Trust in government is at an all-time low. In June 2022, just two out of every 10 Americans said they trust the federal government to do what’s right “most of the time,” per the Pew Research Center.
One of the most prominent ways in which this distrust has manifested is the discourse around voting integrity and ballot counting since the 2020 presidential election. The conspiracy theories and denial around the results led to the horror of the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. But a longer-term effect involves the perception of what goes on during the ballot-counting process on Election Day and afterward.
In response, election officials, both locally and elsewhere, are finding new ways to be transparent about the process with voters.
This year, the Riverside County debuted a livestream of its ballot-counting process via YouTube. First tested during the June primary, the cameras again went live in early November as soon as the staff started counting vote-by-mail ballots, said Registrar of Voters Rebecca Spencer.
The hope is that the livestream—which goes live when staff is in the office—adds transparency, trust and engagement to the voting process, Spencer said.
“Anytime that we have ballot-counting going on, we have the livestream available so that anybody can watch it on the Riverside County YouTube channel,” Spencer told the Independent.
Viewership isn’t terrifically high. Prior to Election Day, Spencer said, there might be five people on at any given time—and it’s hardly the most riveting content. Getting ballots out of the envelopes and unfolding them is the most time-consuming part of the counting process, Spencer said. Throughout the process, the livestream cameras showed ballot workers hauling in unfolded ballots. Then they were stacked onto plastic carts, before being fed into the counting machines.
The stream is available to those who are interested and online. The Riverside County YouTube channel has a mere 227 subscribers, as of this writing, who could be notified of the live event, and it’s linked to on the county’s election website.
The livestream idea came out of a civil grand jury report published in June 2021. Empaneled to provide oversight of Riverside County government, the grand jury opted to investigate whether election protocols were followed during the 2020 election. While the report found that votes were counted accurately, and that there was zero evidence of fraud, the grand jury did point out a few areas of possible improvement, including livestreaming the ballot processes.
Spencer said her office was happy to take up the recommendation. The current climate of distrust has resulted in an influx of feedback coming into her office, and it tends to be “negative comments, rather than the positives,” Spencer said.
“Since 2020, we do receive comments from constituents saying they don’t trust us, that they believe there’s fraud going on,” she said. “We do definitely hear comments, both verbally at our front counters and on the phones, and through our emails regarding not trusting the system.”
In addition to the livestream, Spencer said her office has also been offering more tours and welcoming more observers in the counting process. “Giving tours, and explaining what the process is—it’s really our way of trying to be as transparent as possible,” Spencer said.
The livestream has stayed up as the post-Election Day counts proceed, with several viewers tuning in at any given time to watch as a handful of staffers processed the remaining ballots. As of this publication on Nov. 16, at least 57,000 vote-by-mail ballots and 10,000 provisional still had to be counted, as did another 50,000 ballots postmarked on or before Election Day that arrived on or before Nov. 15. Nearly 477,000 ballots had already been tallied.
It’s not just Riverside County that has implemented more public-facing outputs in its system. The Carter Center, a nonprofit founded by former president Jimmy Carter and Rosalynn Carter, counts promoting democracy among its missions. While it has traditionally trained its focus on observing and strengthening election processes in other countries, the organization after 2020 began working on efforts to combat distrust in the U.S.
In a report on tips to increase transparency this cycle, The Carter Center listed livestreaming of ballot-counting as a way to allow more observation. It also suggested giving tours and streaming any post-election audits. It cited Boulder County, Colo., and Orange County, Calif., as two other locales using livestreaming as part of the tabulation process.
Whether such measures can help restore trust in the election process in future cycles remains to be seen. But at least one poll suggested that voters are regaining some trust in the system, despite continued unfounded complaints by former President Donald Trump and his followers: Some 42% of GOP voters surveyed by Morning Consult this fall said this election would be free and fair, up from 35% this June; 85% of Democrats said it would be fair.
Partisanship aside, getting a behind-the-scenes view of a high-stakes event is a new way to engage voters. The county could further the effort by sharing the link more frequently on its social-media channels, or adding it to other platforms, like Instagram or TikTok.
Seeing the ballot counters, clad in casual office garb and face masks, humanizes the process. And if we are going to build back trust into the infrastructure that upholds our institutions, that doesn’t sound like a bad place to start.