Academy Article

Message from Our Common Purpose Cochairs Celebrating Election Workers


Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, an economic crisis, and a political climate dominated by fear, resentment, and division, we find reason to be optimistic about America’s faith in democracy.

A record-breaking 152 million Americans (and counting) voted in the presidential election this year. This election is on track to have the highest turnout of eligible voters in this country in over a century. After months of isolation, loss, and hardship, and faced with ongoing risks from COVID-19, Americans showed up to cast their ballot, mail it in, or drop it off. This historic level of political participation would not have been possible were it not for the work of our civic heroes—poll workers, ballot counters, election judges, and volunteers. These unrecognized individuals deserve our thanks for their extraordinary efforts to shore up the backbone of our democracy. We can learn from their example.

Democracy flourishes when people take responsibility for it and ensure that it functions smoothly and fairly. This requires some of us to assume the duty of impartial broker or referee, just as citizen jurors do in judging their peers; impartial brokers faithfully facilitate and count everyone's vote and allow everyone’s voices to be heard. This fall, millions of people worked for little or no pay to do just that, planning and executing an unprecedented election during a pandemic. They registered new voters and confirmed their eligibility. They responded to mail-in ballot requests. They made sure polling places were set up to accommodate state and federal health guidelines. They staffed voter support hotlines. They gave voters snacks and encouragement as they waited in long lines. They came up with creative solutions to ensure elderly and sick voters could exercise their civic duty safely. They welcomed poll watchers anxious about voting irregularities. They processed ballots, counting them by hand when voting machines broke down. In cities and towns in all 50 states, these civic heroes came together to ensure that an essential component of our political system ran smoothly. Their efforts were not on behalf of a political party or interest group. Instead, they acted in good faith on behalf of their fellow citizens to protect democracy and ensure public trust in the election results.

The civic heroism of our 2020 election workers comes at a time of deep divisions when fewer and fewer people have faith in our democratic system and in their fellow Americans. The American Academy of Arts & Sciences report, Our Common Purpose: Reinventing American Democracy for the 21st Century, which we cochaired, offers recommendations to address these divisions through significant changes to our political institutions, the civil society groups through which we associate, and our civic culture – the values, norms, and narratives that inspire our commitment to democracy and each other.

Such sweeping and comprehensive reform is critical, will take time, and will require a national effort. In the meantime, we should celebrate and elevate the contributions of those who keep our democracy alive and preserve our civic faith. Democracy works only if enough of us believe democracy works. We must take every opportunity to remind ourselves and our fellow Americans of the people and processes that make democracy work and that deserve our faith and confidence. Today that is our 2020 election workers. We are deeply grateful for their contributions in helping to shore up our civic faith at a time of crisis for our nation’s democracy.


Danielle Allen

James Bryant Conant University Professor;
Director, Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics,
Harvard University

Stephen Heintz

President and CEO
Rockefeller Brothers Fund

Eric Liu

Founder and CEO
Citizen University
Director, Citizenship & American Identity Program,
Aspen Institute





Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship

Danielle Allen, Stephen B. Heintz, and Eric P. Liu