Transparency can be a delicate dance as elections officials look to instill confidence post-2020

Without the right education and context, voters can be confused by what they see

MADISON, Wis. — With still-lingering scrutiny of the 2020 election results, a UW-Madison Elections Research Center panel delved into how local officials can ensure confidence in the upcoming 2022 elections.

During the panel, William and Mary law professor Rebecca Green said even things like transparency around the process need to be handled tactfully.

“There’s a central tension at the heart of election transparency, which is: how do we make sure that elections are transparent without feeding public mistrust?” she said.

She used the example of ballot duplication — officials may replicate a ballot before sending it through the machine if there is an issue with it physically, like if coffee was spilled on it. If the ballot counting process is livestreamed, viewers may be confused by seeing elections officials marking and casting a clean ballot, even though they are just ensuring that that voter’s ballot is counted.

“This is the reason why transparency and trust in elections is so tricky because people don’t always understand what they see,” Green said.

She said educating voters beforehand can help stem confusion based on these one-off incidents.

“If the public were sufficiently educated about the vast number of safeguards and protections in place and they understood the nuts and bolts of how elections are run, they will be reassured by transparency measures, rather than spooked by them,” Green said.

“It’s not a bad thing that elections are complex. Elections are complex because they have so many safeguards built in to make sure that they’re accurate and that only eligible votes are counted,” she added. “Complexity is only a problem when it comes to making sure that transparency serves the function of reassuring the public that elections are fair and accurate.”