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Trump’s election-rigging claim will backfire. Here’s the evidence.

- October 21, 2016

In recent days, Donald Trump has ratcheted up claims of voter fraud, claiming that the Nov. 8, 2016, election may be “rigged” against him. In Wednesday’s debate, he refused to pledge that he would accept the result if he loses, saying that he would keep the nation “in suspense.”

These sorts of claims are common among sore losers in authoritarian states, sometimes not without good reason. But casting serious doubt on the outcome is a radical departure from established practices among political leaders in democratic states during the modern era — and from previous U.S. nominees in our lifetime. Trump’s claims are particularly concerning given that there is little evidence of voter fraud in modern elections.

So why make these false allegations?

These types of claims may serve several strategic functions. They provide sore losers with a way to save face, excusing a poor performance. They also may erode the electoral legitimacy of the winner, sowing doubts about their governing authority, as well as causing chaos by making it harder to bring Congress and the country together after a bitterly fought campaign.

The main effect of these charges on the mass electorate may be to discourage turnout (“Why should I bother to vote if it’s all rigged?”), weaken confidence in the presidency, Congress and political parties, and erode satisfaction with the performance of American democracy. My book “Why Electoral Integrity Matters, the first volume in a trilogy on the subject published by Cambridge University Press, demonstrates consistent evidence from the World Values Survey that these sorts of perceptions of electoral integrity matter for trust and confidence in elections and democracy in many countries.

But do they also affect turnout in U.S. elections?

In 2012, the most authoritative and long-standing academic survey of the electorate, the American National Election Study, asked a series of questions to monitor citizens’ views about the integrity of elections. Because parties are polarized about electoral malpractice, like everything else in American politics, the items sought to test the effects of diverse claims common among different parties. In particular, Republicans are more prone to argue that the vote count is unfair (Rudolph W. Giuliani: “Dead people generally vote for Democrats”). They are also most likely to charge that news media coverage is unfair, as journalists are assumed to share a liberal bias (Trump: “The media is rigged against us”).

By contrast, liberal Democrats such as Sen. Bernie Sanders are more prone to argue that the process is corrupt because rich people buy elections. Minor party candidates like the Greens’ Jill Stein also often regard ballot access as unfair, reducing genuine choice for voters at the ballot box. Moreover, the allegation that electoral officials are unfair is heard among candidates from all parties, whether because of the imposition of strict photo ID requirements that are thought to restrict voter’s rights or because of overly lax security thought to allow disqualified citizens to register and vote.

Evidence shows that those who question the integrity of the voting process are far less likely to participate. That’s clear in the graph below.

Among Americans in the 2012 ANES survey who believe that votes are “very often” counted fairly, over three-quarters (77 percent) reported that they voted. By contrast, among those with strong doubts about this process, just two-thirds (64 percent) bothered to vote, generating a net 13-point gap.

When asked whether they thought that electoral officials were fair, similar patterns can be observed, where greater trust is significantly associated with higher voter turnout. None of the other claims about electoral malpractice was observed to have a similar effect on turnout, including problems of media bias, lack of genuine choice and campaign finance.

Of course, it’s difficult to figure out which way the causal arrow goes — do people stay home because they don’t trust the election, or are people who don’t vote simply more likely to hold anti-establishment views? Regardless, cynicism about the electoral process and turnout are negatively related.

Q: “In your view, how often do the following things occur in this country’s elections?” (Very often, fairly often, not often, or not at all often?) Votes are counted fairly. Electoral officials are fair. Source: 2012 American National Election Study N. 5452

Who stays home?

But will the Trump-Pence strategy actually serve to depress turnout among Hillary Clinton supporters? Data from political scientist Charles Stewart suggests that Trump’s talk of a rigged election is actually making Democrats more confident in the electoral system. Other data point to the fact that Trump’s claims of vote rigging might backfire and damage his own support.

First, the polls clearly show that it is Republicans, not Democrats, who are more likely to believe the Trump claims of alleged malpractices. It may be his own supporters who are most likely to be discouraged from voting.

In September 2016, a Gallup poll found that only 6 in 10 Americans were very or fairly confident that their vote would be accurately cast and counted in the U.S. election, down from around three-quarters of all Americans a decade earlier. But among Republicans, the proportion who were confident dropped to around half, the lowest which the Gallup poll has ever recorded on this question when asked in a series of surveys. Other polls have found that Trump voters are especially likely to believe that voter fraud occurs often.

Trump’s talk may also make it more difficult for him to mobilize independents, whom he needs to expand his base, who typically have low turnout, and who are often deterred from voting by claims of unfairness.

Q: “In your view, how often do the following things occur in this country's elections? Votes are counted fairly.” (Very often, fairly often, not often, or not at all often?)  Source: 2012 American National Election Study N. 5452
Q: “In your view, how often do the following things occur in this country’s elections? Votes are counted fairly.” (Very often, fairly often, not often, or not at all often?)
Source: 2012 American National Election Study N. 5452

Overall, therefore, Trump’s charges of rigged elections in this campaign are factually inaccurate, highly damaging for trust and confidence in U.S. elections and democracy, and potentially corrosive for voting by his own supporters. Even worse, his claim that he may or may not accept the legitimacy of the outcome if he loses is simply un-American and doubtless welcome by dictators around the world who express similar sentiments when they lose.

the science of trump

Pippa Norris is the McGuire Lecturer in Comparative Politics at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University; ARC Laureate Fellow and professor of government and international relations at the University of Sydney; and author of “Why Electoral Integrity Matters” (Cambridge University Press, 2014).