Final report from the National Task Force on Election Crises. Executive summary:
The 2020 election was defined by paradox and contradiction. Thanks to millions of poll workers, election officials, and citizens who stepped up to make our democracy work, the election was secure and free from systemic or significant fraud. A record 160 million Americans voted and had their voices heard. Yet still, voter intimidation and racial disparities in access to the ballot continued, our election system was revealed to be aging and unnecessarily confusing, Americans weathered a wave of disinformation and, of course, there were unprecedented efforts to delegitimize and overturn the election results—ultimately leading to a crisis the likes of which we’ve not experienced in modern history. In the end, Congress counted all of the electoral votes, but only after President Trump sought to both coerce federal and state officials to overturn the results, and incited a violent insurrection.
This attack on our democracy culminated with white supremacist rioters attacking the Capitol seeking to not only overturn the Constitutional order, but also to take hostages and assassinate members of Congress and the Vice President. While American democracy has survived this crisis so far, we will only be able to prevent the next one if we both 1) ensure accountability for all those who incited, abetted, and participated in the insurrection, and 2) adopt preventative reforms based on the lessons we learned in this election. Those lessons and reforms are the focus of this report.
The National Task Force on Election Crises is a nonpartisan group that was formed to help the country prevent and confront election crises, in order to protect a free and fair 2020 election. In this report, the Task Force highlights many challenges that emerged in the election, including instances in which the president undermined the electoral process. Of course, the Task Force would have highlighted challenges to a free and fair election and a smooth transition if they came from another presidential candidate.
Election administrators helped mitigate a crisis. State and local officials conducted the general election in spite of extraordinary challenges posed by a global pandemic. Officials from both parties worked together to expand voting options, recruit hundreds of thousands of poll workers, and become expert crisis communicators, often for the first time. At the same time, there were challenges and failures, including long lines in a number of states, complications stemming from absentee ballots, voter intimidation, isolated system malfunctions, and—above all—widespread challenges of disinformation and partisan polarization around efforts to make voting accessible.
Social media companies learned key lessons from 2016. Some platforms adapted their policies to be more vigilant against election-related disinformation in the 2020 election cycle, attempting to contextualize disinformation and slow its spread. That said, false claims were far-reaching, coming particularly from President Trump, his allies, and his family members. These claims resulted in widespread refusal to accept the results, and troubling threats of violence against election officials and others. Social media platforms also were used to both inspire and coordinate participation in the insurrection on January 6th.
Election reporting was careful and voters patient. Because of the unprecedented volume of absentee ballots and lack of pre-canvassing or processing in critical battleground states, preliminary results took much longer than usual. In general, the media and voters were prepared to wait for results and traditional and social media correctly described President Trump’s claims of victory as false. Outlets took care to explain why results may change during counting, were transparent about how election projections are made, and resisted political pressure to interfere with their decision desks. That said, this election proved that responsible reporting is no match for disinformation spread by candidates and political leaders.
President Trump’s refusal to accept the results badly damaged the perception of election legitimacy and led to the insurrection on January 6th. Baseless allegations of fraud, false claims of victory by President Trump, and attempts to overturn the result were supported by many Republican officials. This delayed the presidential transition, helped convince the vast majority of Trump’s supporters that the election had not been legitimate, and led to the attack on the Capitol on January 6th.
Efforts to disenfranchise voters and reverse the outcome were a threat to democracy. Starting on Election Night and continuing through to January, there were concerted efforts to delegitimize the election, seed doubt in the outcome, and overturn the results. These attempts included baseless lawsuits that sought to disenfranchise entire states and pressure state officials to interfere with the counting and certification of results. Attempts to overturn a legitimate, democratic election took a toll on the country and likely caused lasting damage to the perceived legitimacy and long-term stability of American institutions and our system of government.