The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why don’t more Americans vote? Maybe because they don’t trust U.S. elections.

Wristbands for voters at a polling station in Chicago. (Reuters/Jim Young)

The U.S. election has reinforced concerns on all sides about problems of electoral integrity. During the campaign and even after his victory, Trump made claims about widespread voter fraud. Democrats and civil rights organizations accused GOP state houses of suppressing voters’ rights. Journalists criticized fake online stories. Election Day brought complaints about long wait lines and broken voting machines. Perhaps most seriously, the CIA and FBI reported that Russia attempted to influence the U.S. election through cyberattacks.

Even before the Putin surprise, however, few Americans trusted the honesty of their elections. A Gallup poll two weeks before Election Day found that only one-third of Americans (35 percent) were “very confident” that their vote would be counted accurately. Even worse, when people around the world were asked how confident they were in the honesty of their elections, Gallup found that this year the United States ranked 90th out of 112 countries.

Widespread belief that elections are rigged or stolen may seriously damage democracy. My research for “Why Electoral Integrity Matters” using the World Values Survey showed that when people believe that electoral malpractice is common, they are significantly less likely to vote.

The United States has long had one of the lowest levels of voter turnout among all equivalent democratic states and developed economies. In 2016, turnout among the voting-age population was 54.4 percent nationwide — but this varied from lows of 37.8 percent in Hawaii and 43.1 percent in Texas to 69.5 percent in Maine and 69.4 percent in Minnesota, as you can see in the figure below.

Comparing the performance of U.S. states

So did lack of electoral integrity keep Americans from voting this year? To find out, the Electoral Integrity Project (EIP), an independent academic project based at Harvard and Sydney universities, conducted an expert survey of Perceptions of Electoral Integrity. “Electoral integrity” refers to international standards and global norms governing the appropriate conduct of elections, during the pre-election stage, the campaign, polling day and the election aftermath.

For the last five years, EIP has used expert surveys to evaluate the quality of parliamentary and presidential elections around the world, including after the 2012 and 2014 U.S. elections. Our technique is similar to that employed by Transparency International’s widely used Corruption Perceptions Index. The Perceptions of Electoral Integrity (PEI) index has been rigorously validated.

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To examine the 2016 U.S. election, last month we surveyed 726 political scientists who evaluated electoral integrity in their own states using 49 core indicators, such as whether district boundaries were fairly drawn, elections were well managed, the electoral register was accurate, votes were counted fairly, and newspapers provided balanced election news. None of this mentioned anything about political parties or levels of voter participation. The indicators were then summed into an overall 100-point PEI index.

The figure above shows how experts evaluated the 2016 elections across all 50 states and D.C. The patterns show that experts assess the South as the region with the worst PEI Index — dragged down especially by problematic district boundaries. The Supreme Court may have ruled that the days when Southern states tried to restrict voting are over, but these expert evaluations suggest otherwise. Some of the Rust Belt states were also assessed as poor. By contrast, experts assessed the quality of elections more positively in the Pacific West and New England.

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But state performances varied even within major regions. Overall, states scoring worst in electoral integrity were Arizona (ranked last), followed by Wisconsin, Tennessee, Oklahoma and Mississippi. Several of these states had also been poorly rated previously in the 2014 Pew Election Performance Index. By contrast, the states rated most highly in the PEI Index were Vermont, Idaho, New Hampshire and Iowa.

Did electoral integrity matter for voter turnout?

For many decades, political science has understood that policies and practices about registration and balloting can either boost or reduce turnout. When it’s easy to register and convenient to vote, more people are likely to cast a ballot. But many other factors matter as well in each state, including its socioeconomic characteristics, patterns of party competition and the intensity of the campaign ground game.

We found that electoral integrity has an effect as well. As you can see in the figure above, in states with a high PEI Index — such as New Hampshire, Iowa and Minnesota — more citizens showed up to vote. Where the PEI Index was low — as in Arizona, Texas and Nevada — fewer citizens showed up at the polls.

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Improving both integrity and participation

The U.S. ranks 52nd out of 153 countries worldwide in the 2016 Perceptions of Electoral Integrity index, and at the bottom of equivalent Western democracies. This poor performance is an important part of the reason America also has exceptionally low turnout.

Pippa Norris is the McGuire Lecturer in Comparative Politics, Laureate Professor of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney, and director of the Electoral Integrity Project.

Holly Ann Garnett is a PhD candidate at McGill University.

Max Grömping is a PhD candidate at the University of Sydney.