Free, Fair, and Participatory Elections
Statement from Commission Cochairs Danielle Allen, Stephen Heintz, and Eric Liu
October 27, 2022 | Cambridge, MA
Founded in 1780 by John Adams and other scholar patriots, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences was created during an “all-hands-on-deck” moment of American history. With the Revolutionary War underway and its outcome uncertain, the Academy’s founders had the courage to imagine a democracy that didn’t yet exist. They also foresaw the need for institutions that would muster the knowledge, expertise, skills, and creativity of leaders from every field and profession to construct and sustain a bold experiment in self-government. Thus, the American Academy was founded “To cultivate every art and science which may tend to advance the interest, honor, dignity, and happiness of a free, independent, and virtuous people.” The Academy’s history is interwoven with American history, connecting past, present, and future.
Today, too, is a challenging moment for American democracy. With an eye to the midterm elections just weeks away and the presidential election in 2024, we – co-chairs of the Academy’s Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship – encourage all to work to protect the free, fair, and participatory elections that are at the core of our system of self-government but that face meaningful threats:
- Threats to election workers: The safety and security of election workers who serve at poll sites, issue and count ballots, and make our elections possible should be of paramount concern to us all. These unsung democracy heroes from both political parties have faced unprecedented harassment and intimidation since 2020, with one in six officials reporting that they have experienced direct threats.1 Nearly a third of election officials report knowing a colleague who left their job for fear of safety. The exodus has created critical vacancies in election administration which, in some jurisdictions are being filled by candidates/citizens who attack the very system they seek to manage, recruited as a part of a campaign to exercise partisan control over elections.2
- Rise of election denialism and attempts to assert political control over election administration: Nearly 300 nominees for House, Senate, and high-level state-wide office in the 2022 election cycle deny or cast doubt on the outcome of the 2020 election.3 The consequences of widespread election denialism are dire. Candidates who refuse to accept legitimate election results in key races will further undermine faith in U.S. elections in general, and depending on the election results, election denialism could become a governing philosophy, positioning the House of Representatives to potentially overturn the outcome of the 2024 presidential election. Some of these candidates are proponents of the deeply concerning Independent State Legislature Theory, a debunked judicial theory4 that would grant to state legislatures near absolute power over elections—including the power to overturn a state’s own popular vote choice for president.
Making Voting More Difficult: Since the 2020 election, 18 states have passed nearly three dozen laws that make it harder to cast a ballot. Several additional states defeated proposed legislation that would have made voting easier. For far too many eligible voters, in both “red” states and “blue,” it remains difficult to register, to understand how to vote, and to cast their ballot. We draw attention to these challenges not to predict that our elections will fail or endorse an apocalyptic perspective on the future of our democracy. On the contrary, our system of elections—the most decentralized in the world—has often proven far more resilient than experts and pundits predict. The 2020 presidential election, held during a devastating pandemic and an “infodemic” of mis- and disinformation, proved to be the most secure in recent history. We remain hopeful that the 2022 and 2024 elections likewise prove to be successful and secure, belying the concerns we surface here and testifying to the remarkable resiliency of our nearly 250-year-old system of self-government. Yet the resilience of our system always depends on citizens bringing to it a deep and durable commitment to constitutional democracy itself, prior even to commitments to political party.
In 2020, our commission issued a report, Our Common Purpose, that offers a roadmap for democratic reinvention through reforms to political institutions, civil society, and civic culture. One core goal in that report was “to make voting less burdensome, wherever and whenever possible.” This is a time for every American – citizens, policymakers, educators, business leaders, and others – to take more responsibility for achieving that goal. That means protecting election workers, countering election denialism, ensuring the professional integrity of election administration, and pushing back against policies that make voting harder. There is work for all of us to do. We continue to need all hands on deck – and we continue to need the courage to imagine, and the strength to build, a new American democracy.