Why Does the US Electoral Process Breed Suspicion?

COMMENTARY: Americans’ weakened trust in elections is attributed in part to the electoral institution itself and to high-profile cases of alleged stolen elections.

A man sits next to a ‘vote’ sign outside on Jan. 5 in Atlanta during the Georgia Senate runoff elections.
A man sits next to a ‘vote’ sign outside on Jan. 5 in Atlanta during the Georgia Senate runoff elections. (photo: Virginie Kippelen / AFP/Getty)

As the U.S. Congress meets to certify the Electoral College votes, President Donald Trump and his allies have sown seeds of doubt in the integrity of the election. Those allies are a minority, but they are not few. Tens of millions of Americans believe that there was significant electoral fraud, perhaps sufficient to have stolen the election from Trump.

That is remarkable, setting the United States apart from nearly all other historic democracies. It simply doesn’t happen in Australia or Belgium that large segments of the population believe that their elections have been corrupted. Why is the soil of U.S. politics such fertile ground for the seeds of suspicion?

At a recent press conference for his new book, Cardinal George Pell offered caution regarding allegations of electoral fraud, saying that “it’s no small thing to weaken trust in great public institutions.” 

True enough, but trust in America’s electoral institutions has historically been weak.

There are two reasons: One is structural, and the other regards high-profile cases.

The structural reason is that the U.S. gives to elected officials an unusually decisive role in the administration and certification of elections. While most countries have independent electoral commissions that implement the statutes governing elections, in the United States it is directly supervised by partisan elected officials.

In many states, the secretary of state who administers an election is in an elected position. A secretary of state running for reelection is the referee for a game in which he is playing. In other states, the position is a partisan appointment by the governor. Partisan administration of elections is a recipe for conflicts of interest.

While in most other democracies electoral districts are drawn up by independent, non-partisan commissions, U.S. congressional districts are designed by partisan gerrymandering. A Republican legislature draws district boundaries to favor Republicans; a Democratic legislature does the same for its side. The same legislatures also draw up voting rules, including eligibility criteria, measures that have a sad history of denial of voting rights.

Without attributing any ill will or malicious intent, it is quite reasonable to doubt the impartial administration of elections on conflict-of-interest grounds alone.

For example, the most famous secretary of state in U.S. history is Katherine Harris, the Florida secretary of state who supervised the 2000 Bush-Gore recount. She was elected as a Republican and campaigned for George W. Bush in 2000, even serving as co-chair of his Florida campaign. That Democrats were suspicious of her rulings was not unreasonable, even if there was no evidence that she acted improperly. 

The second reason Americans are receptive to allegations of electoral fraud is that there have been high-profile cases in which large segments of the losing side believe their candidate was unjustly treated.

Consider that, in the lifetime of both presidential candidates, Trump and Joe Biden, there already has been a widely-suspected stolen presidential election. It is an entirely respectable view in U.S. history circles to hold that corrupt political machines in Chicago and Texas delivered the 1960 election to John F. Kennedy over Richard Nixon. 

Indeed, so widespread is the view that JFK “stole” the 1960 election that even laudatory Kennedy biopics invariably include a scene where old Joe Kennedy Sr. says some version of “Don’t buy a single vote more than necessary. I’ll buy an election for my son, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to pay for a landslide.”

Nixon was widely praised for conceding an election — to avert “the agony of a constitutional crisis” — that he believed that he had won. 

In 2000, similar praise was given to Al Gore, despite many of his partisans believing that Florida Republicans had stolen the election from him.

It is quite a mainstream position to believe that a presidential election can be, and has been, stolen.

The same applies at the state level. Consider that just two years ago, in hotly-contested Georgia, the positions were largely reversed. 

In 2018, the race for governor was between Republican Brian Kemp and Democrat Stacey Abrams. Kemp was secretary of state, and held that office even while running for governor. In the years leading up to his gubernatorial run, Kemp updated Georgia’s voting lists, purging over 1 million registrations. Perhaps it was routine maintenance, but it is not difficult to imagine that he wanted to cancel the registrations of voters who might favor his opponent. 

When Abrams lost narrowly, it was widely believed by her supporters that Kemp had illegitimately rigged the election. Describing Kemp as an “architect of voter suppression,” Abrams alleged that, “under the watch of the now-former secretary of state, democracy failed Georgia.”

Indeed, regarding Georgia, it seems that one point of agreement between Trump and Abrams is that elections are stolen in that state. Is it any surprise, then, that many U.S. citizens agree?