans supported requiring “electronic voting machines to print a paper backup of the ballot.” A 2018 Pew poll that asked the same question found that 85 percent supported this policy, with no difference between Democrats and Republicans.
In our 2018 CCES module, we posed this question a slightly different way, asking respondents whether they agreed with this statement: “It is important to me that there is a paper record of my vote, even if this requires the states spend money on new election machines.” We also allowed respondents to choose a neutral “neither agree nor disagree” option as their response.
Despite adding this neutral option and telling voters about a likely cost, more than 60 percent of both Republicans and Democrats agreed with the statement.
Conducting post-election audits. Thirty-seven states and the District already audit their elections after the results are in, as recommended. While audit procedures vary by state, generally the process involves pulling a portion of paper vote records and checking them against the reported results to ensure accuracy. At least a dozen other states have approved, or are in the process of approving, pilot programs for risk-limiting audits — which use statistical methods to reduce the number of ballots needed to be checked and limit the risk of certifying an incorrect result — and are considered the gold standard in audit procedures.
In 2018 we asked voters how much they agreed with the following statement: “Every state should have a post-election auditing process to assure that votes were counted correctly, even if this slows down the final election results.” More than three-quarters of both Republicans and Democrats agreed with this statement. And only 3 percent of all respondents disagreed even mildly.
What this means for electoral security legislation
Here’s what we didn’t ask voters: Should all this be left to the states, as is currently the case, or should the federal government get involved in mandating state election procedures? And that’s a big question.
McConnell was one of several Republicans arguing that running elections is a state matter and that the federal government has already done what is necessary to help secure elections.
Meanwhile, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) wrote a “minority views” appendix to the Intelligence Committee report, arguing that its recommendations did not go far enough and that the federal government has a responsibility to do more to help states secure their election infrastructure.
According to our data, if and when politicians in Washington agree on making these reforms, a bipartisan majority of Americans will approve.
Evan Crawford (@evancrawford) is an assistant professor of political science at the University of San Diego. His research focuses on election administration, state and local politics, and education policy.