In established democracies, in modern times, losers accept the will of the people. Any accusations of fraud or election rigging are serious threats to American democracy. Evidence from many other countries shows that perceptions of electoral malpractices are likely to damage voting turnout, trust in political institutions, and feelings of democratic legitimacy.
As my book, “Contentious Elections,” demonstrates, in fragile states and hybrid regimes such as Thailand, Kenya and Gabon, sore losers often refuse to concede after deeply disputed results, sparking mass demonstrations, protests and sporadic violence. Could that happen in the United States?
A Reuters-IPSOS online poll conducted from Oct. 14 to 20 investigated the attitudes of 1,024 registered voters soon after Trump had warned his followers of probable voter fraud and election rigging.
The results show remarkable party polarization and deep public opinion divisions.
Rejecting the legitimacy of the results
Most strikingly, almost half of Republicans and almost a third of Democrats said they would refuse to accept the results as legitimate if another candidate won. This response may be stoked by current partisan passions, and attitudes may alter if there is a decisive victory, but the rejection of the outcome as legitimate is a cause for genuine concern about how the United States will function politically during the next president’s term.
The Reuters-IPSOS poll asked whether, if another candidate won, this would be due to illegal voting or election rigging. Here, two-thirds of Republicans and almost half of Democrats said that would be the case. The Monkey Cage has noted previously that Republicans are far more likely to believe in electoral fraud, which may well lead more of them to stay home on polling day. This partisan gap may also reflect the fact that disappointed losers are usually more critical of any electoral process.
Concern about electoral integrity
The poll asked about six possible problems that might lead to an election result that lacks integrity. Those include voter suppression (a concern commonly raised by Democratic politicians worried about how strict photo ID requirements or unevenly distributed ballots might prevent minorities and poor people from voting) and ineligible persons voting (a concern raised by Republican leaders).
The survey shows that Republican voters are consistently more concerned about almost all these issues than Democrats. But the partisan gap is largest on the issue of whether ineligible persons might vote, such as disqualified felons, noncitizens or dead people, with Republicans expressing such fears by 34 points more than Democrats.
There is also a large partisan gap in concerns about vote tabulation and even vote buying, an issue that has hardly been mentioned in the campaign. But partisans on both sides are equally concerned about the possibility of voter suppression, in which eligible citizens are prevented from voting.
Nevertheless, almost nine out of 10 registered voters thought that their own votes would be counted accurately and they would have no problems in exercising their right to vote. This is important. That means, to use political science jargon, that any problems are seen as essentially perceptions about societal problems, not reflecting personal experiences at the polls.
Republicans were almost twice as likely as Democrats to lack confidence in the accuracy and legitimacy of the election, but both sides were equally concerned about the other side conceding gracefully.
Pitchforks or armchairs?
What do Americans think they would do if their presidential candidate does not win? The Reuters-IPSOS poll gave registered voters six hypothetical choices. Respondents were allowed to choose more than one option. The most popular choice was to take no action: Around half the Republicans and Democrats said they would act if their own candidate lost. That’s not surprising. Longstanding research shows that only a small sector of the electorate would get politically engaged about most issues.
Around three in 10 voters said they would support legal challenges pursued through the courts, as in Florida in 2000. Another 13 to 17 percent of voters said they would protest the results. As long as any demonstrations are peaceful, democracies would consider both of these appropriate responses to any alleged or actual problems at the polls.
Some voters responded that they would leave the country — but this seems more like a rhetorical gesture than a real threat.
Finally, a few people (3 percent of Republicans and 7 percent of Democrats) opted for the most extreme response: to take up arms to oppose the outcome. The number of respondents in this category is low, and it is a hypothetical response, so not too much should be made of the modest difference here by party.
Of course, our open political process is vulnerable to isolated extremists. Terrorist threats should never be underestimated. It would not take many election-related threats of violence to trouble the nation. After all, this election season has already brought an arson attack on North Carolina’s GOP headquarters and an envelope of white powder sent to Hillary Clinton’s campaign office in Manhattan.
All this suggests that there is no widespread appetite among Republicans for actively challenging the legitimacy of U.S. democracy through illegal actions. But the response will likely turn on the margin of victory. A close outcome would likely heat up contention, while a decisive defeat would likely dampen any conflagration.