In the last 20 years, the United States has seen an increasing rise in the lack of trust in election results. Public trust in elections began to erode with the Supreme Court’s decision in Gore v. Bush when the state of Florida misconducts lead to a heavily heated recount. Despite Al Gore winning the popular vote, he did not win enough electoral college seats to get him over 270 due to one state. Florida was a very close race that recount was needed, but the recount was a mess. While Al Gore did concede by asking his party to accept the results despite his rejection of the court’s decision, he believed in the institution in the country. It wasn’t the same story with President Obama’s election victory. A small minority of dire hard Republican supporters refused to believe that President Obama was reelected back in 2012 despite Mitt Romney conceding. Comparing to Al Gore’s loss, this angered spewed around against more of Obama in fears of his policies that eventually accumulated even more hatred to the other party. While nobody disputed Obama’s election at all from the losing candidate nor close enough like Al Gore. Polarization was on the rise in the country, and mistrust was begging to set foot. This start created the main issue today where the rise of the drop in voter confidence has allowed the current President of the United States to use his authority to discredit the 2020 election through rhetoric and the courts and the institutions in the country will be tested to the max if it can hold up free and fair elections.
While these rejections of the other are small, these were the first few signs of a rise of lack of recognition of the legitimacy the other party winning. Before the public trust in the election, results were never disputed nor marginally close. In 2016, another close race that has left multiple swing states having less than 100,000 votes margin and the rise of news of Russian’s influencing the election with the Trump team. The election results left a vast portion of Democrats to believe that President Trump has been placed there by Moscow. You can see rejecting with the “Not My President” protest where democratic supporters protest around the country rejecting Trump’s victory. This could have gotten even bigger, but Hillary Clinton, on the next day, did concede and accept the results. Later, investigations onto the Russian interference started by James Comey onto the president, eventually leading to his firing, but it confirmed to those who believed the conspiracy theory even more. Eventually, as the facts came in, it was clear that Russia was interfering, but President Trump didn’t take any part in working with the Russian state, but the damage was already done.
In 2020, we see the new trend of rejecting the winning candidate continuing, but unlike the previous elections, the losing candidate President Trump isn’t conceding and denying the outcome calling it rigged. This has left a huge portion of his base, rejecting the results. Even before election night, polls were coming out from pollsters about a person who was voting candidate that loses will they accept the election result? The answer most saw was very shocking as both sides had 60% that would reject the other. So even if Donald Trump did win, we would see the other side who, coming out of 2016. believing in the Russian Gate would think that Donald Trump and the Republican Party has rigged the results. But we are not in that reality as of writing this.
What does this mean for democratic erosion? Well, if the trust of the election results is low, this could have led to massive election violence and lack of trust of the institutions that hold up the government. Thankfully, there was no massive election violence happening immediately after the election and when the news media announced that Joe Biden was the projected winner of the election. But lack of trust, in general, has allowed President Trump to make a power move by preventing any money to be used to Biden’s transitional team, but that can only persist for so long until the electoral college votes. Edit: as of the writing of this, the transition has begun under the General Service Administration directive to allow funds to go to President-Elect Biden on January 23rd, 2020. Other areas where the president using this chaos to undermine democracy would be pressuring the Republican State Legislature and Republican Governors to push for faithless electors assigned that would vote for him. While at the same time, his base is protesting around the country pressuring governors to heed his demand for recount and rejection of certification, or else it might possibly harm their reelection in 2022. The last area that President Trump is banking on is the court system. He is hoping if he can get one of his cases to the Supreme Court, they would side in his favor since three justices are appointed by him. If this does indeed succeed, future presidents might take this path to ensure their own electoral victories over the public voice. In turn, the US would return to its old ways before voting by the people was accepted by the state in the 19th century. If not, it shows the strong institutions that still in place, making sure the voter’s voice is heard.
Even if both sides in future elections are going not to accept the results, it seems to be that institution that makes sure who is the victor in the election remains free and fair interventions of party’s influence election results. An example of that would be in the state of Georgia on November 20th, a Republican Governor and Secretary State made a formal announcement to certify the results of the election after a recount. Despite opposition from their party, they did not give in to the pressure and certified the results. Without any hard evidence by the Trump team to prove any form of voter fraud, there is no way without any form of intervention by the governor not to recognize the winning candidate. This is an example of the strong institutions that goes beyond politics and beyond the control of an authoritarian move can ever achieve. But if it keeps on going, there might be a chance where a state might change its election rules for choosing an electoral college voter by the control of the state and not the public, but so far, that seems a long way off before we are in that territory is even concealable. None less, the erosion of trust in elections over the last 20 years has allowed the failed attempt of a one-term president to seize more power to remain in office.
I appreciated your comments on the 2020 election and U.S. elections. The 2000 Presidential election between Gore and Bush caused a loss of faith in the Supreme Court of the United States (due to voting in Bush v. Gore along party lines) and revealed the deep-seated flaws in the electoral college, rather than a necessary loss in the public trust of elections. Other than Florida’s horrible ballots and dimpled chads, individual elections were fine, but the failings in the manner in which we select the president (Electoral System) had not been put on display since Benjamin Harrison defeated Grover Cleveland in 1888 despite losing the popular vote. The elections from 2000 to 2016 might be analogous to our current election at first glance, but upon further investigation, I believe that Trump’s decision not to concede changes the situation a little too much to be able to make a proper comparison. Not conceding provides the electorate with a different type of political ammunition and “loss of faith” than we have seen before. In the absence of Trump’s concession, it would have been imperative for Republican officials to denounce the action in favor of democracy, however, that has yet to occur on a meaningful level.
I was happy to see your mention of the Georgia Secretary of State’s and Georgia Governor’s certification of the 2020 election result and Joe Biden’s victory despite the pressure from Trump to go along with his unfounded claims of voter fraud and corruption. However, the partial debate and stalemate amongst Michigan canvassers in certifying the results across party lines simultaneously refutes the apartisan faith in U.S. elections and points to the severe cracks in our foundation.
Your point about the lack of trust in elections despite their official acceptance is quite interesting, however it seems to primarily refer to national, presidential elections, rather than to local elections. Do you think that this, then, points to the political expediency of certain politicians attempting to cast presidential elections as invalid for their own policy goals? Or would you argue that this trust extends to local elections as well? Furthermore, you mentioned the 2000, 2016, and 2020 elections as examples of the population mistrusting the election. Could we argue that the birtherism movement and demands from the right for President Obama to release his birth certificate reflect a similar unwillingness? Or does this lack of acceptance only truly matter if elected officials obstruct the legislative process?
I would say it is more impacted at the federal level rather local level as the federal level has a huge impact on the country. The local level like Mayors, City Council, Beurocratic jobs, and small-time judges are not thought a lot in elections to most people. Locally they are heavily favored by the district/county partisan. Unlike the state level where you have more mixed of blue and red. The Birtherism movement which I sadly neglected can be reflected in the lack of acceptance of Obama as a president. And no it doesn’t have to be true if the elected official obstructs the legislative process, but it can allow for that official to use it as a catalyst as is my main point. It is important for the losing side to accept the results so that democracy can persist. So as long as people don’t accept leaders can use it as an opportune moment to change the election.
Interesting article. I think the biggest problems right now are the polarization between Republicans and Democrats, ‘civil wars’ within both parties, and the sheer distrust in our institutions and system at the moment. Personally, I see the 2020 election as a conflict between a “Trump cult” and an “anti-Trump/Progressive cult,” these being the two largest movements in American politics right now (I do think it does need to be noted that when I use the word “cult” I mean a sect of voters where they believe it is “their way or the highway”).
Within the Republican Party, the civil war is between the “Trump cult” and the Establishment Republicans/Moderates, while in the Democratic Party, this civil war is seemingly between the “Progressive cult” and the Establishment Democrats/Moderates. These “wars” are creating great instability in our institutions, but coupled with the fact the election happened the way it did, I think we are in a very bad position. I don’t think it can be understated that an Economist poll found that 73% of Republicans had little or no confidence that the election was conducted fairly, and a Morning Consult/Politico poll found that 67% of Republicans thought that the 2020 election was either “probably” or “definitely” not free and fair. Given Trump voters aversion to talking to pollsters, this number may be even higher. In contrast, in January of 2017, only 28% of Democrats thought the votes were counted inaccurately. I think this is a huge problem that I think neither side is properly addressing, and I’m not sure if a Trump concession would solve this. You definitely don’t want millions of people having very little to gain by respecting the existing political or economic rules of the game, and I’m afraid both sides may be heading in that direction.
I found your blog post to be extremely interesting. By evaluating the behavior of both parties when their respective candidate is not elected into office shows exactly how much mistrust there is in the opposite party. The example of Al Gore and how he handled the miscounts and election mistakes in comparison to what occurred in our most recent presidential election is very interesting. I really admire that Al Gore believed in the institution, electorate and the presidential office enough to concede and accept the results of the election. Moving forward to President Obama’s election, although a much smaller movement, there was still not total acceptance of the legitimacy of his campaign’s win. Your point is even more clear when you compare the Democrats’ reaction to Trump’s win versus the republican’s reaction to Biden’s win. The movement of ‘Not My President’ continued throughout Trump’s entire presidency. However, I will argue and say this was not entirely a movement against the legitimacy of the election, it was more so just defiance against Trump’s principles. Regardless, seeing a very similar reaction from Republican’s these past couple of months- including President Trump himself- shows how polarization is threatening our democracy. I am currently doing a case study of the democratic erosion occurring in Nigeria. After one of their elections that was filled with fraud, intimidation and lack of organization, there was extreme violence and many riots straight after. Like you said in your blog post, this is not that different from what is going on in the United States. If there is a large amount of mistrust in the government and the integrity of elections, post election violence is a possibility in future years. Also, I do agree with your points about certifying the results of the election. Your example from Georgia shows how this could be beneficial if the rest of the country followed suit.
I think it is pretty wild how elections in the US are. We are told that all our votes matter, but at the end of the day, the electoral college decides who really won and lost any given presidential election. Sure, there are some states that require their representatives (senators and house members) to vote according to how their district did, but what about all the other districts who do not abide by this rule. Even more so, I completely agree with the implementation of the electoral college. In your example of the 2000 election between Al Gore and George Bush, from many articles I have seen (speaking retrospectively) a lot of political pundits think Gore would’ve done a worse job than Bush. While we will never know for sure what would have happened, I think the college is necessary. But, back on topic, it is very scary that losing parties are flagrantly denying or just disregarding results that do not suite them. With this kind of stuff going on, I think it will cause an overall decrease in political efficacy. (citizens’ trust in their ability to change the government and belief that they can understand and influence political affairs) Therefore, if losers continue to undermine results or even try to change them, how would it make the people feel? Like you said, it makes the average citizen trust elections less and less. What happens when everyone stops trusting the system, where do we go from there? I don’t really know. If we vote for candidate X to replace candidate W, and W openly says “No, I don’t think I will leave.” How are we supposed to handle that, how does that make our government look, and what does it say about democracy in our country? I think it could result in unknowing democratic backsliding.
Armin, thank you for writing on this topic. The loss of trust in a government’s institutions is one of the hallmarks of a democracy in decline. I would, however, like to address an implication in your post that made me a bit uneasy. You mentioned that Vice President Gore requested a recount in the 2000 election and conceded the result after the Supreme Court’s decision in Bush v. Gore. (Unfortunately, the page you hyperlinked to here no longer works). Though he lamented the Supreme Court’s decision in the case because it seemed to result from political bias, you indicated that Vice President Gore was willing to concede as to not question the Court as an institution. Later on, you noted that President Trump hopes to have one of the cases where he contests the results into the Supreme Court. You expressed concern that such a move would create a precedent where the chief executive would look to the courts to fix the election in their favor “over the public voice.” My concern lies in how to tell which disputes over election results are appropriate.
Vice President Gore voiced concern over a situation where there was a reasonable suspicion that the election results were flawed (because it was so flawed) and he requested a review from the courts. This move was originally challenged in the Florida Supreme Court which found in favor of the Vice President. The ensuring court case was appealed up to the Supreme Court who found in favor of President Bush. Gore conceded the seat to President Bush.
President Trump’s moves were quite similar. He voiced concern over a situation where there was a reasonable suspicion that the election results were flawed (the first election where mail-in voting was so widespread may have resulted in some unexpected issues) and he requested a review from the courts. President Trump’s claims are still being evaluated, but there is no indication that he will refuse to concede the election if he loses in court. It is yet premature to say whether President Trump will or will not concede the election if he loses in court.
To my mind, both Vice President Gore and President Trump are making valid enough claims to have trials in court. The distinction between the two does not seem substantial enough to say that one is justified while the other is not.