Stephen Medvic

Stephen Medvic, Franklin & Marshall College

Counting the votes of more than 150 million people is an arduous task. Doing so when the election is close is fraught with complications. “Irregularities” will inevitably exist because both voters and vote counters make mistakes. 

But let’s be very clear: Irregularities are not fraud and mistakes are not attempts to steal an election. Voter fraud, of all sorts, is exceedingly rare.

There are, undoubtedly, isolated examples of a voter attempting to cast an illegal ballot. Indeed, a Trump supporter and registered Republican in Luzerne County was arrested in October for illegally requesting an absentee ballot for his mother who had died in 2015. Nevertheless, in those few cases when fraud has occurred, it has been relatively easy to catch and has rarely, if ever, amounted to enough votes to reverse the outcome of an election.

Facts, however, have not stopped President Donald Trump from making outlandish and entirely unsubstantiated claims of a “rigged” election. In response to those claims, a number of Republican elected officials have advanced what amounts to a conspiracy theory of election misconduct. It doesn’t appear to matter that, to this point, not a single fraud allegation the Trump campaign has made in court has been found to have merit.

The more reasonable of the president’s Republican allies in Congress or in state legislatures have attempted to walk a fine line between acknowledging reality and placating the temperamental leader of their party. “We must count all legal votes,” they say self-evidently.

Statements such as this may seem harmless but they imply that illegal votes have, in fact, been cast. Between that suggestion and the president’s direct claims of a stolen election, many in the public have come to believe that the election was not conducted fairly.

A recent YouGov/The Economist poll found that 86% of Trump voters believe that Joe Biden “did not legitimately win the election.” In a Politico/Morning Consult poll, 84% of Republicans who said they believe the election wasn’t free and fair also think there was widespread voter fraud as a result of mail-in ballots and 76% think ballots have been tampered with.

It should be said that it is not unusual, in the United States or in nearly any other democracy, for supporters of the losing party to question the validity of the election outcome. It’s hard to come to grips with the fact that more of one’s fellow citizens voted for the other party than voted for one’s own. However, this phenomenon is usually temporary. With the passage of time, almost all citizens come to accept the results.

The concern now is that months — if not years — of President Trump’s efforts to undermine faith in our electoral system will have had a lasting effect. Recall that Trump took office claiming that illegal votes cost him the popular vote in 2016. Somehow, nearly 3 million such votes were cast, undetected, and yet those trying to “steal” the election couldn’t pull it off in the three swing states that gave the presidency to Trump. He now claims that those same swing states are the sites of rampant fraud.

Shortly after taking office, President Trump appointed a commission to investigate allegations of voter fraud. The commission was stacked with members who believe fraud is widespread. Nevertheless, the commission was disbanded within a year, having met only twice and having failed to find a single verifiable example of voter fraud.

This year, President Trump railed against the use of mail-in ballots, even though every state has accepted votes through the mail for years. Of course, the volume of mail-in ballots was much larger in some states, including Pennsylvania, than it’s been in the past. But there is absolutely no evidence that anything untoward occurred with the handling of those ballots.

If there had been attempts to steal the election, it’s hard to explain why Democrats would have grabbed the presidency but lost seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and failed to gain control of the U.S. Senate.

Delegitimizing elections is only one part of the undermining of democracy that has taken place in the last four years. A full accounting of the democratic backsliding that is occurring in the United States is a subject for another day. But there are warning signs that a drift toward authoritarianism, as we’ve seen happen in Poland and Hungary, is underway.

American democracy is not as well established as we like to think it is. By any definition of the term, we did not qualify as a full-fledged democracy until the 1960s, when the U.S. Supreme Court recognized the principle of “one-person, one-vote,” the 24th Amendment banned poll taxes, and the Voting Rights Act outlawed discrimination in voting procedures. Only then did the country finally embrace, officially at least, the concept of political equality so fundamental to self-governance.

With roots not firmly planted, American democracy is vulnerable to forces that would upend it. Social media, for example, appear to facilitate the rapid spread of misinformation but censorship brings its own dangers. Populism, which is ascending throughout Western democracies, claims to champion the people over the elites but its right-wing variety defines “the people” far too narrowly.

Some Americans are increasingly unsure if democracy is even worth preserving, particularly if it means sacrificing their partisan goals to abstract principles. Studies show that younger people, for whom “the system” hasn’t provided the opportunities older generations enjoyed, are particularly skeptical of democracy. If we need to convince people that democracy is worth saving, perhaps it’s already too late.

I’ll assume most Americans are still committed to government based on the will of the people. If so, it’s time to accept the judgment of the voters whether we agree with that judgment or not.

We do, of course, need to have confidence that the election returns accurately reflect the voters’ will. But this year, as in 2016, there is no justification for doubting the results of the election — and those who continue to do so are putting partisan gain above an already fragile democracy. That should be unacceptable to us all.

Stephen K. Medvic is the Honorable and Mrs. John C. Kunkel Professor of Government at Franklin & Marshall College. This column was updated Monday afternoon to correct numbers in Politico/Morning Consult poll.