Like other meaningful differences in America, the depth of disagreement over American elections seems to keep increasing. On one hand are those concerned about voting integrity and the possibility of fraud through mail-in ballots. On the other hand are those concerned about voter access and the silencing of certain voters through the creation of extra barriers.  

Large percentages of Americans harbor these worries, with a generalized anxiety about elections common between them. A recent poll found that more than 40% of Americans are concerned about intimidation and “threats of violence” when they vote in person —including 51% of Democrats and 38% of Republicans. While 75% of respondents were “confident (their) ballot will be accurately counted,” 17% were not, including 10% of Democrats and 25% of Republicans.

And a striking 67% of people express worry about extremist violence after the election if people are dissatisfied with the results — 75% of Democrats and 60% of Republicans.

These differences are serious enough that you would hope we might talk openly and honestly about them. But there is enough fear and anger that it’s hard to imagine a productive conversation like that happening.

We shouldn’t give up on the prospect, though. Over the past two years, the organization that I work for, Braver Angels, has sponsored more than a dozen forums in which people on both the political left and right explored voting questions together. These have happened on campuses, in communities, on our podcast and online.  Across all these conversations, here are three things that have stood out.

Start with listening

First, people are capable of hearing each other’s concerns, even across massive political differences. At a Braver Angels debate on voter fraud held shortly after the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riot, David Iwinski, a dyed-in-the-wool Trump supporter, made a passionate argument that the 2020 election was stolen. But at the end of the online event, he spoke of coming away appreciating how closely connected suppression was to the question of fraud and how both must be “addressed simultaneously and systemically.”

He said, “What I enjoyed was a passionate debate on an extremely volatile topic, with courtesy, with kindness and with thoughtfulness.” He also added that the experience gave him hope about what this kind of an approach could mean for “a lot of people who are very volatile.”

Related
Perspective: Why are we so polarized? Blame our brains
Perspective: The Braver Angels plan to heal America

Iwinski went on to found Braver Angels’ Trustworthy Elections Initiative, which brings together conservatives who see the main threat to our democracy as voter fraud with progressives who see the main threat as voter suppression — encouraging conversations between them that reveal common ground. He also befriended Silas Kulkarni, the most outspoken voice of the night regarding the reality of voter suppression. Kulkarni was one of the saddest faces in the room when we held our memorial service for Iwinski, who tragically died last spring.

Share information

A second observation is that when people on the two sides oppose one another, it’s often because they are working from very different information. Once they exchange information, they are much more aligned. At one Braver Angels workshop, a progressive mentioned that there were incredibly long lines to vote in 2020 in predominantly Black neighborhoods of Atlanta. The conservatives in the room said repeatedly, “I am concerned about voter suppression. I had no idea there were long lines in Atlanta!” This new information led them to insist that the problem be addressed immediately. 

Conversely, when a Trump supporter who had monitored elections in his home region of southern California described all the discrepancies he’d seen working the polls, and told stories of all the people who had approached him with concerns that their ballot wasn’t being properly handled, many of the progressives were surprised. One speaker was an election worker in Ohio who had shared how airtight the process she had observed was in Ohio, but many participants seemed largely unaware of how different voting security practices can be in different parts of the country. 

A slate of solutions

Finally, there are policy solutions that appeal to disaffected people on both sides of the aisle. That includes working class conservatives still angry that, in their view, serious voting irregularities took place in the 2020 election and African Americans still angry that, in their view, voter suppression has never been taken seriously by white America. 

When Braver Angels convened a group of eight populist conservatives and eight progressives in Boston in June, the group achieved consensus support for 12 different policy recommendations. Agreed-upon reforms included: requiring ballots with embedded security that verifies chain of custody; requiring postelection audits of voting machines and election results; making Election Day a national holiday; making polling stations and drop-boxes equally accessible across all jurisdictions; and increasing mobile registration sites in (conservative-leaning) rural and (liberal-leaning) urban communities with low registration rates. 

Crucially, these conversations are structured so that people can speak with great passion, but also listen sincerely to one another. Nearly everyone wants to see some part of the system change, and many of the changes desired are mutual. 

Bottom line: These conversations are possible, and they are both powerful and beautiful to witness. If our republic is to thrive, and perhaps even survive, we will need to follow the leadership of the men and women who have had the courage to walk into these conversations with their “enemies” and walk out with both friendships and solutions in hand.

April Lawson is director of debates for the nonprofit Braver Angels. On Twitter, she’s @aprilalawson.