In the past few years, the United States has experienced unprecedented levels of claims of a fraudulent or stolen election. The most notable of which came in 2020, when then President Trump refused to accept the results of the election. Launching numerous lawsuits aimed at challenging the results of the election in key states such as Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Arizona. Similar themes were echoed by 2022 Republican gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano, he supported the claim that Joe Biden was not the legitimate president, and that Donald Trump was the actual winner of the 2020 race. Furthermore, other candidates have made claims that their own elections were illegitimate, in addition to supporting the claim that Trump won in 2020, Kari Lake has launched an unsuccessful lawsuit challenging the results in her 2022 Arizona gubernatorial race. Even after her lawsuit failed to materialize, she still made claims of an illegitimate election. This concerted effort to challenge the results of legitimate elections in the United States has far reaching consequences, and if this continues, could lead to mass distrust in American electoral democracy, potentially paving the way for autocratization.
These claims of fraudulent elections are already seeding doubts in the minds of American voters, as evidenced by a poll by Reuters that indicates 53% of Republicans believe that Donald Trump is the current legitimate president. This is evidence that these claims of election fraud and illegitimacy are causing American voters to begin to be wary of legitimate democratic elections. Similarly, new polling from NBC indicates that 61% of Republicans do not believe that Joe Biden won the election legitimately (i.e. with some level of fraud). It is a possibility that further instances of candidates claiming an illegitimate election could cause this number to increase. As evidenced by the two previous polls which showed that a majority of Republicans believe that either Donald Trump is the legitimate president or Joe Biden did not win legitimately.
When a majority of voters in one of the two major parties in the U.S. believe that a presidential election was fraudulent, this has the potential to become a deep-seated belief among Republicans, which would further erode confidence in elections. Similarly, if confidence in elections is eroded with voters, this could open the doors to more extreme cases of election denial. For example, a potentially losing candidate could mobilize supporters to storm vote tabulation centers in an attempt to change the outcome of an election. Similar to what we saw on January 6th with the “Stop the Steal Movement”. In which Donald Trump tacitly encouraged his supporters to prevent the certification of the presidential election as mentioned before. It is possible that with this new phenomena of claiming fraudulent elections in the U.S. could lead to more instances in which voters are mobilized by the candidate claiming fraud, to incite violence in order to get their preferred candidate elected.
Separately, this seems to be a phenomenon that is mainly found with Republican candidates. As there have been no Democratic candidates that have claimed fraud or illegitimacy in the election. The closest example we could look to is Hillary Clinton’s 2016 race in which she expressed her disappointment in the election of Donald Trump. However, she conceded the election on November 9th, one day after election day. As such, there is little evidence to suggest that this is an issue on both sides of the American political spectrum.
Fortunately, there is some good news for the United States on this issue. Nearly every candidate that espoused the claim that the 2020 election was fraudulent, lost their election in the 2022 midterm. Although currently, election denying candidates have lost their elections, we must still be vigilant in protecting the image of legitimacy in American elections. Nevertheless, we should not wait for consistent election denialism to lead to a successful overturning of a democratic election. If losing candidates are allowed to consistently push a narrative that a properly conducted, democratic election was in fact stolen, we put ourselves more and more at risk of an actual overturning of a democratic election by malicious actors, who aren’t concerned with maintaining democratic institutions. I’m reluctant to suggest social media censorship of false information given the poor track record of Facebook and other social media companies on this matter. We should however, push mainstream media networks to relentlessly challenge narratives of stolen elections, especially on networks such as Fox News, where stolen election narratives seem to consistently find a home. This is necessary to avoid a slippery slope towards authoritarian government.
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