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Experts say Trump, election deniers eroding trust in democracy. Can it be restored?


(WASHINGTON) — The nation’s democratic process has been dangerously tested after the 2020 presidential race and the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, polls show and experts warn, leaving many Americans with little faith in the election system.

Heading into the consequential midterm elections, when voters will decide which party will control Congress next year, more than two-thirds of Americans think our democracy is in danger of collapse, according to an August poll from Quinnipiac University.

An ABC News/Washington Post poll conducted in January — more than a year after the insurrection — found only 20% of those surveyed saying they’re very confident about the election system. Even fewer Republicans, just 13%, said they were very confident in the process.

“After every election, especially a presidential election, there is some sense among the people who voted for the losing candidate that the election was not quite fair,” Barry Burden, the director of the Elections Research Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, told ABC News.

“But 2020 is different,” Burden continued. “Republican voters have been stuck with very low levels of support.”

That’s in large part due to Donald Trump, Burden and other elections observers said, as well as his GOP allies who continue to emphatically spread falsehoods about the integrity of the 2020 election.

In fact, 60% of Americans will have an election denier on the ballot this November. Out of 541 total Republican nominees running for office, FiveThirtyEight found 199 who’ve fully denied the legitimacy of the 2020 election.

So, what can be done to restore trust in the system? The path forward is unclear, experts ABC News spoke with said.

“It’s a very hard problem,” Burden acknowledged.

The most effective solution?

What would be the most successful fix is also the thing least likely to happen: for Trump and his allies to change their message.

“Donald Trump, as somebody who knows how to bring a crowd, whenever he leans into some of this election conspiracy stuff, he is tapping into a very, very animated part of the Republican base,” explained Eli Yokley, a senior reporter at the data firm Morning Consult, which also tracks confidence in U.S. institutions.

Yokley said it will be “incumbent on policymakers not to lean into voters’ worst instincts” for trust to be restored.

Because Republicans are also generally more skeptical of mainstream media and traditional news sources, it’s going to be most impactful for those lacking faith in the system to hear it straight from the former president and his closest associates.

“Those kinds of authoritative voices for Trump’s followers have to be what’s going to deliver the message because other sources like the current president or the mainstream media or fact checkers just aren’t trusted in the same way,” Burden said.

But Trump, as recently as Oct. 1, at a rally in the battleground state of Michigan, continued to call the 2020 election “stolen” and said Democrats “cheat like dogs” to win.

“I don’t believe we’ll ever have a fair election again,” Trump said, prompting boos and shouts of agreement from his crowd.

“I don’t believe it,” he repeated.

Combatting disinformation

While Trump and his allies continue to spread lies about the 2020 election, state and local elections offices are picking up the slack to combat disinformation.

Arizona’s Maricopa County — the largest county in the battleground state and the site of intense scrutiny both during and after the 2020 election — launched a campaign in 2021 titled “Just the Facts” in response to the increase of misinformation spreading about elections administration.

The website and an accompanying newsletter answers questions about how elections are administered, how officials build the ballot, how they count the ballots and ensure accuracy of the equipment used. This cycle, the campaign will also provide information about the upcoming races and how to participate successfully, according to Maricopa County Elections Department spokesperson Megan Gilbertson.

“It’s imperative for election experts to provide a trusted source of information to voters about the you know, the facts about elections administration,” Gilbertson told ABC News. “And so I think that initiatives like this are attainable for elections offices.”

The city of Atlanta has launched the Atlanta Votes initiative, a similar online tool aimed at educating voters and increasing turnout. The Connecticut legislature has provided $2 million for internet, TV and mail education efforts on the election process, and to hire an election information security officer. Colorado has also hired a team called the “Rapid Response Election Security Cyber Unit” to monitor sites for misinformation.

The U.S. Elections Assistance Commission, a national clearinghouse for information regarding election administration, similarly revamped the information on its site to make it more digestible to everyday Americans, Chairman Thomas Hicks told ABC News.

“I always say that election officials are public servants,” Hicks said. “None of us are doing this to get rich, and so we’re doing this for the love of our country and for our democracy.”

Hicks said the commission has also worked with other organizations and has spoken to Twitter and Facebook about combating misinformation.

The tech platforms took some steps to tackle misinformation in 2020 but some experts said the actions weren’t enough. YouTube, Google and TikTok have announced election plans for 2022 that include bolstering trusted news sources and flagging or removing posts containing falsehoods about the process.

But it’s difficult to stop individuals who are spreading disinformation, Burden said.

“We have the First Amendment in the United States that protects people’s right to say things they believe, even if they’re factually incorrect,” Burden said. “If they think they don’t trust the system, they’re certainly allowed to say that. So it’s a difficult problem to solve.”

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