NOTE: This piece is part of a collection of local essays on elections and trust.

My unique career has afforded me the opportunity to manage several political campaigns — for both candidates and issues. In my many years of campaign work, I have never witnessed any irregularities in the electoral process. This doesn’t mean that I think all campaigns and/or elections are truthful and transparent; I don’t. We have heard reports of hanging chads, voter suppression and fraud, and most recently, foreign electoral intervention. What it does mean is that I have witnessed the hard work, long hours and honesty of our election officials and poll workers. I have studied their policies and practices and closely watched their processes, and I have full confidence in the outcomes.

So why is there mistrust and lack of voter confidence?  Or is there?

According to a recent nationwide survey by researchers from Rutgers University–New Brunswick, Northeastern, Harvard and Northwestern Universities, a significant minority of Americans lack confidence in the outcome of the 2020 presidential election with more than one-third (primarily Republicans and Trump voters) not believing that the election results were fair. The survey, published by The COVID-19 Consortium for Understanding the Public’s Policy Preference Across States, found that 64 percent of Republicans and 69 percent of Trump voters felt the election was unfair, compared to 11 percent of Democrats and 8 percent of Biden voters.

Despite this distrust in the election results, 78 percent of voters nationwide were confident that their own ballots were properly counted.  Many don’t believe the election was fair but they believe that their ballot was accurately counted.  Does this make sense?  

This juxtaposition absolutely makes sense because of a concept called “social capital.”  Social capital refers to the links and bonds formed through work, friendships and acquaintances.  We may be wary or distrustful of someone or something we don’t know, but we trust our coworkers, neighbors and friends because of established relationships, a shared sense of identity, a shared understanding, shared norms, shared values, trust and/or cooperation.  We question the hanging chads in Florida, but we’re sure that our local election officials — those people we see and interact with at the grocery store, church and school — counted our ballot accurately.

Social capital is earned trust. It is confidence in systems and social networks. Social capital empowers us in more than just elections.  It empowers schools, neighborhoods, communities, workplaces, public health etc. — anywhere that trust is needed to enable society to function effectively. It takes time and determination to build social capital, but it is worth the effort.

Morey Mechlin | Guest author

Morey Mechlin is a retired executive director of Care to Learn; longtime community advocate and multi-nonprofit board volunteer and recipient of the Humanitarian Award and Athena Award