The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Donald Trump’s astonishing, damaging refusal to accept the fundamental premise of American elections

The only way democracy works is if you trust that democracy works. Voters need to feel as though their votes count and that the result is the actual will of the people. Otherwise, why participate? Majority rule works because people have faith that they can rally others to their cause. If people believe instead that elections are a sham and that the outcome is predetermined or at odds with what the majority actually wants, democracy collapses. That faith in rational disagreement evaporates. It doesn't matter if the elections are valid or not, either: If people think they're not, the end.

During the third presidential debate, Donald Trump made an absolutely extraordinary claim, in every sense of the word. Asked by moderator Chris Wallace whether he would accept the results of the election, Trump's response was not, as it was in the first debate, that he would accept Hillary Clinton as the victor, should that be what the votes indicated. His response this time, while trailing by a significant margin?

“We'll see.” We'll see if I accept the results, the Republican nominee for the presidency said during a debate. We'll see.

Trump's been on this kick for a week or two now, a period that overlaps with his collapsing poll numbers and collapsing prospects of actually winning the race. He's been whipping up completely unfounded rumors of widespread efforts to “rig” the national election for no other apparent reason than a personal inability to accept the fact that he isn't likely to win. As Clinton subsequently pointed out, it's the same strategy he put into effect when he was denied an Emmy for “The Apprentice,” tweeting repeatedly that the show was the victim of a rigged system.

Here's why Trump's "rigged" claims just don't hold up (Video: Peter Stevenson/The Washington Post)

There's no evidence that it was, but rigging the Emmy voting isn't something that would be terribly prohibitive. As we have noted repeatedly — and as we will continue to note precisely because of the harm the idea can do — there is absolutely no evidence that there is a widespread effort to rig the presidential election through the casting of fraudulent ballots. In fact, such an idea would be nearly impossible given the required scale and existing safeguards keeping it from happening.

We've been over this again and again. To throw a presidential election, you need to know which states are close enough to tip and throw the election. You need to know where in the state to apply the right pressure. If your goal is to commit in-person fraud, you need to line up voter registrations in those places for impostors to use. You need to line up hundreds or thousands of volunteers, sworn to secrecy, to go cast those ballots. You need to do this while avoiding detection and avoiding the checks and balances that take place at precincts and at the county and state level. If your goal is to rig the vote-counting, you need to line up corrupt elected officials at various levels of government who can rework the numbers — but then also avoid the practical, statistical evaluations that are used to backstop the counting.

We've cited experts — Republican experts, in fact — involved in the process at various points who point out how ludicrous this all is. Sure, there are dead people on the voter rolls; letting the state know that a voter has passed away isn't high on the to-do lists of grieving families. On rare occasions, a vote is cast on behalf of someone who shouldn't be allowed to vote. But presidential elections involve tens of millions of ballots and voting in thousands of counties across all 50 states. Even if you uncovered 1,000 examples of intentional fraud nationally — which no one has — that's eight-ten-thousandths of a percent of the total vote four years ago. And no state in 2012 came down to a 1,000-vote margin. It defies logic.

We insist on walking through this again because it is important. It's not just that people need to have confidence in the process, it's that there's no reason for them not to. Republicans have fostered the idea of voter fraud for some time now in part to push voter ID laws that have the happy side effect of making it harder for groups that tend to vote Democratic to cast ballots. Normally, the harm seemed limited, and conservative media was happy to hype the problem for the same end.

Now, Trump is running a campaign powered by conservative media in a moment where America is deeply fractured. Nearly half of Clinton supporters don't know anyone backing Trump; nearly three-quarters of Trump backers know no or only a few Clinton backers. If no one you know supports Hillary Clinton and if you read websites that insist on blowing small, unproven claims of fraud into a national epidemic and if your candidate is saying that the voting is rigged, what are you going to believe? Surely not someone from the mainstream media — a group that this same candidate and these same conservative media outlets are telling you are lying to bolster Clinton's candidacy.

Polling is a science, conducted by statisticians who use proven mathematical techniques to estimate who's likely to vote and what that vote will look like. In other words, they sample opinions from a broader range of communities than you and your friends represent. Those polls show that Clinton leads, that when voters go to the polls, they intend to cast more votes for Clinton than Trump. That in a democratic contest, a plurality of those who vote are likely to choose Clinton as their preferred candidate.

There's literally no valid reason to assume that this is not a reflection of reality, any more than it was in late September when Trump and Clinton were closer in the polls and Trump insisted that he'd accept the will of the people. Nothing's changed since then, except that Trump had two weak debate performances and a slew of sexual assault allegations, and his poll numbers collapsed.

The irony is that Trump doesn't need to win. Other politicians, this is all they've got. If they lose elections, they have to go get real jobs. Trump has a real job. But he also has pride. And in service to that pride, that same pride that caused him to get rankled about not winning an Emmy, he's willing to cast a shadow over the process that undergirds the most prosperous, stable nation in world history.