The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Republicans don’t trust their election officials, research finds — especially in states Biden won

State and local election officials are being threatened. Should we worry about the future of U.S. democracy?

Dozens of people calling for stopping the vote count in Pennsylvania gather on the steps of the Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa., on Nov. 5. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

President Biden recently condemned restrictions on voting rights and called for safeguards to prevent dishonest politicians from stealing elections. He was in many ways speaking to two different countries: the overwhelming majority of Democrats who trust the integrity of the 2020 election and the overwhelming majority of Republicans who don’t.

But President Donald Trump’s bitter and baseless assault on the election may have effects much broader than whether voters think Biden is legitimately president. In a survey, we examined voters’ views of state and local election administrators, the mostly anonymous public servants who manage the nation’s democratic machinery. Our findings suggest those views divide strongly by politics — in terms of both partisanship and whether Trump or Biden won their state in 2020. Close to one-third of Republicans support giving partisan legislatures more influence over election administration, as several GOP-led states have done in response to Trump’s false allegations about electoral fraud.

Here’s how we did our research

These conclusions come from the most recent George Washington University Politics Poll, a joint venture of GWU’s School of Media and Public Affairs, its political science department and its Graduate School of Political Management. The survey of 1,753 registered U.S. voters from June 4 to 23 was the final wave of a four-wave panel study that began in October 2020. The survey, conducted by YouGov, is weighted to approximate a nationally representative sample.

In the June survey, we asked several questions about U.S. elections and the government officials who run them. To gauge views about the presidential election, we asked how confident respondents were that “votes across the United States were counted as voters intended in the November 2020 election.” Much as other polls have consistently found, about 20 percent of Republicans and more than 90 percent of Democrats said they were confident in the result — numbers that have changed little in our surveys since the election.

But in the United States’ decentralized electoral system, confidence in officials at the state and local levels is particularly important because they actually manage the voting and count the ballots.

Attitudes about these officials similarly divide by party. Just 44 percent of Republicans say they have a “great deal” or “fair amount” of trust in their state election administrators, while 76 percent of Democrats say the same. Republicans’ trust in their local officials is also about 20 points lower than Democrats’. Trump’s attacks on Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and partisan calls for audits like the one in Maricopa County, Ariz., may well have contributed to the distrust.

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Answers divided by party and location

Republicans’ views diverge significantly, however, depending on where they live. In states that Trump won, 7 in 10 Republicans say they trust their state officials and nearly 8 in 10 trust their local officials. But in Biden states, those numbers plummet to 24 percent for state and 50 percent for local officials. Democrats also express more trust in election administrators if they live in a state Biden won — by about 20 points for state officials and eight points for local officials — but the differences are more modest than for Republicans. (We treat Nebraska as a Trump state and Maine as a Biden state, despite their split congressional districts.)

To be sure, these general patterns are not surprising. Prior research has found that voters express more confidence in elections when they’re on the winning side. Voters in states won by their favored candidate are thus more likely to believe that their election officials are doing a good job.

And without data on these questions from before Trump’s attacks on the electoral system — which go back to 2016 — we cannot say exactly how much of this is about 2020 and how much simply reflects generalized GOP distrust in government institutions and officials. But these differences are so large as to indicate a unique and troubling moment for the public’s faith in the electoral process.

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Many Republicans want their state legislatures to control local elections

In another sign of trouble, we also found that significant numbers of Republicans endorse giving legislatures more influence over local elections. Of course, states make laws governing local elections all the time. But critics have noted that the changes to laws in places such as Georgia and Arkansas could create a route for GOP-led legislatures to override local ballot counting, which suggests that elections could be subverted.

In our survey, we had respondents read information about these efforts, noting that proponents say they would improve accountability and opponents say they would allow for more partisan interference.

Even with the evenhanded framing, few Democrats endorsed such laws, with just 10 percent saying they either “strongly” or “somewhat” supported them; Democrats who voted for Trump were disproportionately the ones who expressed support.

Republicans supported such efforts a bit more, at 30 percent. Here, however, Republicans in Trump and Biden states had roughly the same responses.

On one hand, this seems odd because it means that close to one-third of GOP voters in Biden states endorsed giving (primarily) Democratic state legislatures more control over elections. But it’s possible that the 2020 election’s turmoil created such Republican distrust that some are willing to endorse virtually any change to what they view as a corrupt system. That’s just speculation. But other evidence suggests that Republicans now have a weak commitment to core democratic principles. Lack of concern about local election administrators’ independence may not be surprising.

Despite the pandemic, Americans are still optimists. That's a powerful political force.

What does this suggest about the future of U.S. democracy?

Optimists may believe that long-established institutional structures and the integrity of local public servants will protect the electoral process, despite high levels of distrust in nearly half the U.S. electorate.

But already, large numbers of local election administrators report feeling unsafe in their jobs. Many longtime officials are leaving their positions after being threatened. If political leaders with bad intentions decide to try to steal elections by claiming, without evidence, that Americans can’t trust their elections, they will have a receptive audience.

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Kimberly Gross is associate professor of media and public affairs and a researcher affiliated with the Institute for Data, Democracy & Politics at George Washington University.