Why it's wrong to call the 2016 election illegitimate
Updated: Sep 13
The following is an excerpt from my book Defusing American Anger, on the topic of election distrust. It's not the entire chapter: just the part on liberal-side election distrust about the 2016 election. The reason I wanted to share this is that I often encounter liberal people who will say "our election distrust is more logical than Trump supporter election distrust." And I don't think that's true: I think much of the liberal-side election distrust was as emotionally motivated, and as bad for America, as conservative-side election distrust (even as I also think Trump's behaviors were very bad and had no Democrat-side equivalent).
For the purposes of depolarization, I think it helps to examine the fundamental ways that high us-vs-them animosity makes many of us highly suspicious, and how. that can naturally lead to election distrust (even as you may think "the other side is much worse"). Seeing the inherent ways that us-vs-them animosity leads to high distrust can help us better understand the "other side": it can help us see aspects of ourselves more in them. And it can also help us, as we work against the ideas we think are bad and even dangerous, form more respectful and persuasive arguments. Seeing the fundamental emotional forces at play in a conflict helps us avoid unnecessarily adding to our divides and to our animosity.
Also, as I discuss in my piece on optimal depolarization approaches, I think one of the ways you persuade people to examine their own polarized, biased behaviors is to show them how similar polarized, biased behaviors show up on the "other side": they are more likely to think: "I don't like it when they do that, so maybe I shouldn't do that." At least that's what I see as a persuasive tactic.
Here's the excerpt on liberal-side election distrust.
When it comes to our current divides, election distrust might be near the top of the list of the most emotion-producing topics.
Before examining conservative-side election beliefs, I want to first spend some time examining liberal-side election distrust. If you see Trump and the GOP as the chief instigators of election distrust, you may be wondering: why would I start with liberal-side election distrust? What’s the relevance?
It’s important to recognize that, in very polarized countries like ours, as both sides come to be more in conflict, there’s a natural tendency for both sides to doubt and mistrust elections. Fighting over elections is a natural step for democracies that become extremely polarized. Election distrust will often precede even more dysfunctional and chaotic scenarios, like coups or civil war.
And it makes an intuitive sense considering our high emotions: when you’ve got two groups who dislike and distrust each other so much, of course many people will find the actions of the “other side” suspicious and underhanded. Many people will naturally find it hard to believe that so many people could really support and vote for the other side’s candidates. When we’ve got a lot of animosity, it’s easy for us to filter everything through a paranoid lens and look for the reasons for why the other side’s win wasn’t legitimate.
A goal of this book is reducing our anger at our fellow citizens. And one way we do that is by seeing how people on the “other side” are, in many ways, like us. They are, like us, shaped by the forces around them, and influenced by their distrust of our group, as we are influenced by our distrust of them.
In this case, this means being able to lower some of our arrogance that “our group would never behave like them.” It means being able to see some similarities and overlaps in how both groups have behaved.
This section will make the case for why liberals can be seen to have a significant amount of unreasonable election distrust, and will show how that may have influenced conservative-side election distrust.
For Trump voters, it can be helpful to think about how, if the tables were turned and Trump had been declared the winner in 2020, there’d likely be a lot of Democrats saying that Trump’s election wasn’t legitimate. And for the purposes of depolarization, maybe you can think about how upset you’d be about that behavior from liberals.
Liberal-side election distrust
Leading up to the 2020 election, in liberal-leaning mainstream media, there were news stories about Trump and the GOP trying to make it harder to vote in various ways. There were stories that the Postmaster General who Trump appointed might be trying to do some voting-related shenanigans. There were observations that the Trump admin wasn’t taking threats about foreign hacking seriously, perhaps because they didn’t mind or were welcoming foreign interference.
In general, there was a sense amongst liberals that Trump and the GOP were unethical and would do anything they could to win.
Let’s imagine an alternate reality where Trump was declared the winner of the 2020 election:
Shortly after the 2020 election, votes are tallied and Trump is declared the winner. Many liberals perceived his win as illegitimate.
After the election, in early January, as division about the election was reaching a pitch, thousands of anti-Trump protesters marched in Washington, D.C. The military and protesters clashed and several people were killed. Dozens of anti-Trump protesters over-ran a federal building and seized control of it, saying they wouldn't leave until there was a recount.
After this was resolved, Republicans demanded official investigations into what happened in D.C. and how Democrat leaders might have played a role in how they publicly questioned the fairness of the election. Democrat leaders downplayed the significance of the event, pointing out that the riot only involved a small number of bad actors, and that covid-related stresses had led to many people being stressed and behaving badly. Republicans accused Democrats of downplaying the insurrection, and tied it to Democrats previously downplaying the George-Floyd-related riots. Democrats were accused of inciting chaos and lawlessness.
Several Democrat leaders brought a series of legal challenges forward alleging various forms of election shenanigans. All in all, 20 cases were filed, and all but one minor one were either lost outright or rejected entirely: one case was rejected by the Supreme Court, with liberal and conservative judges all voting to reject it.
While most Democrats, especially in leadership positions, accepted that Trump had won, or at least seemed to accept that there was no proof he’d cheated, there was still a 35% segment of Democrats who believed Trump and his team had cheated and that the election was illegitimate.
Conservative leaders and media frequently called Democrats “anti-American traitors” and “coup supporters.” Most Democrat leaders seemed reticent about speaking up against the people on their side who believed, as conservatives called it, “The Big Lie.” Some Democrats seemed to fear that taking a vocal stand would alienate some of their base. Many Democrats seemed largely to want to avoid the issue and hope things would blow over.
There’s a good chance you’re thinking something like, “What a bad comparison; there’s nothing similar in how Democrats and Republicans have acted on these issues.”
To be clear: I’m not saying I believe that something like that would necessarily have happened. But the point of that imagined scenario is to examine how there can be aspects of our fellow citizens on the other side that make us angry, that we think are unique to the other side, but that might be true of people in our group. For liberals who feel a righteous judgment that goes something like “conservatives are doing bad things our group never would,” it can be depolarizing to see how there can be some similar behaviors on your side.
Political researcher Thomas Pepinsky (who I interviewed for my podcast) did a survey a month before the 2020 election examining how much trust people would have in the election, depending on if their preferred candidate won or if they lost. Both liberals and conservatives had high scores for saying they’d believe the election was rigged if their candidate lost.
In a Cornell University article about that research, Pepinsky said:
We find overwhelming evidence that Americans will view the election as legitimate only if their own candidate wins: the modal Republican respondent strongly agrees with the view that the election would be rigged if Biden wins, and the modal Democrat respondent strongly agrees that the election would be rigged if Trump wins.
In a blog post about that research, Pepinsky wrote: “Partisan competition may be producing a fundamental political divide over the institutions and legitimacy of democracy itself.”
Also, back in 2016, soon after that presidential election, roughly one-third of Clinton voters said they thought the election was illegitimate. To quote from a Christian Science Monitor piece about this:
While 58 percent of Clinton supporters say they accept her defeat, 33 percent do not, the poll found. Twenty-seven percent reported feeling "strongly" that the Trump win was not legitimate.
The poll, which comes as thousands of Clinton supporters have taken to the streets to protest the results of the election, demonstrates a turning of the tables from the days, weeks, and months leading up to election day, during which Trump supporters were significantly more likely to say they would not accept defeat for their candidate. Prior to Tuesday, another Washington Post-ABC News poll found that 22 percent of Trump supporters said they would not accept a Clinton victory, encouraged by the Republican nominee's warnings of an election rigged against him.
Hillary Clinton herself, in an interview, called Trump “an illegitimate president.” Democrat congressman John Lewis said he wouldn’t attend Trump’s inauguration because he saw him as an “illegitimate president.” President Jimmy Carter stated that Trump only won the election due to Russian interference. For my podcast, I interviewed Jennifer Cohn, a lawyer who’s made it her personal project since 2016 to raise awareness about election vulnerabilities: she told me she believed there was a good chance the 2016 election wasn’t legitimate.
For the 2004 Bush versus Gore election, there were many people who didn’t accept the final results of that election. A 2020 Politico article examined this; it was called What Happened to the Democrats Who Never Accepted Bush’s Election. Here’s an excerpt from that piece:
Over the 16 years that followed the 2004 election, candidates have won and conceded; presidents have been inaugurated. But the loosely defined movement that launched back then has lived on. Most of its members are left-wing, though not all of them identify as Democrats. They’ve come to define their cause not around John Kerry’s rightful presidency, but around the idea of election integrity. Some are fixated on voter suppression; some subscribe to deep-state conspiracies about the manipulation of voting machines. What they share is a conviction that the 2004 election was a sham, and that it exposed a sweeping, anti-democratic cabal. [...]
And many of them still believe that. Their continued commitment to the idea even today reveals that, once sown, doubt in the democratic process is difficult to dispel. Rather than recede with age, in many cases these 2004 skeptics’ concerns only deepened. And today, many of these 2004 figures have found a new cause in the 2020 election, embracing Trump’s claims about the results even if they are on the opposite end of the ideological spectrum. The movement is starting to split, as others refuse to align themselves with the president and his supporters, and even think it’s dangerous to do so.
In the following section, I’ll try to make the case to liberals for why it’s wrong to call Trump’s 2016 win illegitimate, and for why it would have been wrong to do that in 2020 if Trump had won (assuming there wasn’t strong evidence of cheating).
The main points I’ll try to make in this section are:
We should make a distinction between things the other side does that are legal versus illegal.
We should try to distinguish between things we think might have influenced an election and things we know actually influenced an election.
When we call elections illegitimate without strong evidence, we make it more likely that our political opponents will do the same.
So let’s look at some of the main reasons why some liberals considered Trump’s win in 2016 illegitimate.
Russian election interference and other propaganda and fake news
Let’s look at claims of Russian propaganda first: it seems clear that Russia tried to influence the 2016 election. And many on the left were confident that they succeeded.
To take one typical example of these views, a New Yorker article from 2018 was titled How Russia Helped Swing the Election for Trump, which has the subtitle: “A meticulous analysis of online activity during the 2016 campaign makes a powerful case that targeted cyberattacks by hackers and trolls were decisive.”
But there’s no evidence that Russia actually was a factor in Trump winning the election. Many people have disputed that there was any discernable effect. To quote from the 2018 How Russia Helped Swing the Election for Trump article in The New Yorker:
A forthcoming book on the 2016 campaign, “Identity Crisis,” [...] argues that Russian interference was not a major factor in the Presidential election, and that the hacked e-mails “did not clearly affect” perceptions of Clinton. [...]
Recently, Brendan Nyhan, a professor of public policy at the University of Michigan, suggested, in the Times, that most fears about the impact of Russian information warfare in the 2016 campaign are exaggerated. He wrote that “a growing number of studies conclude” that “most forms of political persuasion seem to have little effect at all,” and cited studies suggesting that television ads, direct mail, and door-to-door canvassing rarely sway voters.
Moreover, he argued, though the number of Russian-sponsored messages during the 2016 campaign might sound alarmingly large, the universe of information that most voters are exposed to is so vast that the impact of fake news, and other malicious online misinformation, is diluted. He noted, “Twitter, for instance, reported that Russian bots tweeted 2.1 million times before the election—certainly a worrisome number. But these represented only 1 percent of all election-related tweets and 0.5 percent of views of election-related tweets.” He concluded, “It’s hard to change people’s minds!”
(Considering this uncertainty, it’s interesting that the New Yorker titled their article How Russia Helped Swing the Election for Trump, which makes it sound like Russia definitely did affect the election. This can be criticized as an example of liberal bias: of choosing a confident framing that’s hostile to the “other side” despite there being much uncertainty about that framing.)
A 2023 paper that looked into this was titled Exposure to the Russian Internet Research Agency foreign influence campaign on Twitter in the 2016 US election and its relationship to attitudes and voting behavior. They concluded, “We find no evidence of a meaningful relationship between exposure to the Russian foreign influence campaign and changes in attitudes, polarization, or voting behavior.”
Russia’s work can be seen as a drop in the immense social media bucket. At the very least we can say that it’s not clear the extent to which Russia influenced the 2016 election. It’s well known in political science circles that purposeful attempts at political influence (for example, political ads) are ineffective. One piece of supporting evidence for that is how standard the 2016 election was, in terms of voting patterns being very similar to past presidential elections. And this gets back to the idea that it’s hard to say where power resides in a large, complex human system: often the collective mind of the crowd exerts a lot of bottom-up influence.
I’ve done a good amount of research into fake, foreign-origin Facebook accounts that post political propaganda; I’ve had some of that work featured in the New York Times and the Washington Post and elsewhere. Take it from me: even without Russia’s work, there’s no shortage of fake and distorted political news out there. There’s just a huge amount of it. Some of it is propaganda-related, like Russia’s work, but much of it is financially motivated.
For example, there are a lot of fake news sites aimed at riling up political anger. They make their money from ad networks. The more visits to their site they get, the more money they make. In the lead-up to the 2016 election and after, these sites were rampant. A lot were based in Macedonia; you can find stories of Macedonian teenagers making a lot of money with their “news” sites. You can even find websites where Macedonian marketers take credit for helping elect Trump, and brag about it as evidence for their marketing skills.
Here’s an excerpt from a 2017 piece in Wired magazine:
In the final weeks of the US presidential election, Veles [a city in Macedonia] attained a weird infamy in the most powerful nation on earth; stories in The Guardian and on BuzzFeed revealed that the Macedonian town of 55,000 was the registered home of at least 100 pro-Trump websites, many of them filled with sensationalist, utterly fake news. (The imminent criminal indictment of Hillary Clinton was a popular theme; another was the pope’s approval of Trump.) The sites’ ample traffic was rewarded handsomely by automated advertising engines, like Google’s AdSense. An article in The New Yorker described how President Barack Obama himself spent a day in the final week of the campaign talking “almost obsessively” about Veles and its “digital gold rush.”
Within Veles itself, the young entrepreneurs behind these websites became subjects of tantalizing intrigue. Between August and November, Boris [a Macedonian teenager] earned nearly $16,000 off his two pro-Trump websites. The average monthly salary in Macedonia is $371.
And there were people across the world making this kind of content. The Philipines were another big source of these kinds of sites. Where there’s money to be made, people will try to make it.
There are also plenty of domestic misinformation creators. One prominent one I previously mentioned was True Pundit, run by Michael D. Moore. Moore has been arguably one of our most influential domestic fake news creators. His unsubstantiated news stories about Hillary Clinton shortly before the 2016 election were shared widely amongst prominent conservatives and in my opinion might have affected the election more than Russia’s work. And at this point in time Moore has a fairly popular podcast where he continues to spread unsubstantiated political rumors.
Another prominent fake-news creator was Jestin Coler. The following is from a November 2016 NPR story about his work:
Coler [says] he got into fake news around 2013 to highlight the extremism of the white nationalist alt-right. [...] He was amazed at how quickly fake news could spread and how easily people believe it. [...] Coler says his writers have tried to write fake news for liberals — but they just never take the bait.
Coler's company, Disinfomedia, owns many faux news sites — he won't say how many. But he says his is one of the biggest fake-news businesses out there, which makes him a sort of godfather of the industry. [...]
And as the stories spread, Coler makes money from the ads on his websites. He wouldn't give exact figures, but he says stories about other fake-news proprietors making between $10,000 and $30,000 a month apply to him. Coler fits into a pattern of other faux news sites that make good money, especially by targeting Trump supporters.
My point in highlighting all this is: if we’re going to view the presence of fake and distorted news as reasons to believe an election wasn’t legitimate, we’ll never again be able to believe any election is legitimate. These things are rampant now and will continue to be rampant.
These kinds of things have always been common, even if they’re more common now. Consider back in the early days of America: there were many small printing presses churning out political content, conducting all sorts of propaganda and smear campaigns to try to convince American of various things. The presence of bad, deceptive, and fake news is not a reason to call elections illegitimate because if it were, every election would be illegitimate.
And as a country becomes increasingly polarized, it becomes more difficult to draw a firm line between what is fake news and what are the genuine beliefs people really have. Highly debatable political framings will be increasingly par for the course, on both sides.
When it comes to election distrust, I’d argue that, if we care about our country’s stability and about its future, we must see it as important to consider an election legitimate unless we have strong evidence of actual cheating that can be conclusively shown to have influenced an election.
In other words, we should have a very high bar to call an election illegitimate or rigged. There are just so many ways people on either side can perceive various actions as having an unfair influence on an election, and use those perceptions to call an election invalid.
Also, when it comes to Russia’s attempt to influence our election: it would be a mistake to think that just because a foreign power tried to influence an election, or even succeeded in influencing an election, that that election should be considered illegitimate, if only because that would give your enemies far too much strength. It would be a fundamentally losing strategy from a game-theory approach.
Consider that one of Russia’s goals may have been simply to plant the idea in many people’s heads that our election results were tainted. That idea alone, as we’ve seen, amplifies our distrust in elections, amplifies our us-versus-them polarization, and makes us less stable. And it could be that this was the main reason Russia did any of this in the first place.
Put another way: it’s much easier to make people think their election was influenced than it is to actually influence it. And Russia would surely know that.
Deceptive political campaigning
The Facebook marketing of the company Cambridge Analytica is another thing some liberals point to as a reason to see the 2016 election as illegitimate. There’s a widespread perception that Cambridge Analytica did something amazingly underhanded and sophisticated; this has been promoted in numerous articles and in the documentary The Great Hack.
This is one such framing of this from a 2018 Politico.com article:
Misuse of data and "cheating" by Cambridge Analytica and other companies associated with the firm may have altered the outcome of both the U.S. presidential election and the U.K.'s Brexit referendum, a company whistleblower told British lawmakers.
Chris Wylie, the former director of research at Cambridge Analytica, which has been accused of illegally collecting online data of up to 50 million Facebook users, said that his work allowed Donald Trump's presidential campaign to garner unprecedented insight into voters' habits ahead of the 2016 vote.
Another typical framing of this can be seen in a 2019 piece from Wired: “Cambridge Analytica had purchased Facebook data on tens of millions of Americans without their knowledge to build a ‘psychological warfare tool,’ which it unleashed on US voters to help elect Donald Trump as president.”
Cambridge Analytica did apparently get access to Facebook users’ data, and Facebook paid a fine for allowing them to get access to that data. But there’s no good evidence that Cambridge Analytica did anything that impressive with that data. There’s no evidence they did anything more advanced or manipulative than what has been done for many other political campaigns.
To quote from a 2021 piece by Eric Seufert:
What is generally conjured when the Cambridge Analytica scandal is invoked is [...] that a shadowy political consultancy used psychological sophistry to get Donald Trump elected and to engineer Brexit. This narrative is complete fiction. Cambridge Analytica never sold anything but snake oil—and in the case of the Brexit campaign, the company gave it away on a pro bono basis. The notion that “psychographic profiles” could be used to precision-target people with political messaging was widely met with ridicule and derision by marketers, psychologists, and data scientists alike.
But ultimately, the proof is in the pudding. After a three-year investigation, the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office determined that Cambridge Analytica’s black magic was wholly banal: that the company’s marketing had dramatically overstated its actual targeting capabilities.
In short, it seems like both the Cambridge Analytica whistleblower and the wider public largely took the company’s marketing hype at face value.
If you’d like to learn more about how the narratives about Cambridge Analytica were exaggerated, I have an episode of my podcast where I talk to political scientist Dave Karpf, who’s written about this topic. One of the persuasive points he makes is that, if such sophisticated targeting of ads to specific types of people were possible and effective, as Cambridge Analytica claimed, then we’d see it already being used for other highly competitive businesses, like selling gym memberships. But we don’t.
It’s well known in political science circles that political advertising in general doesn’t do much. Most people just end up voting for their party’s candidate, and relying on peer opinions and such. This also makes the case for being skeptical about how much influence things like foreign-origin fake news and propaganda really have.
Hack of the DNC office
Another contributing reason some liberals see the 2016 election as illegitimate is the hack of the Democratic National Committee. To quote from an article on TheVerge.com about this:
A grand jury has delivered indictments against 12 officers of the Russian military in connection with 2016 hacks of the Democratic National Committee, as part of an investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller. Many of the defendants are identified as agents of Russia’s GRU intelligence agency. The indictments allege an ongoing attempt to compromise election infrastructure—including attacks on state boards of election, secretaries of state, and election software providers. However, the indictment does not allege that the campaign ultimately affected vote tallies.
Similar to Russia’s social media posts that seemed aimed at amplifying American divides, there’s no evidence this hack affected the election. Similar to the point I made about those attempts: it’s possible that Russia wants people to know they did that hack, in order to increase American election distrust and polarization.
It’s likely that some liberals who see the 2016 election as “illegitimate” are not using any specific, convincing evidence, but to several things that seem suspicious to them. They see several suspicious-seeming things—like Cambridge Analytica and fake news and Trump asking Russia to find Hillary’s emails—and reach a conclusion like “something bad surely must have happened here.”
And we can see some of that same dynamic with how some Trump voters distrusted 2020 election: not so much a reliance on any specific, strong evidence, but an accumulation of things they thought were suspicious. Extreme distrust of each other is a natural outgrowth of extreme polarization, and seeing that can help us lower our anger and see the humanity of people on the “other side.”
Some views that the 2016 election was illegitimate were based on perceptions that Republicans were implementing underhanded voter suppression tactics, like purging voter rolls and making it harder to vote.
To quote from a November 2016 AmericanProgress.org piece titled Voter Suppression Laws Cost Americans Their Voices at the Polls:
States have gone on a spree restricting voting rights and voter access since 2010, when Republican-controlled state legislatures began passing voter ID laws and other provisions making it more difficult to vote. Once the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder in 2013, even more states made it harder to vote in ways that were targeted at and fell disproportionately on people of color, young people, and low-income people. Even after major legal victories for voting rights this year—rulings that showed voter suppression tactics presented a grave danger and would prevent eligible Americans from casting their ballots—14 states had new voting restrictions in place for the first time in a presidential election. These included cutting back early voting, restricting voter registration, and imposing strict voter ID requirements.
It is difficult to say definitively how voter suppression laws affect voter participation and exactly how many citizens were prevented from voting. But one analysis in 2014 found a decline in voter participation of 2 percentage points to 3 percentage points that was attributable to changes in voter ID requirements.
If Trump had won in 2020, such views would have likely been even more a concern amongst liberals, and likely one of the main reasons some would have considered the 2020 election illegitimate.
But again, here, it’s important to distinguish between what’s legal and what’s illegal. States are legally allowed to enact rules that make it harder to vote. And this may be perceived as either a cynical attempt to win elections, or a result of genuine concern about election integrity, but it is, however you view it, legal.
A 2022 law passed in New York City allowed non-citizens to vote in local New York elections. To many conservatives, this was perceived as a cynical attempt by Democrats to gain more power and a sign of what Democrats would be trying to do in other cities. This ties into the belief some conservatives have that Democrat leaders’ pro-immigration stances are cynical attempts to get more votes. You can imagine that some conservatives would find the New York City law wrong and thereby use that as a reason to consider all NYC elections from that point on as illegitimate. (That law was struck down by a judge in 2022.)
I’d make the case that, if we care about the stability of the country, we must make a distinction between what is legal and what is not legal. Because in a polarized country, there will always be legal election-related things each side will do that the other side will perceive as underhanded and wrong. And with that dynamic, things can reach the point where there’s simply no end to people calling every election illegitimate.
On the subject of voting restrictions, I’d recommend an Atlantic article titled The Truth about the Georgia Voting Law by Derek Thompson. In it, he examines the 2020 Georgia voting law that inspired a massive amount of liberal-side criticism and anger. His points in that piece undermine a lot of the extreme hyperbole about it, such as Joe Biden calling it the “Jim Crow for the 21st century”. One point in Thompson’s piece is that even with that law, Georgia still has easier access to voting than quite a few other states, including quite a few Democrat-run states.
To quote from Thompson’s piece:
Political hyperbole is neither sin nor modern invention. But suggesting that the Georgia provisions are a steroidal version of poll taxes, literacy tests, whites-only primaries, armed sheriffs patrolling voting lines, and outright domestic terrorism is not helpful. “There’s no doubt about it: This new law does not make it easier to vote,” [Charles] Bullock said. “But I hear it being billed as Jim Crow 2.0, and it’s really not anywhere near that. This law does not compare to the cataclysms of the white primary or poll taxes.”
As Delaware’s former senator, Biden would be on firmer ground excoriating Georgia for “Jim Crow 2.0” if he could hold up his home state as a model for voting rights. But Delaware has been a laggard on early voting, and its legislature is still trying to legalize no-excuse absentee voting, which allows any voter to request a mail-in ballot. Georgia, by contrast, permits many weeks of early voting and has allowed no-excuse absentee voting since 2005. Voting-rights activists may justifiably focus their outrage on a swing state like Georgia that, unlike Delaware, actually determines the balance of power. But “Jim Crow” rhetoric from northeastern politicians and media figures loses some bite when we consider that Georgia’s voting rights have long been more accommodating than those of deep-blue states including not only Delaware, but also Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and New York.
This is not to defend the Georgia law or the seemingly widespread GOP goal of making it harder to vote, but just to say: if you’re going to use these kinds of things as a reason to consider an election illegitimate, there are many aspects of our state and federal election systems that one could theoretically use to make those kinds of arguments if one wished.
Also, some of the election integrity concerns have support outside of the Republican party. A 2021 survey by Monmouth University of 810 people found that around 80% of Americans were supportive of requiring ID to vote, and that included 62% of Democrat respondents. That’s just one example of how some of the election integrity issues aren’t clearly broken down by party lines, and that some liberal-side us-versus-them rhetoric about these topics can be seen to be unreasonable and exaggerated, and therefore contributing to our divides.
Another tactic that’s often viewed as a voter-suppression tactic is voter roll purging: this is the removal of residents from the voter list who are deemed “inactive” for reasons such as moving, being dead, or just not voting for some length of time. Some liberals view these purges by Republicans as motivated by cynical attempts to gain power. But this is often more complicated than is perceived. For one thing, it can be hard to separate the intent to keep voting rolls clean (which everyone agrees is a good goal) from a malicious attempt to make voting harder. For another thing, voters who are incorrectly purged are still able to vote; they typically just have to fill out a paper ballot that’s counted later once they’re verified.
A PewTrusts.org article titled The Messy Politics of Voter Purges examined one such voter roll purging situation in Kentucky:
In Kentucky, the purging process has led to a lawsuit and years of political drama. After the State Board of Elections placed 175,000 people on an inactive voter list, the Kentucky Democratic Party sued earlier this month, arguing the move could infringe on voting rights. The inactive list preserved residents’ right to vote but flagged the names so poll workers could get up-to-date addresses. Voters then had to sign an affidavit ensuring they were who they said they were.
A county circuit judge agreed with Democrats, ruling the separate list and affidavit are “unnecessary and [have] a strong chilling effect on voters” in Kentucky. The judge, however, didn’t think the board was attempting to disenfranchise Kentucky voters. [emphasis added]
Again, my main point here is that these procedures are, in the end, legal, and should not be used as a reason to consider elections legitimate. And of course this is not to say that one can’t object to specific policies, and call them out as unethical or wrong, and work to get them changed.
If you’re a conservative and you want to heal our country’s divides and understand liberal-side views, you should look into the many rules Republicans have implemented to make it harder to vote. It’s a long list. One good compilation of this is the Wikipedia article titled Republican efforts to restrict voting following the 2020 election.
If you’re someone who views Democrat leaders’ actions as cynical and underhanded, are you willing to view the actions of Republican leaders through a similar lens? If Democrats were the ones enacting many rules making it harder to vote in states with a large percentage of conservative voters, how would you feel about that?
For my podcast, I interviewed John Wood, Jr., who works with the depolarization group Braver Angels. I was curious what he, as a black conservative (though not a Trump voter), thought about the GOP’s efforts to enact more voting restrictions. He described the GOP’s efforts as “cynical,” but comparable to other cynical political maneuvers. Here’s what he said:
I don’t consider myself to be an expert on the legislation, federal or state level, that’s most relevant to this question. But I can tell you with some confidence what my impressions and feelings are here. I think that there are a couple of things that are true at the same time. [...] To some degree Republicans I think have consciously sought to innovate voting restrictions that have been targeted at depressing Democratic turnout which inevitably is going to overlap with suppressing the votes of black and brown communities, because those are the voting bases of the Democratic Party, certainly in key urban centers across the country that tend to swing the most electoral votes.
And we know this because you actually had Republican politicians say it out loud. I forget who it was exactly; he was a member, I think, of the Pennsylvania state legislature or what have you. [He described a bill making it harder to vote as] the act that was going to allow Mitt Romney to be elected president of the United States when it was done.
[Wood is referring to Pennsylvania House Republican Leader Mike Turzai who, in 2012, said, “Voter ID, which is going to allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania.”]
And the whole reputation of this legislation for people on the left was this is going to suppress the turnout of people of color. And yes, because whether you’re racist or not, you could say that has nothing to do with it. And probably it very well may not have anything to do with it, but in terms of raw political calculations, if you’re a Republican and most black people are voting Democrat, well, you want fewer black people to vote. And if you can innovate electoral reforms to affect that outcome, that’s what a cynical political operative is going to do.
Our system is filled with cynical political operatives. I mean, I think that there are Democrats who want to increase immigration intake for the exact sort of parallel reason. Because it’s an investment in the ongoing sort of building out of the Democratic coalition.
Because John Wood Jr. is a black conservative and also someone interested in depolarization, I think it’s important to be able to see his perspective. We can see how, even if one sees GOP activity in these areas as cynical and not about genuine concerns about election integrity, it’s possible to see how some people can perceive conservative behaviors as not that much different than Democrat behaviors. And this is similar to points touched on before about how, when we see bad behaviors from both political groups, it allows us to more easily excuse the bad behaviors of people on our side.
Again, we don’t have to agree with such perceptions, and we can criticize those comparisons, but this can help us understand how some Republican leaders can genuinely believe that they’re not doing anything that different than Democrats. And more importantly, for our purposes, it can help us understand how conservative citizens are able to be okay with such things.
With regards to gerrymandering, there’s a widespread perception that Republicans gerrymander more than Democrats. But this stance can be debated in various ways. For example, there are several types of ways to redraw district lines, and some people will consider some strategies “gerrymandering” while other people will not. This is to say there can be ambiguity in this area that can add to the complexity of the debate.
Regardless of how it’s exactly defined or which side does it more, it’s clear that both sides do it a good amount. To quote from a TheHill.com article from 2021:
As Democrats across the country blast aggressive Republican gerrymanders as a blatant threat to America’s democratic order, party leaders in two blue states are playing hardball with their own congressional district lines, finalizing plans that could shut Republicans entirely out of delegations to the U.S. House of Representatives.
A 2021 Washington Post article is titled “People say they hate gerrymandering, but that isn’t stopping Republicans or Democrats this year.” A 2022 Vox.com piece was titled “How Democrats learned to stop worrying and love the gerrymander.”
Also, the effects of gerrymandering are sometimes perceived to be more powerful than they are. This is from a 2014 Washington Post article: “Democrats won in nine of the 10 most-gerrymandered districts. But eight out of 10 of those districts were drawn by Republicans.”
Gerrymandering is, for better or worse, legal. For the reasons previously stated, the use of legal maneuvers shouldn’t be a reason to view an election as illegitimate, if only because that would mean that basically any election could be called illegitimate by one side or the other.
Fears of future anti-democratic actions by conservatives
When it comes to liberal-side views of election illegitimacy, many liberals are scared about what Trump’s behavior in 2020 bodes for future elections. To quote from a 2021 Atlantic piece by Barton Gellman:
Technically, the next attempt to overthrow a national election may not qualify as a coup. It will rely on subversion more than violence, although each will have its place. If the plot succeeds, the ballots cast by American voters will not decide the presidency in 2024. Thousands of votes will be thrown away, or millions, to produce the required effect. The winner will be declared the loser. The loser will be certified president-elect.
“The democratic emergency is already here,” Richard L. Hasen, a professor of law and political science at UC Irvine, told me in late October. Hasen prides himself on a judicious temperament. Only a year ago he was cautioning me against hyperbole. Now he speaks matter-of-factly about the death of our body politic. “We face a serious risk that American democracy as we know it will come to an end in 2024,” he said, “but urgent action is not happening.”
For more than a year now, with tacit and explicit support from their party’s national leaders, state Republican operatives have been building an apparatus of election theft. Elected officials in Arizona, Texas, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, and other states have studied Donald Trump’s crusade to overturn the 2020 election. They have noted the points of failure and have taken concrete steps to avoid failure next time. Some of them have rewritten statutes to seize partisan control of decisions about which ballots to count and which to discard, which results to certify and which to reject. They are driving out or stripping power from election officials who refused to go along with the plot last November, aiming to replace them with exponents of the Big Lie. They are fine-tuning a legal argument that purports to allow state legislators to override the choice of the voters.
There can be good reasons to doubt an election’s legitimacy even when everything is done legally. Unethical, authoritarian manipulations can be done through legal means. And this can make the recommendation that we should “trust elections when things are legally done” a bit hard to follow. The lines can admittedly become blurry.
But I’d give the same advice to liberals and conservatives: if we care about the stability of our country and we want to avoid worst-case scenarios, we must err on the side of trusting legal means. This would mean, for example, if it was widely perceived that Trump had stolen an election and had done that through legal, but underhanded means, it is good to take the stance that the problem can be fixed through legal means. It’s the same stance we’d hope our political opponents would take if they were enraged about something we’d done.
When many of us give up the hope of remedying perceived bad things through legal means, that’s when we’re at risk of descending into dangerous levels of chaos, dysfunction, and violence. And when that happens, people on both sides will use that chaos to create even more us-versus-them feelings, and things will degenerate more, and so on and so on.
If we care about avoiding worst-case scenarios where all Americans lose, we should care about promoting, as much as we’re able, the importance of using legal within-the-system processes to remedy our problems and resolve our disagreements.
It’s also worth keeping in mind that our deeply embedded us-versus-them narratives can make us overly paranoid and pessimistic about the state of things and how they’ll go. For example, despite the very pessimistic framings by some liberals of what Republicans were trying to do, the 2022 midterm elections went smoothly. A November 2022 NPR piece was titled Election officials feared the worst. Here's why baseless claims haven't fueled chaos about this. Here’s an excerpt from this:
"What we had in 2022 [at that counting center] was smooth, organized, serene even," said Jocelyn Benson, Michigan's Democratic secretary of state.
On the Wednesday after voting finished, Republican candidates for governor and state attorney general, who had denied the 2020 election results, conceded their races.
And it was at that moment, Benson says, she realized the nation's election workers were on their way to passing their first real test since former President Donald Trump's sustained attack on democracy.
"I got choked up a little bit because to me that was like the affirmation that we did it," Benson said. "We ran a smooth election. There were folks who were ready to pounce on anything… But it didn't work."
To be sure, the counting is not done in many races, and it will be weeks before the entire country's election results are officially certified. Some candidates and online commentators—and Trump—have seized on Election Day glitches and the slow pace of vote counting in certain states to sow suspicion and claims of malfeasance.
But so far, that chatter has not yet incited the chaos that many had feared would ensue, stoked by a mythos of election fraud that has become a core belief for many Americans on the right.
Many candidates who lost have conceded—even some who questioned the results of the 2020 election. And in the cases where Republican candidates have chosen not to concede—like Benson's own opponent, who rose to prominence by claiming fraud in 2020—their cries of malfeasance seem to have fallen flat this cycle.
It’s important to avoid overly certain, overly pessimistic framings about the other side and their motives and goals. It’s good to be humble about the other side and what the future holds. In this case, widespread silence from Republican leaders about election denial beliefs is often interpreted as tacit approval of those stances and an ominous sign of things to come. But that silence can also be interpreted as some Republicans hoping unreasonable election-denial will die down on its own, without them needing to criticize their own party (which, they think, may hurt them politically, or give the other side points).
A 2023 paper by Alia Bradley and colleagues was titled Why voters who value democracy participate in democratic backsliding. They found that both Republicans and Democrats expressed strong support for democratic practices. And they found that by demonstrating to both groups that the “other side” was committed to democratic practices, they reinforced people’s commitment to democratic practices. In a Berkeley.edu article about this study, Alia Bradley said, “One of the main messages of this research is that Democrats shouldn’t give up on Republicans in a way that many of them have [...] Our surveys show that Republicans really support democracy and really want democracy to survive. They just need to be convinced that Democrats also support democracy.”
The more we confidently speak as if the other side wants to do terrible, undemocratic things, or will definitely be doing those things, the more we increase us-versus-them fears and anger, and the more we make it likely that such things will happen. The more we speak humbly and persuasively, and take the other side’s concerns seriously, the more we’ll foster reasonable and respectful behaviors.
Liberal-side disbelief that so many people would vote for Trump
With regards to the 2016 election, many liberals had a hard time understanding how someone like Trump could possibly win. But it’s possible to see his win as quite understandable.
For example, our country’s us-vs-them polarization had been increasing for decades. And it’s possible that many liberals simply weren’t aware of how much conservative-side frustration and anger had grown.
We could make an analogy to 9-11. Just as many Americans didn’t know until the terrorist attacks of 9-11 how much hatred there was towards the United States, many liberals weren’t aware of how much conservative-side frustration and anger there was. This is not to compare conservatives to Islamic extremists, but just to make the point that there was a lot of anger hidden from view. And this makes sense if we see mainstream media and culture as being very liberal-leaning: not being in touch with conservative views means not being aware of their grievances. (And it’s also possible liberals being oblivious about conservative grievances is a key part of conservative grievances: no one likes to feel like no one is paying attention to them.)
As we’ve examined previously, Trump’s win could be seen as being influenced by some economic frustrations that led to many people having a desire for a more populist leader. Some of those frustrations were likely the same ones that led to significant support for Bernie Sanders, another populist leader.
There’s also the fact that Hillary Clinton is one of the most disliked people Democrats could have possibly run. This isn’t to defend that dislike, but just to point out the obvious: that conservatives have a lot of dislike towards Hillary and Bill Clinton, and that’s been the case for decades. It’s possible that literally anyone else running against Trump would have beat him.
In short, I think many liberals had a strong emotional motivation to view Trump’s win as not legitimate, simply because it was so hard to understand how someone like Trump could possibly win. There was a motivation to find powerful villains and malicious forces to blame.
This inclination can be seen in comments like this one by New York Times editor Dean Baquet, from a 2022 New Yorker interview:
I don’t think that anybody had their arms wrapped around the mood of the country that allowed for the election of Donald Trump, including us. I don’t think people—including the New York Times—quite had a handle on the anger, the amount of racial animosity. I don’t think any of us thought that Donald Trump was going to be elected President. Anybody who says they did, I don’t buy it.
Liberal-side incredulity that someone like Trump could possibly win can be seen as similar to conservative-side incredulity that someone like Biden could win. As we become more sorted and siloed, it becomes harder and harder for us to understand how the “other side” can possibly believe the things they do.