Election values should matter more than partisan politics when it comes to voting, in the view of Erik Herron with WVU. The political scientist is spearheading a project that engages voters in civil discussions about the integrity of elections, part of a National Endowment for the Humanities initiative. (WVU Photo/Brian Persinger)

WVU political scientist working to unite voters, not divide

ne West Virginia University expert is doing his part to create “a more perfect union” following meaningful discussions with state residents focused on election values rather than partisan politics.

The study of election integrity involves more than just research, according to Erik Herron, an Eberly Family Distinguished Professor in the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences Department of Political Science, and his work is part of a project funded by a West Virginia Humanities Council grant tied to a National Endowment for the Humanities initiative called “A More Perfect Union.”

Herron has been interested in elections and electoral systems for more than 25 years. After the 2020 national election cycle, he took notice of public perceptions of election integrity and public discussion about election-related issues.

“I was concerned by skepticism about the quality of elections,” he said. “And also, our tendency to speak about elections through, not just a partisan perspective, but one informed by who wins or who loses. We aren’t really thinking about the kind of underlying values that we want to see represented in our election process, but we’re judging the election process based on whether or not our preferred candidates win.”

Some of Herron’s concerns stemmed from his experience studying problematic elections in Eastern Europe and the subsequent turmoil that followed. The idea for the project emerged when he saw similar vitriolic language in the United States. In response, he wanted to engage the public in conversations about election values rather than politics.

Informed by conversations with Secretary of State Mac Warner, former Secretary of State Natalie Tennant and West Virginia election officials, Herron put together a team of faculty and students to encourage open discussions about elections. The West Virginia Humanities Council grant helped Herron hold these public events at WVU, West Virginia Wesleyan College and Glenville State University.

The events began with a short preliminary discussion about elections and election values.

“We were focusing on three values that we associate with elections: security, efficiency and access. We wanted our participants to think about what they prioritize, why they prioritize it and be able to articulate that,” Herron said.

Much of the discussion of values was held with regard to West Virginia’s voting regulations. Herron said these can be difficult to understand and every state has different rules. For example, West Virginia has neither same-day voter registration nor universal vote-by-mail, and voters must present identification but not necessarily one with a photo.

“We wanted people to have a discussion about what would make sense in West Virginia,” he said. “We had really good conversations with different orientations expressed. When we transitioned to debriefing, we let each small group speak, and you could see that some tables were focused more on security, some on access, sometimes efficiency.”

If discussions veered into partisanship, he redirected participants back to values.

As Herron posed questions about security, efficiency and access, the conversation evolved differently in various groups. People concerned with election safety emphasized their worries about same-day voter registration and voter identification, while those concerned about access often focused on who can vote as well as voting deadlines that differ between states.

Herron said he wants to build confidence in West Virginia’s voting system as well as elections across the country. And while it’s difficult to change minds, he did find some attitude shifts in participants from the beginning to the end of the event as they considered other viewpoints.

“In some people, there was movement from, say, security to access or from efficiency to security. And what we interpret from this is the effect of deliberation on their views. The kind of discussions we were having moved the needle a little bit.”

By shifting the focus away from election outcomes and focusing on what issues concerned each voter, Herron eliminated the partisan political discourse that often stalls such conversations. The next step is to expand the discussion to other groups and communities around West Virginia.

To that end, his team developed a website providing guidance for those wishing to facilitate similar gatherings. The site introduces the project and provides materials for community groups, high school and university classes, or clubs that want to host events.

“If they want to do this, they don’t need us to host the event,” Herron said. “They can go to the website and download a case study. We have some short videos that explain how to organize the event. And then individuals or groups in the community can take this material and hold those conversations themselves.

Herron was encouraged by the outcome of the three public gatherings. Three WVU students, Corinne Connor, Paige Wantlin and Travis Weller, were also instrumental in developing materials and facilitating events along with WVU Professor Sam Workman, West Virginia Wesleyan Professor Coty Martin and Glenville State Professor Josh Squires.

“I think it’s been a valuable experience for the students as well,” Herron said. “Not just to sit in on one of these activities but to help make them happen. And I think the best way to have these conversations with people who hold a wide range of opinions is to empower local groups to do it themselves.”

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