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State committee hears expert testimony on what drives voter mistrust

NH voter confidence meeting convenes in Keene on Sept. 6, 2022. NHPR photo.
Paul Cuno-Booth
/
NHPR
Michael Herron (center), a professor and election-administration expert at Dartmouth College, testifies before New Hampshire's Special Committee on Voter Confidence on Tuesday at the Keene Public Library, alongside Charles Stewart of MIT (left) and Brendan Nyhan of Dartmouth.

A state committee is set to begin writing a report on how to boost voters’ confidence in elections, after holding its final public meeting in Keene on Tuesday.

During the meeting at Keene Public Library, a panel of experts from Dartmouth and MIT described factors that can affect voters’ perceptions, and suggested a few transparency-related tweaks.

But Charles Stewart, who heads MIT’s Election Data and Science Lab, stressed that most New Hampshire voters do, in fact, trust the state’s election processes.

“I actually think it's valuable to state that … most voters in the Granite State are confident, have confidence, in state and local elections,” Stewart said.

NHPR voter guide: How to vote in New Hampshire's 2022 midterm elections

New Hampshire Secretary of State David Scanlan formed the Special Committee on Voter Confidence in April, citing concerns about increasing mistrust in elections.

State and local officials have said New Hampshire’s 2020 elections were free and fair, and there was no evidence of widespread, systematic fraud that could have affected the outcome. But former President Donald Trump and supporters — many of whom are running for office around the country this fall — have spread false claims that the 2020 election was stolen.

In June, the University of New Hampshire’s Granite State Poll found that 84 percent of voters in the state were somewhat or very confident their votes were counted accurately in 2020. But there was a stark partisan gap: 100 percent of Democrats and 83 percent of independents said so, while only 69 percent of Republicans did.

Brendan Nyhan, a political scientist at Dartmouth who has studied misinformation, said it’s imperative that politicians of both parties accept the results of elections they lose and affirm their trust in the process.

That used to be the norm, he said. But false claims by Trump and his supporters have helped erode confidence in elections among Republicans.

“Now, we’ve seen something different, and something that has no recent precedent in American political history, which is the elites on one side, rejecting the legitimacy of that process at a fundamental level,” he said. “And that opens up the door to the kind of partisan polarization we've seen in perceptions of election integrity.”

Along with messages from political elites, Stewart said voters’ confidence in elections can be affected by whether their preferred candidate wins, their personal experiences at the polls and whether it’s a local, state or national election.

How common they believe fraud is in their state also matters, he said — though rather than undermining confidence in their own state’s elections, that seems to make them more likely to doubt results nationwide.

“So there's something really interesting and complicated about how voters parse information about elections and turn that into confidence,” Stewart said.

Michael Herron, an election-administration expert at Dartmouth College, suggested the state publish breakdowns of absentee and in-person votes, and communicate more clearly about how many fraud allegations come down to things like clerical mistakes.

Nyhan said when state officials do find instances of fraud, adding context is important, so voters don’t think those individual cases represent a wider problem.

“It's very important to say, you know, ‘Here are the cases that we really have,’” he said. “‘We’re prosecuting them. We're holding people accountable. And they reflect some tiny percentage of the actual number of votes cast.’”

Stewart noted that New Hampshire is one of a handful of states without automatic post-election audits. But he said there’s little evidence that adopting election reforms actually increases voter confidence overall.

That’s partly because changes like voter ID laws become viewed as highly partisan by the time they pass — so even if confidence rises among people who supported the law, it drops among opponents.

Instead, he urged officials to evaluate proposed election reforms on other grounds, like efficiency, accuracy and transparency.

“I know of no major voting reform of the last 20 years that has increased voter confidence in measurable ways,” he said.

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