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2020 Election: Center Tackles Transparency, Political Violence

  • On Nov. 3, 2020, at a polling site in Manhattan, New Yorkers cast their votes in the U.S. election. (Photo: Ron Adar/Shutterstock.com)

The 2020 U.S. election was like none before it.

Polarization was at an all-time high, with many on both sides mistrusting each other and the process itself. The pandemic introduced further complications, challenging election officials to find ways to ensure accessibility while keeping voters safe.

Because of this, The Carter Center chose to do something it had never done before—get involved in a U.S. election.

“We saw that democracy in the U.S. was backsliding and facing unprecedented threats,” said David Carroll, director of the Democracy Program, “and we wanted to try to counter that, using techniques we’ve seen be effective in some of the 39 countries where we’ve observed elections.”

The Center launched a public information campaign designed to educate voters about election procedures and increase trust in the electoral process. It also worked with election officials to encourage them to be transparent about procedures. That effort included joining the new Georgia Secretary of State’s Bipartisan Task Force for Safe, Secure, and Accessible Elections, which provided guidance to Georgia’s top election officials.

The Democracy Program hired additional election experts and produced fact sheets, Q&As, voters guides, statements, opinion pieces, and virtual panel discussions and interviews. The team gave more than 45 interviews to national and international news outlets.

It also created two animated videos—one that laid out options for voting and encouraged people to participate, and one that emphasized the importance of calm and patience in the days after Election Day.

“We chose animation because we wanted a lighthearted, entertaining way to deliver serious messages,” said Avery Davis-Roberts, an associate director in the Democracy Program. “And the campaign was very successful, reaching more than a million people through social media and online platforms.”

With political divisions raising the specter of possible violence, the Center’s Conflict Resolution Program also got involved, first analyzing data to identify communities where election-related violence seemed most likely. Working with partners, the team shared its findings with a dozen national networks who could direct violence prevention resources to at-risk communities.

It also worked directly with faith and community leaders in four metro areas — Atlanta, Charlotte, Raleigh, and Pittsburgh — to help them develop plans to push back against violence.

When it became clear that Georgia’s two Senate races would go into runoffs, focusing national attention on the Center’s home state, the two programs joined forces to draft a code of conduct and asked the candidates to sign. They also developed antiviolence messages for social media and brought in the Center’s Digital Threats to Democracy staff to analyze misinformation, disinformation, and violent rhetoric on social media.

So how do the teams assess the 2020 election?

“There is a lot Americans can feel good about,” Carroll said. “This election saw the largest voter turnout in more than a century. Though there were numerous allegations of misconduct, investigations turned up no credible evidence of widespread fraud. And in the end, we had a peaceful transition of power.”

But there also was an unprecedented attack on Congress, and there are still tens of millions of Americans who reject the election results.

“Our nation has work to do to repair our deep divides,” said Hrair Balian, director of the Conflict Resolution Program. “It will take a concerted effort to restore civility and increase confidence in democracy.

The Center is currently developing plans to continue to work on these issues. A first step is a series of virtual panel discussions on election reform co-organized with Rice’s Baker Institute, led by former Republican Secretary of State James Baker III, who with President Carter led a commission on election reform in 2005.

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