Magazine article The American Prospect

When Elections Fail

Magazine article The American Prospect

When Elections Fail

Article excerpt

One of the great advantages of liberal democracy is the potential for self-correction. If an election works out badly, the next one offers an opportunity to make a better choice, and in the meantime constitutional guarantees keep the winners from abusing their power. But sometimes elections fail so disastrously as to threaten irremediable damage to a society's foundations. The United States faces that risk this year.

Systemically damaging election failure can happen in several ways. Elections may be rigged or manipulated and, even when they haven't been, the suspicion that they have may impair a new government's legitimacy and create a constitutional crisis. Elections can fail when they put strongmen in power who have no respect for constitutional norms and threaten democratic institutions. They can fail when the outcome is so dispiriting that people give up on democracy and believe that only an authoritarian government can solve their problems.

Although democracy is often equated with elections, the two are not the same. After squelching their opponents, authoritarians often use elections to give themselves a stamp of popular legitimacy. The liberal elements of liberal democracy--independent media, freedom of association, an impartial system of justice and administration--are not just requisites for free elections; they are also indispensable to democracy as a means of limiting the damage when elections fail. The checks and balances of our Constitution that seem frustrating at times because they serve as brakes on popular sentiment also reduce the risk that a bad decision by the voters at one moment will do irreversible, systemic harm.

An economic collapse, defeat in war, or some other crisis may be the most likely situations to drive a nation's voters to make a desperate choice. But while this is an anxious time in America, it is not a moment of national desperation, though it could become one. The country faces the risk of systemically damaging election failure--threats to electoral integrity and government legitimacy, constitutional norms, and trust in the democratic process--because of the Republican Party's nomination of Donald Trump.

Trump has raised the specter that if he doesn't win, he may not accept the results because the political system is "rigged" and the election may be stolen through voter fraud. The voter-fraud issue is phony--there is no evidence of significant voter impersonation. But many of Trump's supporters echo the views they hear from their candidate and party. A Quinnipiac poll in mid-September asked, "If your candidate loses in November, would you think that the outcome was legitimate or would you think that the election was rigged?" Nearly half the Trump supporters (46 percent) think the election would be rigged, while only 11 percent of Clinton's supporters think so.

Of course, the actual purpose of spreading the myth of voter fraud is to tilt the election by justifying special ID requirements and other laws and policies that reduce the African American, Latino, and youth vote. Trump has also called for his supporters to patrol voting places on Election Day, an old tactic aimed at intimidating minority voters.

Another kind of threat to electoral integrity is entirely new in the American experience--intervention by a foreign power aimed at supporting one candidate or sowing general distrust of the election's outcome. Some people are incredulous that Russian hackers who work in concert with Vladimir Putin's government could have been responsible for the breach of the Democratic National Committee's email system and efforts to get access to state voter registration files in Arizona and Illinois. But there is a well-established pattern of Russian actions of this kind in Europe, and Trump has given Putin an interest in an American election that no Russian leader ever previously had because no major-party American presidential candidate has previously been pro-Russian. …

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