Many have loudly proclaimed that the U.S. election is rigged. Some warn of voter fraud or efforts to suppress votes; others warn of Russian manipulation of voting systems. Can individual citizens do anything to respond to or at least to help identify instances of such threats — so that election officials can try to fix any problems and prevent them in the future?
Yes. One widely used technique is using social media to document and draw attention to election problems such as long lines. But here’s one that can be more effective: File complaints through official channels. Every state makes it possible for citizens to complain about irregularities. Few people know how to go about it.
What is an official election complaint?
Complaints may allege that illegal acts occurred or they may refer to administrative problems. The Help America Vote Act (HAVA) enumerates a few specific complaints that can be made throughout the nation. State laws vary more, and may cover more situations than simply casting and counting votes. For instance, some states have processes for complaining about campaign finance irregularities, internal party processes and various deadlines or required numbers of signatures on electoral petitions.
Filing such a complaint will trigger legal processes. Doing so typically involves such legalistic steps as having the complaint form notarized. Some states offer online portals that make filing the complaint easier.
Some states have phone hotlines for reporting administrative problems such as polling places that fail to open on time, broken voting machines, or long lines. Such incidents may need immediate action lest voters be disenfranchised during early voting or on Election Day.
Few citizens file official complaints
As we reported in a paper that we presented this year at the American Political Science Association meeting, few citizens typically file formal electoral complaints. Complaints are almost never filed through the HAVA process. Since 2006, states told us, the numbers of HAVA complaints were in the single digits. Many states had received no HAVA complaints, ever.
We found more complaints filed through state-mandated procedures, but even these weren’t common.
While we asked every state’s electoral officials for complaint data since 2006, only 11 states gave us their complaint data. Six states claimed to have no such data; the rest either did not respond or refused to provide data.
We also sought data about state hotlines, with a positive response only from California. On primary day this year, election hotlines in California fielded roughly a thousand incident reports.
We’ve made it easier to file official complaints
To make it easier for citizens to complain officially, we have created the United States Election Complaint Portal at Michigan (USECPAM). This website contains contact information for state and county election officials, links to official election-complaint forms and procedures, and the state election law for each state (where available). As far as we know, no one has ever before compiled all these resources for each state.
During this year’s primaries, we’ve seen that state and county officials often use Twitter to respond to reports of polling-place problems and other election complaints and concerns. And so we also created a Twitter account (@elec_ballots) with still more information. Visitors will find the Twitter accounts for county- and state-level election officials, state-level Leagues of Women Voters and state-level political parties, organized into lists. All this contact information can also be found through the USECPAM website.
Twitter or other social media may be a good way to mobilize other people’s dissatisfaction as well. If someone has problems with an official, broadcasting a complaint through social media may help get a political response. Our research suggests that people do use Twitter to broadcast such complaints.
But official complaints can and do allege official malfeasance — and can lead to effective legal remedies. So complaining via both social media and official channels may be a better choice than just using one. Our website should help in the quest to get immediate results.
Logan T. Woods is a PhD student in political science at the University of Michigan.
Patrick Y. Wu is a PhD student in political science at the University of Michigan.
Joseph R. Klaver is a PhD student in political science at the University of Michigan.
Walter R. Mebane, Jr. is a research associate at the Center for Political Studies, professor of political science and professor of statistics at the University of Michigan.