Donald Trump’s relentless messaging about a “rigged election” is having an effect on Americans’ confidence that their votes will be counted accurately. But it’s not the effect you think.
On Monday, Morning Consult released a poll about confidence in the vote count. I asked almost exactly the same question before the 2012 election. The comparison is striking.
The percentage of respondents who say that they are “very confident” that their own votes will be counted accurately is virtually unchanged from 2012. Confidence that votes nationwide will be counted accurately has, if anything, increased since 2012 — although the trend since 2001 is still down.
This is distinctly contrary to the conventional wisdom. What’s going on here?
First, Trump’s rhetoric appears not to have reduced Republican confidence in the accuracy of the vote count over the past four years. Instead, it has increased the confidence of Democrats. In other words, the parties have polarized but it is Democrats who are moving.
Here is some detail. In 2012, the political scientist Paul Gronke and I asked a series of questions about election administration to a representative sample of 2,000 adults. Two of these questions were:
- How confident are you that your vote in the General Election will be counted as you intended?
- How confident are you that votes nationwide will be counted as voters intend?
The first question was asked of respondents who reported they intended to vote in 2012. The second question was asked of all respondents.
The corresponding Morning Consult questions were:
- How confident are you that your vote will be accurately counted in the upcoming election?
- How confident are you that votes across the country will be accurately counted in the upcoming election?
In both cases, respondents could say very confident, somewhat confident, not too confident, not at all confident, or either “I don’t know” in the 2012 survey or “no opinion” in Morning Consult’s poll. Although the questions are not identical, they are close enough to allow some meaningful comparisons. Both the 2012 and 2016 studies were conducted about three weeks ahead of the general election.
The 2012 patterns were consistent with what my colleagues and I have regularly reported: the “winning” party tends to be more confident than the “losing” party and voters tend to be more confident of their own votes being counted accurately than votes nationwide. In 2016, respondents were also more confident their own votes would be counted accurately than votes nationwide.
But Republican and Democratic opinions have changed in very different ways. Democrats are now more confident in an accurate vote count — for their vote or nationwide. Republicans, meanwhile, have changed little.
Here are two tentative conclusions. First, Donald Trump’s complaints about a “rigged” electoral system have reminded his strongest supporters of what they already believed. It is much less clear that Republicans who were not already convinced of the corruption of the election system have now had a change of heart.
Second, Trump’s charges appear to have counter-mobilized Democratic opinion — as Trump has done on other issues. Democrats have come to the defense of vote counting.
Either way, judgments about the legitimacy of the electoral process have become more polarized. Support for the electoral process could then become associated with the Democratic Party in the public’s mind, with opposition associated with the Republican Party. I am hoping that this is not the case because there have been important bipartisan improvements in election administration over the past four years, despite continued partisan differences over voter identification and the Voting Rights Act.
We certainly need to be concerned about undermining the legitimacy of elected officials, especially in circumstances where there is no hard evidence of election rigging. But we also need to recall that once the November election is over, elections will continue to be administered at the state and local levels.
The danger is that this unsubstantiated talk about fraud will undermine the comity that has often existed in handling the day-to-day details of running elections. If so, local election administration will become collateral damage of this heightened polarization.
Charles Stewart III is Kenan Sahin distinguished professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and co-director of the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project. A version of this post originally appeared at Election Updates.