Our Democracy at Risk: The State of Elections in the US

Published Nov 2, 2021

Voting rights expert Dr. Michael Latner details the steps we need to take in the coming months to ensure free and fair elections in the US.

In this episode

Colleen and Mike discuss:

  • the state of the election process in the US
  • how critical the next year is to ensure free and fair elections
  • what actions we can all take to turn things around before the 2022 midterm elections
Timing and cues

Opener (0:00-0:31)
Intro (0:31-1:55)
Interview p1 (1:55-13:12)
Break (13:12-14:23)
Interview p2 (14:23-27:45)
Outro (27:45-29:00)


Editing: Colleen MacDonald
Additional editing and music: Brian Middleton
Research and writing: Pamela Worth
Executive producer: Rich Hayes
Host: Colleen MacDonald

Related content
Full transcript

Colleen: It’s Election Day! Maybe it doesn’t feel as momentous as last year’s. But all politics is local, as they say, and local politics are important. If you can hear my voice and you’re a registered voter, I hope you’ll go turn in your ballot for school board, mayor, city or town council—or governor, if you’re in New Jersey or Virginia. Municipal elections can come down to a handful of votes, which means your vote could be the one that helps your candidate win. Plus, you get that cool sticker.

Because I’ve got voting on the brain, I wanted to bring back a repeat guest to Got Science? Michael Latner is associate professor of political science and public policy at California Polytechnic State University. He’s also a Senior Fellow with the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. He and his team have been keeping an eye on efforts to limit our right to vote in the US over the past year and finding ways for us to push back so that we can all enjoy free and fair elections. He joined me to explain why the way we’re redrawing voting districts right now is kind of bogus… how we can ensure electoral integrity locally and federally...and finally, because we’re all about “The Science” here, how anyone who’s interested can use improved data and technology to draw fair legislative maps.

Colleen: Mike, welcome back to the podcast.

Mike: Thanks so much for having me.

Colleen: Yeah, you're becoming a bit of a regular guest. Last summer, we took a deep dive into the aftermath of the 2020 election, and we talked about the procedures for counting votes, the myth of voter fraud, and what needs to happen to ensure free and fair elections. And for our listeners who haven't heard that episode, I encourage you to go back. It's episode number 112. So, Mike, now, here we are with a short time frame to turn things around before the 2022 midterm election. And I wanna emphasize the urgency. We have one year to get things under control. So, can you give me the broad brush strokes of what you're working on? And then maybe we could walk through them in the order in which they're gonna unfold in the coming year.

Mike: Yeah. Colleen, I think that's right. I think that the year timeline is an accurate one. It's not something that people are thinking a lot about now. But in the context of U.S. politics, it is quite likely that Republicans will take back control of the House and the Senate, which in a normal election cycle is not an unusual thing. The president's party usually loses seats in midterm elections. And under the conditions that we're looking at next year, it's going to be even a tougher fight in order to have free and fair elections. And so I'll start by talking about some of the work that we're doing to ensure electoral integrity at the state legislative level.

So, UCS and a number of our partner organizations are working to fight back against the passage of regressive election laws that we've seen spread since the last election cycle. In addition to many laws being rolled back post-pandemic, a number of states passed reforms to make it easier for people to vote in at the height of the pandemic. And a lot of those laws are being pulled back now, and more restrictive laws are being put into place. So we are combating those efforts, and we're also looking at, of course, the redistricting cycle.

Colleen: For our listeners who aren't into this stuff, can you give a brief outline of redistricting, how, when it happens, and why it's so problematic?

Mike: Sure. So, the United States is one of the few countries that allows this peculiar practice of allowing legislators to actually pick their own voters. And so in most states, the state legislatures have control over the districting process. And the districting process involves drawing maps that are required to be more or less of equal population. As a result of the reapportionment revolution that happened in the 1960s, a number of court cases came down from the Supreme Court that basically said electoral districts, that is the districts that we elect representatives from, have to be roughly equal in population. Those population requirements are a little tighter for Congress compared to state legislatures. But the basic idea was that you can't have electoral districts that have massively unequal populations.

And one of the primary ways that voters have been discriminated in the past, including in the Jim Crow South, was to simply not redistrict districts. And so urban areas, areas with more people of color would grow at exponentially faster rates than say, you know, the rural areas of states. And as those districts grew in population, that dilutes the value of the votes for the voters living in those districts. So, we no longer have massive malapportionment, but what we find is that over the last 20, 30 years, parties intent on subverting the free and fair elections in the United States have realized that they can shift populations across districts, much in the same way that they would shift populations as a whole. But now they're tactfully using partisan voter history and the voting history of people to realize that they can put people within districts while keeping population roughly equal but still gain a massive advantage.

And we see racial gerrymandering still happening by controlling what different racial groups are in districts. And the big threat now is partisan gerrymandering because there really are no constitutional constraints. And so what we have found, for example, is that in states that have higher levels of racial segregation, they have more partisan bias as well because the state legislatures are using partisan information and the fact that there is racial segregation to maximize their partisan advantage. And that subverts free and fair elections. It violates the basic principles of democracy, such as political equality and majority rule. In this last 10 years, Colleen, we've seen a number of examples where voters in states have...a majority of voters have supported one party, but the minority party has been able to maintain control of a majority of seats. And any electoral system that allows that kind of minority rule, we simply can't call a democracy.

Colleen: And this process happens every 10 years when...

Mike: At least.

Colleen: ...the census happens.

Mike: Yeah. So, one of the provisions that we're seeing is that in some states, like the state of Ohio, which passed a redistricting legislation through the initiative process, set up a commission with specific rules, rules that don't allow the maps to benefit one party over another, rules that require partisan fairness and proportionality. But there was also a clause in that law that allows for a party-line vote to create a temporary map. And lo and behold, that's exactly what we saw. The majority Republicans on the commission, including the governor, who acknowledged publicly that they should have done a better job, and that they should have worked harder, they passed this temporary map to an act. And they're going to attempt to use that map for only four years because the rules of the commission state that if you have only a party-line vote, you've gotta redo it in four years. And so, you know, we are combating efforts like that in Ohio and other states in order to try to make sure that voters have access to free and fair elections and to ensure that the maps are fair.

Colleen: So, states come up with their own laws regarding redistricting?

Mike: Yeah. There are some federal requirements, right? And so those federal requirements that have come down through case law are things like equal population requirements. And nearly all state legislatures have some sort of requirements for districts having to be contiguous, that is they can't be spread out over parts of states. Several states have compactness requirements and the like. And so there are districting criteria that most states stick to. Unfortunately, those criteria don't often include partisan fairness.

Colleen: Right. It seems like there is no end to the way that these...that things can be manipulated to stack the deck.

Mike: Yeah. Well, and it really is an odd practice. Most of the world's democracies use election administrators, not politicians, to redraw district boundaries when they do. They're not drawn specifically to favor one party or another. I mean, we sort of get what we ask for, right? If we have politicians drawing their own districts, what do we expect?

Colleen: So, it sounds like you're focused right now on redistricting that cycle because that's what's happening right now. Is that right?

Mike: Yeah. That's right. We are at the beginning of the process of states enacting and implementing maps for the 2022 elections. And in some cases, 2021, a handful of states actually have elections this year. So they have special provisions, many of them to hold these elections because, normally, they would have maps in place. And most of the country would have already be close to the end of the process of adopting maps, but because the census was delayed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, many states delayed the process for redistricting because there are a set of files that the census provides of demographic and racial data that is necessary to draw districts, not just in terms of the population, but the citizen voting-age population and racial information that's used to ensure that districts comply with the Voting Rights Act.

Colleen: What is the general timeframe now for this first area of focus?

Mike: The redistricting stuff is gonna be really active over the next couple months, as you see states adopting and implementing plans either through the state legislatures or through commissions. If those plans are deemed to have problems, there's gonna be litigation. And so we've already seen a number of states engage in litigation over their maps. Some states are still working out the process. California, for example, is still in the process of introducing maps in the California Redistricting Commission, which is a truly independent commission. They have a pretty deliberative process where they go around the state, they get input from lots of communities of interest, and they have a pretty open and transparent process. Now, you know, obviously, when you've got more citizen participation, that process is gonna take a little longer. And so in some other states, we've already seen them adopt maps, and in some of those states, we're also seeing litigation. So, that's gonna be the next few months.

As you may know, some of these laws that are being passed in state legislatures also are taking control over the certification of election results, potentially out of the hands of election administrators and putting them into the hands of politicians and the state legislatures. And that's a very serious threat that a number of election scholars have remarked on and remark on the need to have legislation at the federal level that protects against that as well. So, there's a ton of reform talk happening at the federal level, but also a lot of reform talk happening at the state level. And so we've got advocacy groups and reform organizations working to pass institutional reforms and with regard to voting systems and electoral systems to try to ensure a more stable, and in some cases, a more open process for political competition.

And at the same time, we have a number of grassroots groups that we're seeing around the country that are really working to build local capacity, is what I would call it, that is ensuring that even under the burden of restrictive election laws, that we're really building local capacity and ensuring that people recognize their right to vote, ensure that they're registered, and ensure that they're concerned about their representation because it's under threat. And so, frankly, I think that's the most important thing that we can be doing right now is to ensure that we are empowering and working with the communities that are being targeted for voter suppression in 2022 and 2024.

Colleen: So with regard to the redistricting cycle, what specifically can each and every one of us do right now if we wanna participate in making some change?

Mike: Well, you know, Colleen, actually, this is one of the areas where the science of democracy has really most advanced. And what I mean by that is that there has been a democratization of information. Technology has allowed for the...and to sheer computational power has allowed us to have more access to election data, to census data, and the demographics that are used to create electoral districts than we've ever had before. And so, even though the census was delayed as a result of the pandemic, and the process of districting h as gotten off to a late start in many states, especially those states that have a more open and transparent process, even if you don't live in a state that has an independent redistricting commission and that has this more open and transparent system for creating and implementing districting plans, everyone has access to the basic information that's used in the technology that's used to actually create districting maps. By my maps, I mean maps that actually are upheld to legal standards that could actually be used. And so there are a number of public mapping projects. There's Dave's Redistricting App, and Districter, and DistrictBuilder, and a number of online applications that already have the data input into their systems. And you can choose your state, and in some cases, you can choose your communities, your counties, for example. And you can draw your own maps to represent your own communities of interest. You can work with others to draw maps and to offer that as public input. There's so much more than we can do now than we could even 10 years ago in terms of fighting for, you know, fair representation.

Colleen: So I could go draw my own map. And then what would I do with it?

Mike: Well, depending on what state you live in and what the process is, you might submit that map to a public mapping authority, an independent commission, or a similar organization, or if your state still allows the state legislature to draw maps, there's nothing wrong, and certainly, we would advocate informing your state legislatures about what kind of maps you would like to see. And so this is just, part of the normal political democratic process by which citizens can reach out to their representatives and advocate for themselves and the technology and data allows us to do that in this districting space, which simply didn't exist at this level 10 years ago.

Colleen: That sounds pretty cool. How complicated are they? Can the average person get onto one of these maps?

Mike: Oh, absolutely.

Colleen: They're user-friendly.

Mike: Amazingly so, I mean, just the change that I've seen in the technology. I've been doing public mapping with my students in my campaigns and election class and voting rights classes for years. And just within the last five or six years, the changes that have been made in anticipation of this redistricting cycle have really been amazing. So, it really boils down to bringing up the data in the community that you want to map. The number of districts you'll be drawing is typically preset because the software is aware of what's going on in that geography. And then it's sort of like painting a picture. I mean, you're literally using your cursor to brush over precincts when you're putting populations into districts. And the population deviations are right there in front of you, so you can see how many more people you need in district A versus B. It's really quite amazing.

Colleen: That sounds very cool. So what comes up then? After the redistricting cycle, what's next on your list of areas to focus on?

Mike: Well, given the timeline and given the nature of the threat that faces us as a republic, we know from the aftermath of the January 6th insurrection and the level of disinformation that we already have out there, there's no question that there is going to be another attempt to subvert our elections in 2024, if not 2022 in select states. And so the fact that we know this is happening, that we got lucky in 2020 by virtue of the fact that we had one of the cleanest elections in the history of the United States in terms of ballot certification and rejection rates, in part because everyone was watching, right, because there was so much public scrutiny on the election process. Election officials really did a phenomenal job in 2020, and they were really some of the unsung heroes of that election. But then the lawsuits came, and the fake audits came. And, you know, we all are familiar with the aftermath there.

So, my first priority in preparing the country for another election where we're going to have organized attacks on the integrity of that election is to build electoral integrity. I'm working with a number of organizations, and UCS is committed to doing is building what we can think of as a resilient election ecosystem. And by ecosystem, I mean the process by which we generate votes and ballots, and those ballots are either sent to voters, or voters have a ballot that they use at a precinct. Those ballots are then processed and verified and certified. And really, the whole system of counting votes needs to be strengthened, and we're working to do that, not only by strengthening the use of ballots that is increasing voter turnout because the most important and strongest weapon against the subversion of elections is to make sure that everyone turns up. The higher the participation rate we have, the less likely we are to have very close elections where there's uncertainty over the outcome and the like. And so the first priority is to get everyone to vote and make sure that eligible voters overcome the barriers that states have placed in front of them. And so we're working to ensure that people are able to fill out their applications for registration, or for absentee ballots, and all the administrative hurdles that have to be overcome in order to make sure that you're eligible and ready to vote on or before election day. We're working in that space.

The second element is to ensure that that process actually works in a transparent, open, and secure way. And so one of the second way that we're looking to increase the resilience of our electoral ecosystem is to work with local election administrators and communities to ensure that the information that is available is actually provided to people, so knowing how many registered voters there are and how many ineligible or eligible but unregistered voters there are in a community, knowing who's receiving an absentee ballot, knowing what part of the process those ballots are in, if they've been sent out, if they've been returned, if they've been processed, if they've been counted. All of that information, if it's made transparent and secure, adds to the legitimacy of the election.

Colleen: Oh, I was just going to say, by transparent and secure, you mean that anybody can go find this information. And it's stored in a way that... a computer database that somebody can't hack into and mess it up.

Mike: That's exactly right. And we already have great models for doing this. So some states, North Carolina, for example, does a great job of downloading a CSV file of aggregated results in terms of how many ballots they've sent out for absentee voting, how many have been returned, how many have been processed, how many have been rejected. And we need to do this at the local level so that anyone can go to their county clerk or their county register's website and see where the voting process is, how many ballots are out and how many are coming in. And that needs to happen all the way through election day.

One of the, you know, really tragic elements of America's election administration system is that it's often quite underfunded, and that means that counties often don't have the capacity to get this information out in a reasonable time. And it should be available in near real-time. Every night, the election officials should be able to download files that track all of this information. They've got the information. It's just the challenge of putting it into a user-friendly format and making it available so that everyone can see it. You know, one of the best ways of preventing disinformation and fraudulent claims about what's going on is to simply have that information available to everyone.

Colleen: So what can we do about that?

Mike: Well, I mean, we need to get more funding and support for local election officials. And so part of that is in the federal legislation, the Freedom to Vote Act, and some of the other bills that are being considered on a national level. But everyone in their own state can advocate on behalf of their local election administrators. These are the people that actually make elections and democracy work in the United States. They're the ones doing the work. And so, you know, it's imperative that we support the people that are doing this work, and in turn, ensure that they're using the best practices available, and that we are also implementing reforms that will address the sort of misinformation and uncertainty that gives rise to people not trusting the results.

Colleen: So, are there specific milestones in the coming months that you're looking at to gauge if we're making progress?

Mike: Oh, absolutely. You can, you know, gauge the...you can kind of backward engineer what we need to be doing in order to be prepared for the next election cycle. And so right now, as I said earlier, it's all about districting, and that's districting at the local level, the state level, the federal level. You know, that's what's happening right now. And as, you know, we discussed, people can be a part of that process in a way that they never had the opportunity to before. And so that's sort of phase one.

Phase two is preparing for the election, and, that's where advocating for reforms that work, advocating for expanded ballot access, for automatic voter registration. Those are the sorts of fights that we need to be having so that they can be put into place before the 2022 election. And that's gonna be a national fight, as we've discussed the Freedom to Vote Act, or whatever the next version is, the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, which will be coming up for another vote in the Senate soon, which would re-instill the protections provided by the Voting Rights Act of 1965, including pre-clearance standards and other standards to ensure that we are protecting voters of color from racial vote delusion and voting discrimination. But there's tons of stuff that people can be working on in their state.

And frankly, I would also argue that the whole reform movement, the best chance that you have at reform in the United States when it comes to changing institutions and electoral systems and the like is at the local level. That is historically how we have reformed our electoral systems in the past. And that's where we can actually take advantage of federalism and some of the autonomy that local and municipal governments have. And so that's sort of phase two. And then comes...you know, at some point, the capacity to actually change the rules and the laws passes, and we've really just gotta focus on communities. And we've gotta focus on getting the vote out, and we've gotta focus, not just on getting the vote out for one election, but building relationships and strengthening communities so that we are allowing people to look out for their own interests, and, ensuring that people have the information that they need to become active, engaged voters is gonna be a priority. And it's ultimately the best protection that we have in order to secure our elections in 2022.

Colleen: Great. Well, Mike, I'm hoping that I'll get you back on the podcast, or maybe some of your other colleagues in the coming months to check in and see where we are and hopefully have some things to celebrate. Thanks so much for always, you know, hopping on a call and coming on the podcast.

Mike: You bet. And I'm super anxious to hear the other experts that are out there because there's so much good work being done right now in the face of what can often be, you know, frankly a pretty daunting and disheartening threat. There's a lot of great scholarship going on. There's a lot of great advocacy happening on the ground. And so we need to inform our listeners about that and let people know how they can get engaged.

Colleen: Yeah, looking forward to more conversations. Thanks.

Mike: Thanks for having me.

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