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S2E12 – Researching Trust in Elections with Soren Jordan and Ryan Williamson

S2E12 – Researching Trust in Elections with Soren Jordan and Ryan Williamson

In this episode, hosts Eric Fey and Brianna Lennon speak with Ryan Jordan and Ryan Williamson at Auburn University about their Trust in Elections study that is looking at how Americans perceive messaging from elections officials – on social media, with “I Voted” stickers, etc. – and about how local election administrators can modify their messages to build and restore trust.

You can read more about their work – and related work – in the first volume of the “Journal of Election Administration, Research & Practice” or reach out directly to Ryan Williamson at rdw0035@auburn.edu and/or Soren Jordan at scj0014@auburn.edu.

High Turnout, Wide Margins Credits:
Managing Editor: Rebecca Smith
Managing Producer: Aaron Hay
Associate Producers: Katie Quinn, Abigail Ruhman

Transcription of the episode is as follows:

Soren Jordan: Making your jobs easier and trying to be helpful. It is one of the most exciting things about getting to do research in elections is the idea that not only will the stuff that we write like not just get put in a journal that nobody reads. But instead, like has a slight possible chance of making the lives of people who are my friends and whose work I respect that much, even if it's a little bit, that much easier to do.

Eric Fey: Everyone welcome to another episode of High Turnout Wide Margins. This is Eric Fey director of elections in St. Louis County, Missouri with my co host, Brianna Lennon, and our guests today.

Soren Jordan: Hey, this is Soren Jordan.

Ryan Williamson: And I'm Ryan Williamson.

Eric Fey: And you guys are from Auburn.

Soren Jordan: Absolutely.

Eric Fey: Absolutely, okay. I think let's start with kind of the first question we usually ask our guests on the podcast. How did each of you kind of get into the election space?

Soren Jordan: Entirely by accident.

Eric Fey: Standard answer for this.

Soren Jordan: Maybe a different kind of accident. So I came to Auburn in 2016 to study American politics more kind of writ large. There was a huge elections faculty contingent at Auburn. And the magnetism of elections kind of just ends up drawing you in more and more. Then as it so happens, it was also kind of a crazy year for elections when I got there.

And it was a really fortuitous partnership that a group of people who studies the very bizarre thing that had just happened and would continue to get more bizarre through the years was there. It was the opportunity to work with them to study elections was pretty undeniable. So, now that's a big part of what I do.

Ryan Williamson: The other end of the spectrum, my parents were completely unengaged with politics and elections. 2008 came around and I was just enamored and fascinated with everything that was happening. And I tried a few other majors in college and none of them could keep my attention.

So, I landed on political science and just couldn't get away from elections. I decided to get a PhD in it. I worked in the Senate on election oversight and reform. I've just never been able to get enough of elections, decided to try to make a career out of it.

Brianna Lennon: And we should also note, both Ryan and Soren are teachers in the Election Center curriculum too. So in addition to being professors at Auburn, you both teach different courses. How does that process work? Like how did you start being able to offer courses and who gets to pick which ones you're doing?

Soren Jordan: That's a really interesting question. I'm not sure there's a good answer to that question. The elections faculty is really friendly. I think most like most things in academics, it's pretty informal. You end up having a lot of freedom to select things that you're interested in. So I do a lot of what we would call study of American behavior.

Like public opinion surveys, that kind of thing and there's good classes in the CERA certification program that deal with behavior. And then also like the history of elections, which brings in that as well as parties. Something that I love to study just because it's so interesting and so bizarre. I tend to focus on those classes in particular.

Ryan Williamson: Yeah, we're a small but mighty group, and everyone is really dedicated to making elections better writ large. Whatever that takes. There's kind of this attitude of whatever needs to be done, everyone's kind of willing to do it. And so I think Soren and I have both covered almost the entire curriculum at one point or another between the two of us.

But I also studied history and so I'm really fascinated with the larger historical perspective. I think it'd be particularly informative. In any way to contribute, I think Soren, and I, as well as the other Auburn faculty are always happy to do so.

Eric Fey: We interviewed Kathleen and Mitchell last year for the podcast. And I think we asked them a similar question, but I'm curious about your answers. What is it like teaching election officials versus traditional college students?

Ryan Williamson: It's in some ways very similar. But I can't think of two groups of people who might be more different when it comes to information. Election officials love to get into the weeds, and they have a story for everything, which is one of my favorite things about teaching is hearing those stories.

It's always fun, no matter who the student is, to just kind of present information in a way that maybe people haven't thought about or seen that way presented before. And you kind of see a light go on is like, okay, now this makes sense. I can see things in a kind of new perspective.

Soren Jordan: I'd say it's refreshing. Undergraduates, a lot of the times, it kind of feels like they're there not really by choice. They feel like they're forced to be there, right? So their engagement with the material is kind of low, and they might be passively interested in politics, but like the class itself is sort of more of a hurdle to degree than anything else. But in the CERA classes, people are excited to be there. It's an opportunity.

You can feel the energy in the room of people talking to each other sharing stories. The kind of the live networking that's happening. You can project how it's improving their ability to connect with other election administrators. All you're trying to do as an instructor is leverage the curriculum in any small way to make that something that's more fun for them and more useful for them. And I think sometimes the curriculum does that sometimes we just get out of the way. Let those conversations happen because my favorite part is hearing the stories that y'all tell to us, and also the ones that you tell to each other.

Brianna Lennon: One of the reasons why we wanted to talk today is because you guys are going to start the second part of this new project, which is looking at trust in elections. I was hoping that you could give a little bit of background as to why you think it's important to be studying that for one? And what you hope to accomplish with the project?

Soren Jordan: Sure, absolutely. It's almost impossible to spend any reasonable amount of time around election officials, and not to just become intensely empathetic to the challenges that you've been increasingly faced with in the last five years or so. I end every single CERA class and, I dare say, almost every single interaction I have with you all with the same stuff, which is thank you so much for doing your jobs well.

And continuing to care about doing your jobs well, because of the amount of mistrust, misinformation, and then just like general anger about elections that sort of swirls around society, it's kind of incredible. If there's an opportunity to leverage my professional role, like a researcher, to help solve some of these really intense problems that election administrators are faced with, that's an undeniable opportunity. Sometimes it feels like the research that you do is very disconnected from the world.

The idea that we can literally help solve problems and develop messaging or whatever it is that helps election administrators build trust and talk with your constituents in a way that's productive and helps to resolve, hopefully, some of the challenges of the last few years. That's something that I want to contribute to in any way I can.

Ryan Williamson: Yeah, maybe taking a broader perspective, I would go so far as to say trust is probably the most fundamental concept to a good functioning healthy democracy. Because so much of everyone's attitudes towards other things, just satisfaction with government belief in my vote matters and accepting outcomes accepting policy changes is predicated on trusting those institutions.

Trust is at an all time low, and no one thing is going to fix it. But anything that we can contribute to improving trust, even at the margins, because it might be a pretty long journey. The sooner we start, and any improvement we can make is going to be a positive step.

Brianna Lennon: Can you go a little bit into what the actual research is going to be? And how you're planning to conduct it?

Soren Jordan: Sure, so I think the project generally comes in two parts: the part that we've already done is a question about how to develop this kind of messaging about building trust in elections. The way that we approached it was really intense focus group discussions with small groups that range between four and eight people.

We did those electronically, in the back half of the spring and early part of the summer of this past year. Just talking to people and trying to get some insight into how they think about whether they trust messages from election officials or how they interact with their local election offices to leverage that for the second part, which is conducting a national survey.

Ryan Williamson: The more like academic political science contribution here is we know there are a number of things that influence trust, like whether or not your party wins, you're more likely to trust the outcome information from what you deemed to be politically elite. Whether that's your party leader or some other figure in that space, you're more likely to trust what they say. But getting those people to talk about elections in a way that is meaningful and impactful is difficult, if not impossible. We want to think about how can we help you as election officials deliver the most effective message. Kind of the boots on the ground. More of a grassroots approach. And so the survey experiment, people would get different messages from different actors and framed in different ways. That'll allow us to really tease out how to craft more or even the most effective messages to improve people's attitudes.

Brianna Lennon: Have you found anything surprising so far in just the focus groups?

Soren Jordan: It was a little shocking, just how much perception of politics there was about everything, right? So I don't know about you, I grew up collecting, loving, wanting every single I Voted sticker I could possibly get my hands on. The diversity of them was always very pleasing to me that they came in different designs. To our focus groups, even something like the language in those stickers was like- they would get in intense conversations about how an election official must be a Republican because the I Voted sticker focused on freedom or focused on rights or something else. Or had a prominent American flag or something.

And somebody else used a I Voted sticker that was designed from like a student contest. It was submitted by a first grader who's clearly not Republican or Democrat. But it was just a picture of a world, it was like I Voted For A Future that was like, this was designed by Democrats. All these things are just stuff that maybe people in the profession would think of as kind of innocuous, the pretty neutral messaging on its face. What we're learning is that people are much more scrutinizing of the information they take in, they're also much more willing to attribute politics where there's not really any. That's been something that I've had to think a lot about as we've developed some of these test messages that we're trying to figure out if they work.

Ryan Williamson: Politics is so nationalized, polarized and pervasive that people are finding it where it doesn't actually exist. So trying to walk that back a little bit to really give it the substance of the message. Instead of having people put on their partisan lenses when they're trying to accumulate information is one of the biggest hurdles that kind of came out of these focus groups.

Eric Fey: From these focus groups, you talked about a survey instrument you're building, can you explain to the listeners what the roadmap is for this project?

Soren Jordan Sure, so I think our goal is to use the focus group response. Some of the things that we learned about how people are finding politics and also generally speaking, what they do and don't know about elections writ large. Which is not very much in basically everything respectively. To figure out if you are an election administrator, what advice can we give you about what content and what framing to put inside of your messages to help, especially these kind of local relationships between constituents and local election officials to build back that trust.

A lot of what we found is focusing on dimensions of that relationship that are very neutral on their face. And they're focused on qualities of between constituent and local election officials that you get to build uniquely as an election administrators. Our test messages, one of them focuses on professionalism, so length of experience of the average administrator. One of them focused on rule following that if you don't like the procedure the person to get upset with is not the person who implemented, it's the person who designs it. One of them is very relational, election officials live in the communities where they work, and they shop next to you and they are complaining about the same expensive gas as you are, right? They are your neighbors, and they are there in that capacity alongside you as opposed to being this other group from outside.

Ryan Williamson: And I'd say for context, this is important because it's a really fine line to walk. I think about Pennsylvania and 2020 for example. You can't just come out and say the election was fine, because there was so much tied up in it. So many people had an emotional response to it. But you can't come out and say, okay, the vote count was delayed because Pennsylvania didn't allow for the pre-processing of ballots.

Your average person is not going to know or care what the pre-processing process looks like. Trying to explain that to them they're going to kind of gloss over and you're not going to be able to get through. How do you split the difference? How are you still going to be effective at kind of communicating what you do? Why you should be trusted? And why if you are upset, election officials should not be the kind of target of that angst.

Brianna Lennon: So one of the things that I thought was interesting in the presentation was that you kind of sussed out that the hashtag campaigns, the things that we get really siloed into thinking are so effective. This is really going to do it. We're going to come up with this statement, and then everybody's going to use it. It'll just resonate everywhere. And nobody hears it because we're all just kind of talking to each other. We haven't really been talking to voters at that level. I don't know that I have like a real question about that, but that's obviously a problem that's happening.

I don't know if you're seeing more of that. Or if you think that that might be something that something in this project can kind of break through. Because I mean, even this podcast, is talking to ourselves in a way. Are you are you seeing kind of like this? Or do you expect to see local election authorities that just can't figure out why voters aren't hearing what they're saying? But then you are talking to the voters and like figuring out that answer. Is that a bridge that can be gapped?

Soren Jordan: So I think it's really interesting, cause you're right, there's two different steps. One is, for lack of a better way of talking, what kinds of content can you create that your constituents find engaging, and they don't have this sort of abrasive reaction to. It works to build that relationship that you want to build to restore trust.

And the other one is how do you get them to see the content at all. We're really focused on that first part, because developing the message is something that we know more about than we used to. That's what we're trying to test. But in terms of getting people to be more informed about elections, if I could make my students read the reading before they showed up for class. I mean I've tried everything. It's like I assigned a textbook that's free and then all the exams are like open book, and they're all online.

It's like you're desperately trying to engineer any way to get people to just to interact with this kinds of content. Sometimes it's one of the hardest parts of the fragmented media environment that we live in is people get put in these siloed echo chambers. You can develop a really good message, but at the same time, the likelihood that the person who probably needs to see it the most is going to be able to come across it just in their daily life. Based off of the way that we tend interact with stuff like social media, in particular, it's really hard.

Ryan Williamson: Yeah, if I wanted to try to find some optimism, I would at least say we had record high turnout in 2018 and 2020. So people are caring more. I think one of the sources of distrust where there were people who never really paid attention to election administration prior to 2020. Then what they saw didn't conform to their pre-existing notions of what elections should look like.

But hopefully, with additional time with additional elections, ideally, with turning the temperature down around elections, people become more informed and familiar. Maybe trust is restored a little bit that way. It's also important to remember that people tune out of politics and elections all the time. Every 10 years redistricting comes around. People get up in arms about certain maps, and then they forget about it for eight, nine, ten years until it all happens again.

Relatively intelligent, educated, involved people vote once every four years. They think election officials are just sitting on their hands the other three plus years. And so, getting the message right is an important first step. That way it can kind of be used to strike while the iron is hot when people do kind of reengage in these conversations.

Eric Fey: So can we- You guys are from Alabama, so I can tell y'all, right?

Soren Jordan: Oh yes, very much so.

Eric Fey: Y'all describe what the project is. Maybe can we be explicit about what is the goal of this project?

Soren Jordan: I think there's two ways of thinking about it. From like a scientific standpoint and this is the cheesy answer. The goal is always to understand the world better. If we can understand what drives people's perceptions of trust from a scholarly standpoint, then that's like one of the things that scientifically we would be hoping to measure.

Literally putting like a quantitative kind of impact on if people see this kind of message versus another kind versus nothing at all. Literally their perceptions of trust in an election administrators system, a level of government and in some other things we'll measure on the survey will change by some demarcated amount. I think if one goes explanation, the one I care a lot more about, having spend time with y’all, is making your jobs easier and trying to be helpful. It is one of the most exciting things about getting to do research in elections is the idea that not only will the stuff that we write, not just get put in a journal that nobody reads. But instead, like has a slight possible chance of making the lives of people who are my friends, and whose work I respect that much, even if it's a little bit, that much easier to do.

Ryan Williamson: Yeah, I would say even if we don't find a magic bullet to improve trust, and we can't come to you and say we found the perfect message that will improve it. We can at least eliminate things that don't work. So people aren't spinning their wheels or reinventing new processes that we know won't be effective. Maybe that's a cop out just for my own sanity so that way, even if we're wrong, we still learned something.

But I think it's still true. That the accumulation of knowledge is also figuring out what we're wrong about. And so this will be useful to understand what does and doesn't work to what extent it might work. If it falls short, on some dimension, we at least know where to turn our attention to afterwards instead.

Eric Fey: I just want to say real quick, I think that's a really good and interesting point that you just made about, maybe we can find out what doesn't work. Because I think we can probably all admit, we're probably not going to find that silver bullet through this project. Maybe we will, but probably not. I mean, there are probably things that we all do as election administrators we think are great or we just do them because we've always done them.

Maybe this project can help us understand, well, maybe let's change that up a little bit. And so that I think it'll be really interesting. I'm heartened to hear and hopefully the people listening are as well that the end product is something that is actionable for election administrators and useful.

Soren Jordan: I think it's like a general precept of what we're working towards between Auburn and the election center generally. We have the Journal of Election Administration, Research and Practice, very fancy title. Long story short, it's a physical place where we can have like a shared conversation, where it's literally us trying to do research that's helpful and opening a space where election administrators can talk to each other to share some of that exact same kind of advice. That's the the goal of Auburn as a place that does research in elections is to try to be helpful and open up spaces like that as much as we can.

Ryan Williamson: So you have a lot of academics working on this, who maybe aren't in conversation with practitioners and practitioners have questions that they don't have time, energy or resources to answer. So trying to foster that conversation to really get into the weeds and provide answers or like I said eliminating wrong answers can be just as valuable as as finding right answers. The journal is a really good opportunity. I mean, it's by election officials for election officials to kind of move the field forward by bringing in academic expertise.

Brianna Lennon: I think that's a good point too, because broadly, there has not always been a good working relationship between election authorities and academia. And this seems to be a really great place to kind of come together on that. To that end, how can local election officials or state election officials help with the project that you are doing now?

Soren Jordan: That's, I mean, that's a great question. Yall have so much more expertise than we're ever going to have in elections. You talk to your constituents every day. Your informal stories that you tell each other in the CERA classes. I mean, they're steeped in so much more knowledge and expertise about elections, and I'm ever going to be able to get as a researcher. We bring different skill sets to the table, right?

I might have learned how to write a journal article or do some statistical analysis or something with data, like we can collect the project. But it's never going to replace the ability to have a gut reaction to a message, to a suggestion. Whatever it is that we're trying to be helpful on that you as somebody who's worked in this field for a long time, can very quickly know the reasons why, even if it academically might work pragmatically, it might be challenging, or like what a real recommendation would actually look like.

Ryan Williamson: Context is so important, and we can't get that sitting in front of our computers crunching numbers. Even if we do craft the perfect message, like it's in a vacuum. We would have to know how feasible is this? How practical? How much impact would it have? What capacity do you have to espouse this message? And so any any sort of kind of nuanced and detailed context around these types of questions, and any other questions you have related to this topic, for us to try to explore and incorporate would be incredibly valuable.

Soren Jordan: Anytime I'm in a room with y'all, I always want to say the same thing, which is thanks for doing your jobs well. I appreciate you all so much in terms of how much you care about elections and the amount of patience you have with angrier and angrier constituents. The fact that you continue to do your jobs well, and with aplomb is it is very cool, how much you are able to do election administration in the face of increasing opposition.

Eric Fey: You've been listening to "High Turnout, Wide Margins," a podcast that explores local election administration. I'm your host, Eric Fey, alongside Brianna Lennon.

A big thanks to KBIA for making this podcast possible. Our managing editor is Rebecca Smith. Our managing producer is Aaron Hay. And our associate producers are Abigail Ruhman and Katie Quinn. This has been "High Turnout, Wide Margins." Thanks for listening.

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After serving as Assistant Attorney General in the Missouri attorney general's office and as Deputy Director of Elections in the Missouri secretary of state's office, Brianna Lennon made the decision to pursue election administration at the local level. She was elected county clerk in Boone, Missouri, in 2018, making her responsible for conducting elections for more than 120,000 registered voters.
Eric Fey is a lifelong resident of St. Louis County, Missouri, who fell in love with election administration as a teenage poll worker. He has worked in the field for a decade, and became director of elections in 2015. He’s on the executive board of the Missouri Association of County Clerks and Election Authorities, and has observed elections in twelve countries, including Ukraine, Sri Lanka, and Uzbekistan.