The public's reaction to next week’s election outcomes will be a serious test of our democracy, especially if the results are delayed or change over time as the record number of absentee ballots are counted. Disturbingly, according to Grinnell College National Polls, confidence in the 2020 election has dropped significantly. In October 2019 and March 2020, about 69 percent of respondents were very or somewhat confident that ballots would be counted as voters intended. But by late August, that percentage had fallen seven points. Moreover, nearly four in 10 respondents thought that substantial amounts of fraud are likely from mail-in absentee ballots.
In short, deep political polarization, efforts to reduce access to voting and President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump announces new social media network called 'TRUTH Social' Virginia State Police investigating death threat against McAuliffe Meadows hires former deputy AG to represent him in Jan. 6 probe: report MORE’s unrelenting divisiveness and fear-mongering have created a real risk that Americans may not accept the election results. Such deep suspicions could severely hamper the next administration and undermine the legitimacy of future elections.
The Grinnell Poll revealed crucial differences in who holds these opinions. For instance, Black respondents were far less confident (42 percent) in the tallying of votes than the rest of the public (64 percent), although they were less likely to believe that mail-in ballots represent a significant opportunity for fraud (31 percent) than white conservatives (52 percent). Younger voters and those less certain they will vote also expressed more concern about fraud and less confidence in the counting of votes.
The lack of confidence in the counting of votes probably reflects distrust of election policy, while a fear of absentee voting may represent a distrust of voters — that is, a belief in rampant voter fraud. The long history of disenfranchising non-white voters in the U.S. may underlie Black citizens’ apprehension about the vote count. And President Trump’s frequent claims about fraud by non-citizens and via mail-in voting have contributed to his conservative supporters’ unfounded belief in fraud.
Of course, opinions are likely to shift, perhaps considerably, after the election, as supporters of the winning candidate find their faith in the voting process restored, and vice versa for the other side.
Nonetheless, any serious doubts about the legitimacy of the election weakens faith in democracy, further deepens divisions in the U.S. and will make policy action on any public problem more difficult.
If you are concerned about democracy and the public’s faith in it, there are things you can do in the coming days. Most important will be ensuring that every ballot is counted, reporting election irregularities and confronting false claims of fraud as they occur.
Members of the public can make sure their votes are counted, first, by encouraging friends – or, more broadly, via social media – to make a plan to vote.
Second, you can volunteer to assist in ballot “curing” — that is, helping voters fix errors on mailed ballots that will prevent their vote from being counted. Contact your election officials or local or state party now to see how you can help with this crucial step.
Third, and this is key, if voters have problems casting a ballot or see irregularities, they can call the Election Protection Hotline to get help.
Finally, you can help to debunk unfounded fear of massive voter fraud. Beliefs in conspiracy theories about widespread double voting or voting by millions of non-citizens can be hard to alter. Nonetheless, you can persuade those on the fence either in person or through letters to your local paper about the enormous improbability of such risks.
Numerous studies have found that voter fraud is extremely rare. Even the popular, old story of fraud in the Kennedy vs Nixon election is false. Second, criminals using fraudulent ballots could not possibly avoid detection by employing the millions of fraudulent votes necessary to ensure influence. Finally, the benefits of engaging in fraud are tremendously low compared to the severe penalties. Who would chance going to prison just to cast illegal ballots that are unlikely to alter the outcome?
In the coming years, there will be plenty of work for citizens to do with state legislatures and Congress to improve confidence in elections. But for now, the best defense of democracy is to aid election officials and voters when and where you can, and to inoculate the public against misplaced fears of voter fraud.
Douglas R. Hess is an assistant professor of political science at Grinnell College.