Communicating with Voters to Build Trust in the U.S. Election System
The stability of democracy depends in part on public belief in the legitimacy of elections.
Attitudes toward elections are based on people’s experiences and what they hear from the media, elites, and experts. Losers are more prone to distrust election results, but the level and persistence of distrust is shaped by elite messages and electoral expectations. Messages about elections can affect public confidence, but it seems easier to damage confidence than to strengthen it. Reporting of election results faces challenges given delays in counting and shifts in vote margins that are often highlighted in news reports.
Major areas of research that are relevant to this subject have been conducted in the following areas:
- The presence of a winner-loser gap in public opinion following elections.
- The role of personal experience in influencing levels of trust.
- Messaging to improve trust.
- The use of different media to communicate with voters.
This research has established important practices that increase confidence in elections:
- Engaging with political elites, to the extent possible, to foster trust can have positive results.
- Election monitoring by unbiased, independent observers increases confidence.
- Messaging to highlight election officials as trusted sources of information appears to encourage voters to rely on them for information but may not actually increase trust itself.
- Transparently communicating the challenges involved in election administration, and how these can delay the reporting of results, can help reduce distrust.
The following are gaps that would benefit from short- and long-term academic-election official research collaborations:
- As a general matter, much of the existing research has been observational and correlational. More collaborative research needs to be conducted that is better designed to uncover causal relationships, such as field experiments, randomized controlled trials, and panel studies.
- Understanding elite behavior in communicating with the public about election administration.
- More research needs to be conducted that builds on the limited number of studies that have examined how communication about elections could be leveraged to increase confidence.
- Studying the impacts of messaging about security that state and local officials have produced on their own.
- Expanding the limited research that has been pursued to examine prebunking and debunking strategies.
- Studying messages that convey to the public the reasons for delays in reporting election results.
- Studying the degree to which streaming the counting of ballots and other “back office” processes increases trust and confidence.
- Studying whether the use of social media by local officials increases confidence.
- Studying whether ballot tracking increases confidence in vote-by-mail, both by those who use this mode and those who do not.
Read the full white paper here:
This paper was written as part of the Mapping Election Administration and Election Science initiative. It was authored by:
Brendan Nyhan (lead author)