NAZARETH, Pennsylvania — Earlier this month, 15 voters in this closely contested area of Pennsylvania convened to discuss the state of American democracy.
To say they were discouraged as the 2024 election gets underway would be an understatement.
Three years after the attack on the U.S. Capitol, half of the voters in the focus group immediately started nodding when asked about the possibility of violence around the election.
Sitting around folding tables in an arts center just off of the small town’s Rockwell-esque Main Street, the voters painted a bleak picture over the next hour: A largely negative view on everything from trusting that their and their neighbors’ votes will be fairly counted, the speed it takes to get results and that those results will be accepted by the losers.
“I almost feel numb to it,” Jackie, a younger voter in the focus group, said of the violence on Jan. 6. “We’re going to have another election, could that happen again? I probably won’t even react the same, because I’m like ‘this is what happens.’ … Something’s probably going to happen.”
The focus group was brought together by Keep Our Republic, a nonprofit and nonpartisan organization that seeks to educate the public about strengthening the democratic system. It was convened in Northampton County, Pennsylvania, a swing county in one of the most important swing states in the nation.
The participants’ pessimism encapsulates one of the most pressing challenges in American politics right now — the loss of public trust in democracy itself and the electoral infrastructure that supports it. It is a problem that stretches far beyond just Nazareth; a Gallup poll released the day after the focus group found that a record low 28 percent of American adults are satisfied with the way democracy is working in this country.
Their distrust comes at a moment of intense polarization in America — and after former President Donald Trump has spread constant lies about the security of American elections in the three years since the Capitol riot.
“Everybody agreed on one thing: That there’s a very good chance there’s gonna be violence in the next election,” said former Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.), who sits on the state advisory board of Keep Our Republic. “There’s a heightened sense of, or concern about, civil disorder in the next election.”
The voters in the focus group are, in a literal sense, the mythological “Main Street” swing voters that politicians talk about in their stump speeches. Christopher Borick, a pollster and professor at nearby Muhlenberg College, selected them from his neighbors who lived on or near the town’s Main Street.
The group was overwhelmingly white, like both the town of Nazareth and Northampton County more broadly, but was otherwise emblematic of the voters who will decide 2024. They were all registered voters — and those who said how they voted in 2020 during the focus group seemed evenly divided between Trump and President Joe Biden.
Borick asked them to participate because he never saw a political sign pop up on their front lawns. POLITICO observed the focus group under the condition that voters would be identified by their first names only.
The focus group came just a day before Biden gave a speech near Valley Forge, about an hour’s drive away, on the state of the country’s democracy. There, the president cast the 2024 election as a referendum that will decide “whether democracy is still America’s sacred cause.”
But the focus group made clear that much of the distrust in the democratic system is rooted in the broader political polarization of the moment.
Borick often tried to steer the conversation away from the politics of the 2024 election to the mechanics of it, but participants consistently returned to their displeasure in another Biden-Trump rematch.
Almost to a person there was a wariness — and in some cases an outright distrust— of the democratic process in the county. Two voters, distinctly in the minority, repeated conspiracy theories popularized by Trump about mail ballots being used to steal the election from him. And roughly a third of participants said they believed unregistered people were casting ballots.
But more broadly, the participants were confused by the process, with complaints especially about the time it takes to know the winner. Pennsylvania did not allow for election officials to pre-process mail ballots in 2020 — a significant cause of the state’s elongated vote count — and is now an outlier state that hasn’t updated its laws to allow for it in 2024.
“America’s Got Talent can tally 50 million votes in 15 minutes,” Mike, a middle-aged engineer, joked during the focus group. “How can we not elect officials effectively, and not feel confident? Across the board, I don’t feel a lot of confidence here that all of our votes are getting counted properly.”
Northampton voters’ suspicions are fueled by a string of recent election administration failures. In recent municipal elections, election machines have faltered twice: In 2019, initial vote totals showed a candidate who would go on to narrowly win their contest only initially get less than 200 votes across some 55,000 ballots. And just last year, the printout of a person’s ballot would in some cases display the wrong selection on judicial retention elections.
In both cases, election officials stressed that the final outcomes were correct. A paper trail backup was used to count the votes in 2019, and election officials said last year’s erroneous printouts were due to human error when programming the machines and that they were able to correctly tally the final count as voters intended.
“If they tell me they’re working, I am hoping they’re working,” Jimmy, another participant in the group, said of the voting machines. “I try to be optimistic.”
But election officials and groups like Keep Our Republic face a tough climb ahead, even in counties that did not have demonstrable problems like Northampton did.
Keep Our Republic’s theory is that the group can reverse — or at least slow — the declining trust in the democratic process by working with local leaders in key battleground states like Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin.
The group has hosted legal education classes for attorneys in Pennsylvania about the state’s election laws, and meetings with local election officials and their community in Wisconsin. The goal of the group, in the words of the group’s executive director Ari Mittleman, is to educate the local “chattering class” — local attorneys, community leaders and regular voters.
“If you look at the climate, I think we should assume that it’s going to be incredibly, incredibly tumultuous,” Mittleman said in an interview over a plate of pierogi and beer at a local brewery. “All we can do is put up speed bumps. And our hypothesis is … who is turned to in these communities in purple America, in these three states? It’s not the president. It’s not the politicians.”
The hope, he said, is that instead of turning to national pundits or politicians, voters turn inward to their community with questions. The theory is that another parent on a child’s Little League team or a church elder would be a more effective messenger about the democratic process than a prominent politician or expert parachuting into the community. And when there are questions over things like election litigation, or problems that do occur, community leaders would be inherently more trustworthy.
“I’ll be the first to say, it’s a total hypothesis that might be proven wrong. People might tune into national news, talking heads and experts who’ve never been to Northampton County or King County, Michigan, or whatever,” Mittleman said. “But I have a feeling they’re going to go and say to people in their community, ‘What’s this all about?’”