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In just two days, the US will engage in a quadrennial rite of democracy when we inaugurate the winner of the 2020 presidential race as the next president of the United States. But this year will be different than anyone alive can remember. The Capitol Building, in which our elected legislators conduct their work, was invaded on January 6, 2021 by would-be insurgents seeking to prevent the certification of last year’s election. For me, the attack has a personal dimension, as I try to reconcile the fact that the hallways shown on TV and in newspapers filled with a violent mob were the same ones I used to walk as a congressional science fellow. The proximate cause for this attack was that the assailants do not believe the results of the election were fairly determined, beliefs seeded by fabrications that were propagated or tacitly supported by many government and media leaders.
Over the past two weeks, I’ve struggled to convince myself that a democracy can survive when a significant number of its citizens no longer believe in its fundamental processes. I don’t have all the answers, but I do know that one important part of how we move forward is to ensure that our electoral processes have integrity and that they have the buy-in of all communities. We saw the importance of this buy-in during the months following our November election. In the US, our elections are overseen by state and county government officials. Last year, officials of all political leanings and parties stood strong, defending their election procedures against lawsuits, invectives and insults, and even death threats. While January 6 provided a clear reminder that not everyone accepted their statements, their actions serve as a demonstration of the important role local government, composed of representatives from local communities, can play in upholding our democratic processes.
In the run up to the 2020 election, ESAL shared information and hosted an event to highlight the important role of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) in running and safeguarding our elections. While the next election may seem far away, now is the time to begin engaging with our local and state governments as they plan for future elections. To help you get started, I’d like to share some specific actions to consider:
- Learn about the process. - Elections are complicated, from the network of local government entities with oversight to the considerations that go into purchasing voting machines. There’s always more to know. Visit our Elections page to find infographics and further reading to help you get started. We also made the compiled resources we shared during our election integrity event available to everyone.
- Understand our history. - We cannot understand the American electoral system without studying the racist foundation upon which it is built. We need this context so that we can identify the ways in which current election policies both intentionally and unintentionally perpetuate that racism. While local governments can provide an important line of defense against those who seek to undermine democracy, many in the US have instead suppressed voting rights, the currency of democracy.
- Vote in your next local election. - As local officials at every level of government demonstrated this past year, the integrity of an election depends on the elected representatives responsible for its oversight. So vote! I especially encourage you to vote in primary and local elections if you live in an area that skews heavily to one party or another. We may often think that political decisions are a binary choice between parties. But, as we learned last year, the beliefs and integrity of individuals matter.
- Pay attention to state and local election policy. - After a year that saw one of the highest election participation rates in American history -- one that also saw record numbers of early and mail-in voting -- many state and local governments are weighing policy changes. In addition, this year will see state legislatures across the country engaging in the decadal process of redistricting on the basis of the 2020 Census. Changes in voter eligibility, election processes, and voting district maps all impact the integrity of our election systems. How these changes are made also impacts the degree to which they have community buy-in. Follow what your county and state governments are doing. If you have concerns, or if you want to show support, reach out to your representatives.
- Advocate for changes you believe in. - As discussed above, there are many specific STEM-related election policies that state and local governments are considering. As constituents and civic participants, not just as technical experts, people with STEM backgrounds can contribute a unique perspective to these deliberations. A few of the specific policies include:
- Increased use of electronic voting technologies, including online voting - Validating the vote counts from electronic voting machines while preserving a secret ballot has long been a topic of discussion, and the need to ensure the security and integrity of these technologies will continue to drive policy. Increasingly, governments and voters are expressing interest in online voting technologies, and I anticipate there will be increased consideration of whether they can provide a reliable, safe, and accessible voting platform.
- Risk-limiting audits - The tight margins of several highly-publicized elections in 2020 have raised awareness of the benefit of using statistical recounts as part of the election auditing and certification process.
- Mathematical redistricting - Often through community-led efforts, several states have implemented alternative approaches to the political redistricting process they undergo every ten years. Many of these methods rely on mathematical methods, including requirements on the topology of district boundaries and other statistical methods of determining districts.
- Public health, safety, and accessibility - Several local elections will take place this year, and they will need to be conducted in the midst of an ongoing pandemic. With more time to plan than in this past year, state and local governments will be drawing on public health, social science, and operations science to improve our systems in 2021.
As I close this piece, I wish I could do so with a stronger sense of optimism. I worry that the recent turn to violence has moved us beyond the ability of peaceful civic processes to not just improve our democracy but to increase all of our faith in it. Because democracy, like science, comes down to faith. We need faith that a system and a disciplined process can allow us to find commonality. As scientists, we put our faith in the ability of the scientific method to bring us closer to objective understanding. For democracy to function, we need faith that our election systems move us closer to representative self-governance. In engineering and science, we sometimes dismiss the importance of faith and may even deem it anti-scientific. I disagree. Science is one of our most human endeavors, and our capacity to maintain faith and hope in the face of adversity is one of our most human traits.