Editor’s Note: Shannon Hiller and Nealin Parker are co-directors of Princeton’s Bridging Divides Initiative (BDI), a nonpartisan research initiative that gives people current information about challenges in their community and resources for solutions. The views expressed in this commentary are their own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
We are used to election season being a campaign period, a day of voting, a fairly immediate concession and a subsequent inauguration – with the majority of citizens having little awareness of the rest of the process.
Though the Electoral College certified the election results this week, the slow move until this point and the lack of a formal concession make this moment feel different. Now, we are hyper aware of both the gaps in the election system itself and the shocking threats against officials (and their families) who are working to ensure a fair process. In this climate, it can seem impossible to put the election behind us.
But data can help give us the ability to move forward: to be vigilant in preventing political violence, while also providing the information we need to build inclusive and resilient communities.
Starting in early 2019 and running through the 2020 presidential election, the Bridging Divides Initiative, a Princeton-based research initiative, shared information with local communities about current and potential challenges ahead of the election.
This took the form of sharing details of local demonstrations, tracking incidents of political violence and analyzing trends of both. For example, through the US Crisis Monitor, our joint project with the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), we tracked more than 19,000 local demonstrations. Despite the high-profile news coverage and commentary by political leaders to the contrary, the overwhelming number of these events were peaceful and continue to be peaceful.
Of the events BDI identifies as contentious, a definition that includes incidents such as minor property damage and police use of excessive force, repeated acts of political violence were rare or highly concentrated in a few locations, such as Portland, Oregon. And despite the online and real-life conversations about unlawful paramilitary and other armed groups showing up on Election Day, widespread armed intimidation at the polls did not materialize.
BDI continues to track contentious events of real concern by both government and individual actors, yet in the last three months, including Election Day, most states recorded two or fewer violent incidents against property or people at any sort of demonstration.
Having a peaceful Election Day, where a record number of people cast their ballots, was an accomplishment and not an accident. The largely peaceful outcome was the result of hard work: organizers, officials and leaders across the spectrum used timely, relevant information to reduce the risk of violence.
Sharing our data with international and national organizations allowed them to orient their violence prevention and mitigation work to where it was needed most and would have the greatest impact. The Carter Center, which largely works overseas to build transformative and sustainable peace, used BDI data to focus on specific counties in Georgia, North Carolina and Pennsylvania.
In turn, they gathered dozens of faith leaders in these critical areas to equip them with constructive messaging in support of acceptance of election results, promoting a peaceful electoral process and pushing back against violence.
Rabbi Ron Symons of the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh, who attended one of The Carter Center briefings, spoke to us afterward about the obligation of local leaders to prevent violence. “Given the rancor in American politics, if we have the ability to use our shared values for peace and civility to influence the community, we have a responsibility to engage. We believe that we must redefine the term ‘neighbor’ from a geographic term into a moral concept. This is a moment that demands we do so.”
Data also helped in local security planning. Using the weekly, state-by-state updates, a coalition of legal experts and law firms reached out to governors, mayors and local officials about unlawful paramilitary activity and voter intimidation ahead of the election. They offered pro bono assistance, as well as details on relevant law that local mayors or sheriffs could quickly point to in forming their plans around sensitive issues. These guides and fact sheets were also shared with local poll workers and volunteers, to help them respond to voter questions and included direct coordination with long-standing national voter protection efforts.
This proactive connecting and information sharing prompted concrete action from local leaders. In places like Erie, Pennsylvania, awareness of past incidents and information on potential intimidation helped the town council and election officials take steps to reduce the chance of armed intimidation ahead of Election Day.
Data and analysis doesn’t need to go through formal organizations or those in elected office to be useful. It can also directly challenge public misperceptions, especially when the information is made accessible to local, trusted voices.
In the days leading up to the election, local papers – as diverse as the Florida Times-Union (Jacksonville, FL), Bennington Banner (Vermont) and The Berkshire Edge (Massachusetts) – ran opinion pieces and letters to the editor citing data and analysis from the US Crisis Monitor. The articles ranged from using data to dispel rumors about Black Lives Matter-associated protests to calling for more nuanced reporting overall, rather than a focus on sensational headlines.
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To be clear, the absence of violence is not the measure of success. The root causes of tension may have gotten worse in this election cycle, but they did not emerge in the last four years. From rising levels of hate crimes to low levels of trust in government, many different indicators help measure the health of our society.
We are likely to face the same, if not even deeper, divisions come the next election if these issues are not also addressed. The desire to stop political violence does not replace the deep need to build a sustainable peace grounded in justice.
Still, key data and analysis helped inform powerful organizing, planning and response – including by communities most affected – to mitigate the risk of violence, and we will continue to support these efforts in months to come. Yet, neither analysis nor a single election is the end of the process. Instead it is a call to action, the first step in bridging the divides and building the future America we want to see.