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Study says support for democratic institutions ‘somewhat superficial,’ but Nevada County official says people show confidence in local process

As compliance with COVID-19 mandates increasingly becomes a politically charged issue, mounting distrust in elected officials and institutions nationally has the potential to further divide the local community.

According to a June study by the Democracy Fund, a private charitable foundation that researches ways to improve the democratic process, American’s professed support for democratic institutions appears “somewhat superficial,” and is highly dependent on election outcomes.

The fund’s voter study group tracked survey respondents’ attitudes toward election integrity, democracy and trust in government over several years and found the responses to be surprisingly fickle, with support for anti-democratic action or authoritarian measures increasing in the last three years, if people feel it’s justified.

One-third of Americans have at some point in the last three years indicated that “a strong leader who doesn’t have to bother with Congress or elections” would be a good system of government, according to the study.

According to Nevada County Assistant Clerk-Recorder/Registrar of Voters Natalie Adona, those statistics are heavily influenced by the timing of the question and whether their favorite candidate most recently won. The study also points out individual respondents’ attitudes do not remain static over the years, with only 10% of people consistently supporting authoritarian alternatives.

Typically, Adona said, suspicion is directed toward the federal level, with people showing more confidence in how things are run locally.

“The worldwide trend on democracy has gone down over the course of several years and .. it is sort of an alarming statistic,” she said.

“People nationally are less sure they should be confident about election outcomes, but they’re very confident that their own ballots got counted as intended,” Adona said. “What that means to me is that voters have a tendency to have very high confidence in what’s happening in their area.”

Although the field of research is not yet fully explored, Adona said evidence suggests positive experiences with government and its employees could make a difference for election officials.

“There’s also a growing amount of evidence suggesting that interaction with election officials and poll workers also makes a difference,” she said.

The Democracy Fund report also found that people have more confidence in processes when they have more direct connection with them.

It’s not clear how Nevada County’s and now the state’s vote-by-mail system will factor into that experience for the upcoming election. Adona said the biggest factor may be out of the elections office’s hands.

“People are very confident about their ballots when their candidate of choice is on the winning side. If their candidate of choice is on the losing side, they have a tendency to feel less confident in election outcomes,” she said.

To contact Staff Writer John Orona, email jorona@theunion.com or call 530-477-4229.

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