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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Defending the Integrity of Our Voting Systems

Election 2020 ballot box

Election 2020 ballot box

John P. Pelissero, Ph.D

John Pelissero (@1pel) is a senior scholar in government ethics at Santa Clara University’s Markkula Center for Applied Ethics and a professor emeritus of political science from Loyola University Chicago.

There is no greater good in a democracy than the right to vote.

Public officials have an ethical responsibility to instill confidence in citizens that our voting systems have integrity. And the public must know that their voting rights will be protected by their governments.

Today, just as the country begins to vote for president; Congress, and hundreds of state and local officials; our voting systems are under attack from internal actors and external forces, including the worst pandemic in 100 years and foreign governments seeking to create chaos in the outcome of the presidential election.

As the American public takes precautions to protect themselves from contracting COVID-19, mail-in voting has become an important method of exercising the right to vote while protecting public health.

Sowing the Seeds of Doubt

At the national level, we have the president of the United States intensifying his charges that mail-in voting in much of this country is not safe and will lead to fraud. In unprecedented messages, the president has encouraged supporters to consider voting twice—once by mail and again in person—and has repeatedly said that the only way he can lose this election is if the system is rigged.

In addition, members of the current administration and many in Congress are speaking out to undermine the confidence of the public in the integrity of our voting systems. That’s right. Instead of providing assurances that our electoral systems will function legally, honestly, and in the public interest, national leaders are stoking doubt about electoral integrity.

Defending the Integrity of Our Vote

What should be done to respond to this unusual set of circumstances? Who will stand up and speak out about the fundamental integrity of our voting systems?

We should remind ourselves that there is no national election system in this country. All elections, including those for president and Congress, are administered by state and local officials.

States governments must lead in providing resources needed at the county and city levels to conduct safe and secure elections, especially during a pandemic. And they should put partisanship aside to promote fair and honest elections.

Moreover, in light of the seemingly relentless tweets and statements from national politicians, state leaders have an ethical duty to speak out against false claims that are made about voting systems in their state. Being attentive to the common good and promoting what is in the public interest are important messages that governors and state election officials should be communicating about their voting systems. In other words, they should use their leadership positions to speak up and instill confidence among state citizens in the voting systems for which they are responsible.

County and city officials are on the front line of election administration. They are the ones who are confronting issues related to election security, managing the expected growth in mail-in balloting, providing safe voting locations during the pandemic, and marshalling resources for the elections amidst budgetary stress.

Local election officials have an ethical duty to conduct elections in the public interest. They should speak out regularly when disinformation about their voting systems is circulating and inform the public of the extraordinary steps in place to ensure the integrity of elections.

In most places, citizens know and trust their local officials. In fact, public trust in local governments is much higher than trust in the federal government. National polls have regularly demonstrated this and an April 2020 Economist/YouGov poll validated the public’s view that local government is doing a better job of handling the pandemic than the federal government.

In the current national environment in which we have a presidential election campaign during a pandemic, with unprecedented assaults on our electoral systems, our state and local officials have an ethical duty to grasp the moment and speak out in the public interest. Through individual and collective messaging, local officials can reassure the American public that the most basic common good in our Democracy—the right to vote—will be guaranteed and the outcomes will have integrity.

Oct 27, 2020

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