Allegations of voter fraud rocked the 2020 election. Despite federal and state court rulings by Democratic- and Republican-appointed judges that swatted away the baseless claims, rumors of voter fraud continue to persist.
The first step in rendering asunder Donald Trump’s Big Lie that the presidential election was stolen begins with electoral transparency. Without complete transparency of our voting process, unsubstantiated allegations about voter fraud will continue. Without unfettered access to election administration data at both the state and local levels, skepticism about the integrity of American elections will endure. Without the ability for academics and other interested parties to independently probe elections records, confidence in our democratic system will erode.
The only way to regain citizen trust of the electoral process, indeed, the only way to ensure election integrity, is transparency. The disinfectant that will dispel 2020′s Big Lie is more sunlight.
Public trust in our elections system is at a historic low. According to a recent Pew Research Center survey, only 17 percent of Americans say they trust the government in Washington to do what is right. A Bright Line Watch survey of more than 700 political scientists conducted in 2019, prior to the riotous insurrection at the U.S. Capitol this past January, reported that there was likely one-in-six chance of democratic breakdown in the next four years. Adherence to democratic norms in the United States are in peril.
In order to shore up this decline in trust, our state and local elected officials must have a commitment to transparency. Election integrity, first and foremost, is contingent on citizens having access to public records concerning the administration of voting and elections. At a minimum, regular snapshots of statewide voter files, election precinct results broken down by method of vote, and an array of other election administration data (including vote-by mail and provisional ballots cast and rejected) must be free and accessible to the public.
Yes, there are concerns about individual privacy when it comes to transparency of voting and election records. But as Justice Antonin Scalia opined in 2010 during oral arguments in Doe v. Reed, democracy is “not for the faint-hearted.” Democracy is not possible without transparency, Scalia said, going on to quote President Ronald Reagan, that when it comes to voting and election records, “trust but verify.”
On March 2, the U.S. Supreme Court will be hearing oral arguments in another important case, Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee, that at its core relies on public disclosure, this time dealing with voter integrity and allegations of voter fraud in Arizona. Although the results of the presidential election are not in question, as a group of empirical scholars of elections administration write in their amicus brief, the case case “is critical to the integrity of our elections that allegations of voter or election fraud, and public opinion regarding perceptions of fraud, not be confused with actual empirical evidence of fraud.”
When complete and unfettered access to public records is wanting, or wholly restricted, there is good reason why some segments of the public might not feel any reassurance that our election process is safe and protected. Suspicions become aroused: conspiracies about voter rolls with dead wood, suspicions about late-arriving or invalidated mail ballots, worries about manipulated votes cast on electronic machines without paper records, and concerns about long lines at the polls in certain neighborhoods cannot be attenuated without data. It is reasonable, then, for concerned citizens, as well as candidates, parties, voting rights groups and scholars, to demand access to voter and election data generated and curated by election officials. Trust but verify election results. When the public cannot independently verify statewide voter rolls, precinct results, and access to the polls, election integrity is impossible.
A lack of transparency only engenders suspicion. Conspiracies can take root, on both the right and the left.
In the so-called Sunshine State, redaction of crucial data is especially concerning as Florida state statutes dictate that that voting and election information must be available per public request. Specifically, Chapter 119 states: “Every person who has custody of a public record must allow the record to be inspected and examined by any person requesting to, under reasonable conditions.” Yet, data restrictions, and the redacting of available data, continues, unabated.
Despite the explicit language, county Supervisors of Elections provide redacted data or completely ignore requests for files. Our own efforts to collect public records from Florida elections officials frequently fall on deaf ears. Non-responses from officials in less-populated counties has been especially problematic, perhaps best conveyed when our calls were met with screaming supervisors, telling University of Florida students that they are not allowed to have access to election data. Claiming that their denials are to protect the voters, the vehement refusal to provide what should be publicly available data prompts the question, whose vested interest is it to “protect” this data?
Unfortunately, this trend of ignoring and refuting public data requests concerning voter information is not new. A 2019 study on public records responsiveness conducted by students in UF’s Political Science Department found that only a fourth of the state’s election supervisors (18 out of 67 total) completely complied with the voting and election data requests.
A key pillar of the democratic process is transparency. Without disclosure and availability of public records for public scrutiny, there is little hope in regaining trust in our voting and elections systems, either the right or the left. Democracy is not for the faint of heart, and election integrity requires transparency.
Danielle Dietz and Gabriella Zwolfer are students at the University of Florida, and Daniel A. Smith is professor and chair of the political science department at the University of Florida.