One month before Election Day, Republican Governor Greg Abbott issued two executive orders altering the newfound role of Texas as a swing state in the 2020 federal elections. First, he restricted mail-in ballot drop off locations to one per each of the 254 counties in Texas, some of which are larger than Delaware and Rhode Island combined. Second, he expanded in-person early voting in the middle of a global pandemic. Even though Governor Abbott received immediate backlash, his actions were well within the power of the executive and nearly impossible to challenge.
In the 2020 election, the very right to vote has become a partisan issue to be manipulated. While high voter turnout and individual political agency are central pillars of the shining example of democracy the U.S claims to be, strategies like the cracking and packing of gerrymandering show that increasing electoral manipulation plagues our current political reality. Who is likely to vote, when, where, and why has become a political puppet-show, and mail-in voting is the next act.
The Republican Party is constructing their 2020 campaign on the plank of “integrity,” or lack thereof, in the mail-in voting system. As a result, Republicans are significantly less likely to vote by mail in 2020 than Democrats. This effort successfully tilts the electoral playing field in favor of the Republicans. It is inherently easier to invalidate a mail-in ballot as opposed to an in-person ballot. In an article from the Atlantic, Derek Thompson explains how the postmark, signature, and envelope required for the mail-in ballot system introduces a significant risk for human error, which often affects young and minority voters (largely Democratic voting blocs). Although initially damaging the reputation of the Republican Party, COVID-19 health concerns have become convenient cover, distracting from the party’s deeper political strategy in play here. If there is a sudden switch in the leading candidate due to the counting of mail-in ballots, the Republican Party has carved out a pathway to attack the legitimacy of the election, especially the mail-in system, citing unfounded allegations of fraud. Intentionally seeking to undermine public confidence in the election, coupled with refusal from the sitting U.S President to concede power if the election results seem suspect, presents a real threat to the future of American democracy.
At the center of the Republican Party’s election manipulation strategy is a concept known as the “Red Mirage.” Since Republican voters disproportionately vote in-person, Election-Day counts will likely show a large initial Republican lead. If current polling data is accurate, over the weeks following Election Day, Democrats are likely to take the lead as a result of mail-in ballots being counted, a concept termed the Blue Shift. However, American citizens rely on Election Day results to determine the election’s outcome, so many Americans will initially perceive a Republican victory. According to Susan Hyde, a political scientist at UC Berkeley, oftentimes “voters use the shortcut of the outcome of the election to infer the quality of the process”. This means that supporters of the victor are likely to assume the election process is legitimate, while supporters of the loser are likely to believe the election to be rigged or even stolen. This tendency contributes to deep-seated polarization, by splitting the country between those who distrust and those who champion the current governmental system.
Although to some objectors it may seem harmless, the compounding of many small attempts to influence democracy leads to severe democratic erosion, so each attempt represents a serious threat to our democracy. There is some data suggesting that Democrats dominate early in-person voting, however, the amount of Democrats expected to vote in person is still predicted to be less than the discrepancy between Republican and Democrat mail-in ballots. President Trump himself has professed that high levels of voting “would never have another Republican elected in this country again.” In Chapter Four of his new book Election Meltdown, Professor Richard Hasen describes how President Trump undermined voter faith in the electoral system in the 2016 election. Professor Hasen also details how President Trump made several remarks that the political elite ignored voter fraud, even going as far as to seemingly encourage his supporters to engage in voter intimidation. Professor Hasen further explains that President Trump refused to promise a concession if he lost the election citing concerns over election legitimacy, statements that mirror those made this election cycle.2
In both the 2016 and 2020 elections, intentionally undermining the electorate’s faith in the electoral process in order to manipulate election results is a clear, documented, and successful strategy. In her essay On Democratic Backsliding, University of Oxford professor Nancy Bermeo sites “long-term strategic [election] harassment and manipulation” as a form of structural democratic backsliding that is becoming increasingly common and secretive. Election manipulation has also been associated with “Stealth Authoritarianism”, a type of democratic erosion characterized by a freely elected executive moving toward an authoritarian through enacting slow structural changes to the governmental system which can lead to regime change.3 By attacking election administration performance, the Republican Party significantly damages the perceived legitimacy of an election. However, this strategy is a slippery slope. Professor Hasen ends Chapter Four by contending that democracy depends on confidence in the electoral system when he says, “we play with fire when we use language that tends to undermine the voter confidence that remains.”
If the American people completely lose faith in the electoral system, we could have a President who refuses to leave office and warring factions who refuse to be governed by the other. Among other suggestions, Professor Susan Hyde proposes the growth of trusted news sources. This would provide some objective information on the quality of an election, which would separate the population’s perception of the quality of an election from the election outcome. Ultimately, it is up to the people of the U.S to prevent election manipulation by calling out examples of manipulation when they are evident.
1Nancy Bermeo, “On democratic backsliding,” Journal of Democracy 27, no. 1 (2016): 5-19.
2Hasen, Richard L.. Election Meltdown: Dirty Tricks, Distrust, and the Threat to American Democracy. United Kingdom, Yale University Press, 2020.
3Varol, Ozan. 2015. “Stealth Authoritarianism.” Iowa Law Review 100(4): pp. 1673-1742. Parts I, II and III.
Photos courtesy of Getty Images
This blog post is very concise and well-written, and it largely reflects the worries I had leading up to the election and the worries I still have in the wake of the election results. However, I’m not entirely convinced by the last point where you claim that it is up to the people to prevent election manipulation. It begs the question: what can the people really do?
One large downside to representative democracies that I’ve observed is that whenever a ‘bad’ presidential candidate who is backed by a majority of congress is put into office, the people are forced to wait until the next election cycle to do anything substantive about it, and voting them out is only possible if the majority of US voters agree that the candidate is actually ‘bad.’ Since we’re already polarized, what looks like election manipulation to one side will look like democratic preservation to the other. While I don’t mean to be defeatist and pessimistic, I can’t help but feel that once mass polarization has set in, all the people are capable of doing is sitting back and watching as congress battles it out and the parties scramble to get their candidate elected.
You make a strong counterargument to my claim that effective prevention of electoral manipulation lies within the agency of the American people. The question of what can America do to combat the growing threat of electoral manipulation plagued me as I wrote this piece. It left me wondering if deep-seated polarization is inescapable,what force is capable of combating election manipulation? I don’t think polarization is solely responsible for election manipulation, instead I believe as polarization increases, more people feel impassioned to run for public office, which leads to further and more deeply entrenched polarization, and so on.. I think it’s essential that American citizens maintain a sense of agency regarding the democratic erosion occurring in the U.S. Fundamentally, it is up to the American people to decide which sources warrant broad trust and how to connect with peers from across the aisle. Americans can combat manipulation and polarization at the same scale that it is being thrust upon them. If we concede this, we lose any hope of combating the democratic erosion I sought to highlight. In a country founded on free speech, Americans have the same agency to promote quality information as they do to spread disinformation, in an independent matter free of any control from a government or institution. Unfortunately, election manipulation is a compounding issue: as manipulation goes unchecked, worse manipulation follows because the fear of retaliation decreases. In a representative democracy, elections are especially significant, which makes election manipulation potentially more detrimental. Yet, I would argue that this has an upside: it makes voting the most significant action an individual can take to make their voice heard. Fortunately, voting is the closest thing we have in our governmental system to an equal political resource. It appears the only institution able to adequately check election manipulation is the American people and it is absolutely essential that we do so to maintain the fear of citizen reaction amongst politicians. Polarization may cause some of the most ambiguous examples of election manipulation that could be construed as democratic preservation. However, I don’t think this is a reason not to focus on informing the public of the growing threat. Furthermore, in my relatively well-rounded research of Trump election strategies, I found no evidence on either side of the aisle arguing that these strategies were good for democracy. Even in some extreme cases, I think it is hard to confuse clear attempts of election manipulation with democratic preservation.
Patrick, I really enjoyed reading your article as you were able to outline the methods Republicans were using to try to strategically manipulate the election. I agree that compounding these methods could have caused democratic erosion. With gerrymandering, claims of voter fraud, and limited mail-in voting during a pandemic all happening during this election cycle, it could have possibly led to Trump winning the election.
Fortunately, these methods were still insufficient in helping Trump win the election. A good explanation for this could have been from your quote on Trump saying that increasing the turnout will lead to a Republican never winning an election. This is because America experienced the highest turnout in the past century with this past election, so this could represent a correlation between turnout and Democrats winning more elections.
I agree that the effects of high-voter turnout did significantly damage the efficacy of the strategies that I outlined in my article. However, I think these effects were dampened by the electoral college. I was surprised to see how critical leading democracy scholars were of the electoral college in the Virtual Roundtable on the 2020 U.S Election held by the Brown Watson Institute for International Relations and Public Policy. Harvard political scientist Steven Levinsky even went as far as to say the electoral college upheld “minority rule”. Even though the election manipulation I documented was insufficient to elect President Trump to a second term, I would like to reaffirm how important I think it is that we document and learn from both successful and unsuccessful attempts at democratic erosion. Watching the election play out after writing this article, I was surprised by the role social media companies played in the collapse of the Republican election manipulation strategy. Social media companies took a much more active role as “moderators of truth” than they did in 2016, even to go so far as to ban officials like the White House Press Secretary. Whether this move was successful or not is yet to be seen. What you think about the role of Social Media companies in election manipulation?