The classic refrain we hear with regard to our democratic process is “one person, one vote,” so when that principle is violated, we should be concerned. But is such a phenomenon so prevalent as to rise to the level of disrupting the electoral process? During the 2016 United States presidential election, candidate Donald Trump certainly wanted us to believe so. He repeatedly made comments that undermined the integrity of the democracy of the U.S. with unsubstantiated claims of systematic voter fraud. He went so far as to say that if he lost the election, he would contest it because of his assertion that he was up against a “rigged” vote which favored his opponent. With voter fraud being virtually nonexistent in this nation, such comments only served to undermine the legitimacy of Donald Trump’s opponent, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Voting fraud occurs when people are voting who shouldn’t, vote multiple times, and/or impersonate another voter. This is an increasingly rare issue in our system. There are occasional instances of individual levels of fraudulent voting, with NYU’s Brennan Center compiling a number of studies detailing voter fraud in various timeframes and localities. One study found ten cases of such impersonation fraud from 2000 to 2012, with another finding thirty-one “credible instances” from 2000 to 2014. A different study listed showed that the “upper limit on double voting in the 2012 election was 0.02%” and even here the authors note that most of these “could be a result of measurement error”. Neither the president’s own commission charged with investigating voter fraud nor any of the Brennan Center’s studies found that this was anything more than an occasional issue in some elections, certainly none rose to such a level as to be systematic or helping any particular candidate or party, contrary to President Trump’s claims otherwise. In order for vote rigging to be systematic, there must be a candidate for which these illegitimate votes will lopsidedly help and because Donald Trump is the one making the allegations, the implication is that any Clinton victory will be on its face illegitimate and illegal.
The president’s insistence that the election would be rigged against him despite any evidence to support this claim, and that should he lose he would not concede the election served to undermine Secretary Hillary Clinton as a legitimate political rival. In How Democracies Die, Levitsky and Ziblatt detail how political opposition can be delegitimized or otherwise sidelined. This most often happens by buying off opponents, but it also occurs through legal channels where an authoritarian executive will find a pretext to arrest their opposition. Usually, in order for this tactic to succeed, the executive must fill the courts with loyalists. President Trump has had the opportunity to nominate two Supreme Court justices, and it is possible that there will be more opportunities as members of the court age. During the campaign, candidate Trump and his supporters would often chant “lock her up!” while at rallies and even during the Republican convention. Even as late as two months ago, in July 2018, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who leads the Department of Justice, repeated the chant while giving a speech. Secretary Clinton remains free, but she is also no longer an electoral threat to him. If he is the Republican nominee in 2020, he will surely have a Democratic opponent who will have the potential to unseat him.
So far we have stayed primarily in the realm of mere aesthetic authoritarianism, with the president lashing out when things don’t go his way, usually without much material consequence on his part, and haven’t crossed the divide toward an actualized autocratic Trump. As the anonymous op-ed published in the NYT demonstrates, he is still, to some extent, surrounded by advisors who are interested in the continuation of America as we know it. It will be interesting to see if in 2020 the president reverts to claims of a rigged election and delegitimizing his rivals, as he is still wont to do. If the democrats fail to impeach him, it will rest upon the Republican party to nominate a candidate who is more in line with established democratic values who will respect the democratic process. As Lieberman, Mettler, Pepinsky, Roberts, and Valelly say in Trumpism and American Democracy, when “one of the two major parties” turns toward autocratic behavior, it “undermines democratic norms in ways that neither populism nor polarization could ever do on their own”. With their leader repeatedly making claims that his rivals are un-American and illegitimate, going so far as to undermine the validity of a national election, the establishment members of the Republican party have an obligation to not let their party be hijacked by this authoritarian element and to do everything in their power to return to the democratic status quo.