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Americans losing faith in elections as Trump discredits voting systems

President Trump holds up a copy of the New York Post
President Trump holds a copy of the New York Post before signing an executive order aimed at curbing protections for social media giants.
(Evan Vucci / Associated Press)

The diatribes are as unnerving and unrelenting as they are untrue: An incumbent president warning that the nation’s voting systems are cauldrons for fraud and ripe for rigging, seemingly setting the groundwork to discredit the results should he lose in November.

But while such rhetoric lacks precedent in the Oval Office, scholars say it’s a familiar playbook that President Trump is using — and one that has already had a malignant impact on public trust in American democracy.

Trump’s repeated warnings of mass robbing of ballots from mailboxes, rampant forgery and flocks of illegal immigrants being permitted to hijack elections have been debunked by voting officials across party lines.

Nevertheless, evidence increasingly shows that Americans are losing faith in the integrity of the nation’s elections, putting the U.S. in unaccustomed company.

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“I have only ever thought about these things before in an authoritarian setting,” said Andrea Kendall-Taylor, a former senior intelligence officer who led the U.S. government’s strategic analysis on Russia and is now a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington think tank.

“Now the same indicators are relevant here.”

One such indicator comes from a group of academics, called Bright Line Watch, which since 2017 has surveyed Americans on how much confidence they have in the election system. The surveys show a steep drop during Trump’s presidency.

When the project began, about 60% of those surveyed said they believed U.S. elections were free of fraud. Now only 45% say they believe that.

A third of Trump supporters surveyed say they would not regard it as undemocratic for a president to attack the legitimacy of election results.

“I am enormously concerned,” said John Carey, a Dartmouth professor and co-founder of Bright Line Watch.

“The idea that people accept election results, even adverse ones, without violence, and they continue to defer to the institutions established by those elections in their aftermath is the definition of our political system. Threats to that are really existential.”

A rapid expansion of mail voting precipitated by the pandemic has given Trump a bigger opening to claim malfeasance.

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“The claims are ungrounded in facts, but it is the perception and confusion and uncertainty that serve his purpose,” said Wayne Sandholtz, a professor of international relations and law at USC.

Last week, Twitter took the extraordinary step of attaching a fact check to some of Trump’s claims about California’s voting system. The move enraged the president, who quickly issued a legally dubious executive order aimed at punishing the social media platform.

Trump then followed up with more warnings about voter fraud that were demonstrably false, declaring “anybody in California that is breathing” will get a ballot and that criminal youths will be free to steal masses of absentee ballots from mailboxes, forging signatures on them to skew the outcome for Democrats.

The state uses extensive security measures, including signature verification and unique bar codes through which ballots are tracked, to prevent such scenarios, which is a prime reason that California’s votes take a long time to fully count.

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As far-fetched as some of the claims seem, they can rattle a public whose faith in democratic institutions is already on the decline. The speed at which misinformation can be amplified over the internet — often with the help of bots — spreads conspiracy theories more quickly than ever.

Making matters worse, the election infrastructure, especially in this pandemic era, is an easy target for confusion. It is big, bulky and opaque to most voters, who are unfamiliar with the nuts and bolts of voting systems.

Among the world’s most stable democracies, the U.S. is unique in experiencing a notable deterioration in the strength of government institutions designed to preserve democracy, according to Varieties of Democracy, a global network of scholars who track the topic.

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“It is very worrying,” said Staffan Lindberg, the organization’s director and a professor at the University of Gothenburg, in Sweden.

The U.S. “is the only nation ranked among the top 20% of the world’s most democratic countries that has had a significant backslide,” he said.

Other nations that have seen significant erosion in public faith in their institutions, such as Hungary, Poland, Serbia and Brazil, started out with much weaker democratic traditions.

Trump’s efforts to foster distrust among voters echoes tactics used by the authoritarian strongmen in those countries, but his technique of infusing chaos into elections is unique.

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Authoritarian leaders typically use control over the election system and the media to tilt elections in their favor — banning opposing political parties, suppressing unfavorable narratives and rigging the vote themselves, Lindberg said. Then they play up the integrity of the election, arguing it was fair and the outcome cannot be questioned.

Those options are unavailable to American presidents, who have little role in election administration, which is highly decentralized in the U.S., with major decisions left to individual states and counties.

“I can’t think of an example where a democratic leader tried to create uncertainty” around whether an upcoming election would be truly fair and democratic, said Erica Frantz, a Michigan State University political scientist and author of “Authoritarianism: What Everyone Needs to Know.”

“But this effort to create uncertainty and make Americans feel they don’t know what is fact or fiction is something we see all around the world in places on the brink of dictatorship.”

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In 2016, when Trump made similarly unfounded claims about rigged voting systems, there seemed little chance of other leading Republicans standing with him. Now, the landscape is very different.

“It seemed certain back then that the Republican Party would say, ‘Let’s move on’” if Trump sought to challenge an election result that went against him, said Steven Levitsky, a professor of government at Harvard and coauthor of “How Democracies Die.”

“That seems less likely today. The great danger is not so much that he has a devious authoritarian plan to hold onto power forever. It is that Trump being Trump, he can break democratic institutions. He has this relationship with a Republican Party that will support him no matter what.”

“If you go back just 20 or 30 years, the vast majority of Americans trusted the electoral process,” said Levitsky. That trust eroded some in the aftermath of the disputed 2000 election, he said, “but it has plummeted since 2016, mostly because the president of the United States has declared over and over again that elections are rigged.”

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All that has elections experts looking with anxiety toward November. The predicted surge in mail-in voting propelled by the pandemic will lengthen the time required to tally votes. If the race is close, the country could spend days, or even weeks, uncertain about who won.

The erosion of confidence in the election system by Americans creates an opening for the loser in such a scenario to discredit the results, claiming fraud even if there were none.

Scenarios like that keep many who spend their time thinking about elections and democracy awake at night.

“Is he laying the groundwork for a significant cleavage in our society where people — many with access to weapons — believe he lost unfairly? That is a grim picture, and we are talking about it in the context of the U.S,” said Kendall-Taylor the former intelligence analyst.

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“When you stop and reflect on these realities, it is a crazy thing.”


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