Expert Pitch
Washington University in St. Louis

Rigged election? Partisans view threats to election integrity differently

WashU Expert warns: “This could get ugly”

Even before they cast their votes, partisans of different stripes are poised to question the legitimacy of the election outcome, but for different reasons.

According to The American Social Survey, sponsored by the Weidenbaum Center at Washington University in St. Louis, nine out of 10 Trump supporters are very or somewhat concerned about fraud in mail-in voting. In comparison, just four out of 10 Biden supporters have similar concerns. More than 1,500 people responded to the survey conducted in August 2020.

On the other end of the political spectrum, nearly nine out of 10 Biden supporters are very or somewhat concerned about foreign intervention in the election, while five out of 10 Trump supporters express similar concern.

Trump and Biden supporters are united, though, in their concern about the threat of cheating by election officials. While not as widespread as concern about mail-in voting fraud and foreign interference, a sizable majority of both supporters said they were concerned about the threat of cheating by election officials.

According to Steven Smith, the Kate M. Gregg Distinguished Professor of Social Science and former director of the Weidenbaum Center, the findings indicate that the intensity of candidate and media attention about these threats — real or not — is influencing views of the legitimacy of the election outcome in November.

“Apart from voters’ decisions, the legitimacy of American elections is at stake,” Smith said. “If the election eve results are close, differences in pre-election attitudes about the threats to election integrity, shaped as they are by partisan preferences, may cast a dark cloud over the outcome in the minds of many Americans. Who leads at that time, which may change as mail-in and challenged ballots are counted after Election Day, is surely to influence who considers the outcome fair and legitimate.”

What’s changed?

Fair and free elections are the cornerstone of any democracy. According to Smith, past research has shown that the outcome will influence views of the legitimacy of the outcome.

“Most Americans have had faith that election outcomes were called fairly, but it’s not uncommon for voters on the losing side to question the legitimacy of the outcome after the election. Not surprising, more voters on the winning side rate the outcome correct and fair after the election than before. This is sometimes called the ‘winner effect,’” he said.

But this year is different.

For starters, President Trump has questioned the integrity of election administration more than any other politician in modern history, Smith said. In 2016, Trump frequently claimed the election was rigged. He suggested that election officials would not properly screen for votes being cast illegally under the names of dead people or voters who registered in more than one jurisdiction to cast multiple ballots.

This election, Trump’s focus has shifted to mail-in ballots, which are being used in much larger numbers because of the pandemic. He has claimed that mail-in ballots were being distributed to Democratic areas but not Republican areas, that the U.S. Postal Service cannot handle the ballots securely and that political operatives will “harvest” ballots, Smith said.

How have these threats resonated with voters? According to the research, that depends on your party affiliation and education.

The vast majority of Trump supporters at all education levels are concerned about fraud in mail-in voting. A more modest majority of undecided voters — 60% on average — are concerned, too.  With Biden supporters, the answer is more nuanced. Highly educated Biden supporters exhibit much less concern about mail-in ballots than the less well-educated Biden supporters.

“This pattern implies that some Biden supporters and many undecided voters are more persuaded by Trump’s expressed concerns than by contrary expert opinion,” Smith said.

Foreign intervention

As it was in 2016, foreign intervention in the campaign — particularly via social media — is a concern this year. According to media reports, the U.S. intelligence community is finding significant evidence of Russian involvement in the election. And the findings of the Department of Justice special counsel and U.S. Senate committee reports from the 2016 election were widely publicized.

Despite the overwhelming evidence, however, partisans are divided on their concern about foreign interference in the election. At every education level, Biden voters show far more concern than Trump and undecided voters.

Cheating in vote counting by election officials

Election administration experts, as a rule, find few serious problems associated with the integrity of state and local election officials, Smith said. But the same can’t be said for the American public.

“The intensity of candidate and media attention about problems with campaigns and elections has generated large differences in views of the threats to American democracy.”

Roughly 75% of Trump supporters, 60% of Biden supporters and 55% of undecided voters are concerned about cheating by election officials. When education is factored in, concern about cheating declines as education increases for Biden supporters and undecided voters. Once again, Trump supporters are fairly uniform in their concern about election official cheating.

“A reasonable hunch is that Americans now distrust election officials affiliated with the other party,” Smith explained.

Smith said it’s not surprising that the public’s response has been shaped by partisan and other personal considerations. “The intensity of candidate and media attention about problems with campaigns and elections has generated large differences in views of the threats to American democracy.”

But these deep partisan differences could create a real problem if the election is close — as it was in 2016 — or if the results change due to mailed-in ballots or challenged ballots.

“This could get ugly,” Smith warned. “Just how ugly is likely to be determined by the quality of election administration and the rhetoric of political leaders.”

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