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What’s Behind American Distrust in Elections?

February 03, 2023
Thad Kousser

Talking Policy Podcast

The closely contested 2020 presidential race was followed by unsubstantiated allegations of vote fraud and a wide partisan divide over trust in elections. American distrust in elections is growing—at least among some groups. As part of Talking Policy’s series on the Future of Democracy, host Lindsay Morgan talks with Thad Kousser, a political scientist at UC San Diego, about whether Americans are losing faith in elections, why it’s happening, and what it means for the future of American democracy. This interview was conducted on February 1, 2023. It has been edited for length and clarity.

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You don’t have to look very hard these days to find headlines about “stolen” elections and waning American confidence in elections. You have been studying American politics, elections, and voting for many years. You also spend considerable time with community members and the broader public talking about elections. The Yankelovich Center for Social Science Research, where you are co-director, at UC San Diego conducted a national survey shortly after the midterm elections to gauge the degree to which Americans trust elections. Before we dig into the results, why does trusting that elections are fair and legitimate matter?

That’s a good question. If we run free and fair elections, does it matter if the public believes that, as long as the elections are free and fair? There could be an argument that public opinion is just public opinion; what matters is public action. But I think the reason trust in elections matters so much, why it’s one of the most vital issues in American democracy today, is because if you don’t trust elections, why turn out in them? One definition of democracy is a system in which the side that loses agrees to go along with the outcome and doesn’t take up arms against the other side. We’ve seen in survey after survey that the people who don’t trust that democracy is free and fair in America are more likely to say that they’re open to violence like the insurrection on the Capitol on January 6, 2021. Distrust in elections leads to an erosion of the constraint on political actors who have lost and allows them to take up arms when they lose, fight against the peaceful transfer of power, and not be worried that they’ll lose public support. It takes away one of the key guardrails to a democracy and a safe society.

You surveyed more than 3,000 Americans of all different stripes—Republicans, Democrats, independents, people with different education levels, income levels, races, genders—to gauge whether they have faith in elections, and, if they’re worried, to understand what they’re worried about. What were your most striking findings? Which groups have more faith in the system and which have less?

The survey, which was conducted jointly with Jennifer Gaudette, Seth Hill, and Mackenzie Lockhart at UC San Diego, and Mindy Romero at USC, found that even though trust in elections overall rebounded significantly after the 2022 elections, once you peel back the layers and look at different groups, you see very different stories for different parts of American society. Democrats’ trust bounced way up to 83 percent who trust American democracy, and 58 percent of independents. Both of those were a big rise from before the election. Republicans didn’t budge an inch though. Only 46 percent of Republicans said they trusted the American election system overall. Republicans were five times as likely as Democrats to say that the 2022 midterms reflected significant fraud.

There were some other important gaps. Sixty-eight percent of Black Americans and 74 percent of Asian Americans trust that the election accurately reflected the vote versus 59 percent for Latinos and whites. One of the biggest divides was about education. Of those with no high school degree, only 43 percent trust the midterm results versus 74 percent of those with advanced degrees. Younger voters are a little bit less trusting than older voters. There’s also an income effect. The more you make, the more you trust.

That partisan gap is really interesting. Where do the results of your survey fit in terms of broader trends about partisan gaps in trust?

This is one of the issues in which I’ve seen the biggest fluctuation, certainly over the last two or three years. When I was finishing up grad school in 2000, we had an incredibly closely contested election. Democrats were pretty skeptical. But Al Gore accepted the results of the Bush v. Gore case that came out of the Supreme Court—he didn’t challenge it once it was legally decided. That was a very important thing that was part of what got our democracy through that moment. And you saw that again, in 2004, another close election, where some of the Democrats voted against certifying the election results. When I would go to community events in San Diego in the years after that, it was groups on the left who were the ones raising issues about electronic voting machines. Republicans and most independents were pretty trusting of elections. During 2016, it was Bernie Sanders talking about elections being rigged. And then Donald Trump picked up on that theme. When Hillary Clinton lost, a lot of Democrats were really concerned that Russian interference had affected the election results. Going into November 2020, 65 percent of Republicans trusted the American election system, but only 48 percent of Democrats and 44 percent of independents did. That totally flipped after November 2020. We just don’t see transformations like that on issues. You don’t see people flip on abortion rights or do a 180 on gun control. This is one area where it’s still up for grabs, and that brings some hope that it can be changed.

What is driving distrust? When people say that they have limited trust in the electoral process, what piece of the process are they suspicious of? And do we have evidence that those things are actually happening?

First, what you see in our survey, and this is consistent with other polls and with what we hear from our partners—and I should say, our survey was designed working closely with the elections directors of Colorado, Texas, Los Angeles County, and a deputy director in Georgia—is that Republican mistrust of elections, and you see this with independents too, is really focused on voting by mail. About 51 percent of Republicans and 35 percent of independents lack trust in voting by mail. They’re also worried that ineligible voters are casting ballots, and that voters are casting more than one ballot—about half of Republicans and a third of independents are worried about this but only one in 10 Democrats are.

So you’ve seen this with Donald Trump going back to the 2016 election, claiming without evidence that 4 million people who were not allowed to cast ballots had voted illegally in California’s election.

Democrats, by contrast, are most concerned that eligible voters who should be able to cast ballots are facing obstacles, things like a voter ID law in a place where it may be difficult to get an ID, taking away a chance to vote early, taking away the chance to vote on a Sunday, having to stand in long lines, as we’ve seen in areas in Georgia. But those concerns are still not as strong as Republican concerns about those issues. Because Democrats overall right now are quite trusting of elections.

That was surprising to me—that Republican concern outweighs Democrat concern, even on issues like obstacles to voting. It was also surprising to see that Black Americans have high levels of trust in elections, even though they have been the target of attempts to try to limit voting.

Yeah, absolutely. Throughout American history, black Americans have faced tremendous violence back to the 1800s era elections in which 1,000 people or more were killed. There was a series of disenfranchising laws passed in the late 1800s in southern states as well as obstacles to voting in northern and western states, and everything in the civil rights movement. And I think in some ways, and certainly if you look at things now, the Florida legislature’s attempt to essentially thwart the will of the people on amendment four, which would have restored felon voting rights, and the number of voter ID laws and laws constraining voting early that have been passed in some states, most notably in the south in recent years—the group that has been targeted, the group that has been curtailed the most, is Black Americans.

Yet there’s a strong ethos for voting and a strong ethos that votes will count and strong messaging from that community that, though these laws are wrong, your vote will count, and you’ve got to show up. We’ve got to fight back and the way to fight back is through the ballot box. It’s not that Black Americans think that these new laws are fair, but I think it’s a commitment to voting that has been long central to that community.

The survey found that Republicans report more concerns than Democrats across the board, but they’re particularly concerned about things like vote fraud, fake ballots, problems with voting by mail. What’s driving these concerns? Is it driven by experience? What fuels the anxiety?

It’s not people’s individual experience. One of the things we saw overall was that people trust the elections that they directly experience. So, will your vote be counted accurately? They’re quite confident. Eighty-two percent of people thought that their vote would be counted accurately. Only 4 percent were very skeptical. If you ask about whether other people’s votes be counted accurately, that’s where you see the skepticism. Eighteen percent were skeptical about this—twice as many people were skeptical of other people’s votes being counted accurately. A majority of people of every party trust elections in their own state. It’s other states they don’t trust. So for instance, with Republicans, 63 percent say they trust their state’s elections. Only 41 percent trust other states’ elections. So, it’s not about direct experience. It’s about what they’re hearing from leaders, most often leaders in their own party. If your presidential candidate has spent the last two years talking about voter fraud and making these abstinent unsubstantiated claims, it’s not surprising that that’s what voters are listening to.

To what extent is distrust in elections just about losing the election? In a community event after the midterms, you said that everyone was expecting a red wave, and they got red droplets—disappointing results for Republicans. Similarly, prior to the 2016 election, Clinton and Trump voters had almost the same amount of distrust. And then after the election, the Trump voters were like: actually, we trust this election. Because they won. How much is this really about the fact that people don’t want to lose?

One of the consistent findings across recent American history and across developed democracies in Western Europe and Japan and across emerging democracies in Eastern Europe and Latin America, is this finding called the winner effect. You do a poll a month before the election, and you ask people if they trust the system. And then you do a poll afterwards. And what you see is that the winning side and losing side shift their positions on that. It’s like watching a football game, right? You’re not gonna trust the call if it goes against your team. But bad calls that don’t change the game, you’re not so worried about that. This is part of human nature.

We did a Yankelovich Center survey during California’s recall election in September of 2021. California’s recall had a really interesting dynamic where the Republican candidate lost and didn’t make claims of fraud, but instead came out on election night and said: this was a fair election. We did parallel polls the first day leading up until the polling places closed, and then we started a new poll, the next two days after the election results became clear. We see the parties move in opposite directions: Democrats become about a dozen points more likely to trust elections and Republicans a dozen points less. Independents stay the same. So it’s pretty clear that if your side loses, you shift.

But those gaps usually go away once we get a little bit away from the election. These things even out. They don’t lead to this massive gap between the parties. What we’ve seen in America are three straight elections where Republicans have lost or underperformed. And its party’s leaders are nonstop making these claims [about fraud] even when it has seemed to have hurt them electorally, like with Kerry Lake in Arizona. They’re still pushing this unsubstantiated claim of fraud. The thing that will get rid of that gap between the parties and restore overall levels of trust in democracy, the thing that would make that most likely to happen would be a Republican victory.

I want to ask about the challenges of gauging public opinion on a topic that’s so sensitive and so polarized. How can you be sure that you’re getting to the heart of what people really think?

Yeah, that’s always a question. There are three layers of concerns here. You make sure that the survey is representative of various demographics—race, age, education, gender. But even within those categories there are people who are tuning out political information, not following news about elections, unlikely to vote. And they are the people who are less likely to want to participate in a survey and elections. There are techniques to address that, but that’s always one concern. In some ways, though, we should have some of the most trusting people then and most engaged people in this survey.

There’s a second question of, you just totally don’t trust elections or institutions, maybe you don’t trust academics, so you won’t want to participate in an academic survey. Again, we’d lose the least trusting people. And then finally, with that acquiescence bias that Seth was talking about, you might want to say the thing that you think the academic might want you to say, which is: sure, I trust elections. All of these mean that what we probably have is a lower bound on distrust in American elections, right. If anything, the people we’re missing will be a little bit less trusting of elections and what we see.

When we talk about malfeasance in terms of the electoral process, what is there evidence of? I want to be really clear about that for our listeners.

There are some vanishingly rare findings of people who do commit vote fraud. What we don’t have is evidence of organized vote fraud that elections officials are part of. Election officials did an exceptional job in the 2020 election of resisting things like personal calls from the U.S. president saying, “find 11,000 votes.” Organized election fraud with elections officials involved—it’s pretty clear that we don’t have that currently occurring in American elections. We saw the spouse of a congressional candidate who lost and was recently prosecuted for trying to cast multiple ballots. You have prosecutions of individuals, people in The Villages and in Florida; there was a losing congressional candidate in North Carolina, I believe in 2018, who perpetrated fraud. A lot of these get caught because there are a lot of systems to catch fraud—signature verifications and other systems that that election officials put in place, allow them to catch these rare instances of individual, fairly uncoordinated fraud, which isn’t done at a scale that is enough to alter the results of elections. Knowing that fraud can be caught, and is caught, should make people overall more trusting that elections are 99.999 percent free of fraud.

It’s interesting that there’s so little evidence of vote fraud, and when I think about challenges in the electoral process in America, I think of big, long term, structural problems that feel by contrast, huge and overwhelming, like the efforts to limit the votes of African Americans. Stacey Abrams seemed to be referring to this when she said that the game was rigged against the voters of Georgia. There’s a striking contrast between what is clearly wrong with the system and what isn’t but seems to capture the imagination of some voters.

There’s a very strong link between those two phenomena. Vote fraud has been the ostensible reason behind a lot of disenfranchising mechanisms. Going back to the late 1800s, a lot of the changes to ballot structures in the south and things like literacy tests were applied unfairly across racial groups, were justified as: we’re going to get rid of fraud. There’s a long history of that. And I absolutely agree with you that we have lots of systems in place to stop fraud, and there are many other bigger problems that lead to imbalances in the American election systems. We’re not great at evenly inviting and welcoming everyone into the ballot box. So that’s where I would want to put most of the effort. But because there’s such a crisis of confidence in our elections, it’s also incumbent on people to recognize that the normal Americans who are concerned about voter fraud in this time of lots of changing election rules, and with the huge cavalcade of what they’re seeing on social media, it’s worth opening getting under the hood of elections, showing people how they work, showing them how their votes are protected, and trying to convince them. If you show people the facts, they can be convinced.

And that’s what we did at the end of this survey. We took the real advertisements, or the real messages and videos that secretaries of state and elections directors all across the country have been using to explain how elections worked. We had voters watch these messages and then we asked about their trust in elections. And we found that they’re open to being convinced. When you show them information about why elections work, Americans become more trusting. And that’s true, not just among Democrats and independents, but among Republicans

Do you think investigations help alleviate that anxiety? Or do they just deepen suspicion?

Well, I think a well-done post-election audit, and in fact, some of these videos inform voters about the audits that are done, can be really important. What is most important is focusing on the mechanisms and legal processes that are in place. Showing people that okay, there were these charges of fraud, these folks got their day in court, this is why the judge reasoned this way. There were many Trump-appointed judges across the country who heard the evidence of vote fraud, and in court case after court case, decided that there was no significant fraud that could have altered elections. I think those sorts of investigations are important. They’re part of our democratic system. And publicizing them is another thing that I think could increase Americans’ trust in elections.

To what extent is weakening trust in elections a uniquely American phenomenon? Or is this something that we’re seeing elsewhere too?

I think this is America realizing it’s really a part of the world. It’s more like the rest of the world than the shining city on a hill. Part of what’s changed from 40 years ago, or 20 years ago, is we did not have Al Gore call on his supporters to take over the Capitol and continue to contest the election after he lost. It’s no surprise what we had in Brazil this winter with the storming of their Supreme Court, Congress, and presidential offices. America is starting to look more like the rest of the world, and our actions are being reflected in the rest of the world. There have been electoral challenges in many developing democracies, not as much in the more advanced democracies of Western Europe, but in many democracies: Brazil, African democracies, and Mexico. And America is starting to look more like that part of the world than like the UK or France or Germany, much to the chagrin of American exceptionalists. Whether we’re able to restore trust in American democracy, and restore that relatively equally across party lines, will have a big impact on the future direction of democracy in the world at a time when it’s really being contested.

You mentioned at the beginning of our interview, that distrust in elections is associated with less participation in elections overall, which is part of why we care about this so much—because for a democracy to be a democracy, citizens have to participate in it. But one of the things that your survey found is that most respondents who reported that they distrust elections still said that they participate in them. I was talking with a colleague who is young, and asking her views about what her generation, the early 20s generation, thinks about elections and the state of the U.S. and, and she was reflecting that young people are voting in higher numbers, but they have very little faith in the system. What do you make of that?

Well, there was a difference in turnout with trust, which is one of the reasons why trust matters. So people who distrust elections, 66 percent of those people reported that they’d voted in the midterms, compared to 81 percent of those who trust in elections. So that’s a gap, but it’s not a gulf.

The question about, if you don’t trust elections, why would you turn out in them? One of the things we learned was that people trust their own votes. What they’re worried about is lots of other votes flooding in that could be illegally cast. If you think those are flooding in, you want to put yourself as a bulwark against that—that seems entirely rational. I think what you’re getting at with young people who don’t trust the system overall to deliver fair outcomes at the macro level. Whether it’s concerns about the two-party system, and why can’t I voice my support for something on a further end of the spectrum, or somewhere in the middle? Why do my votes lead to seat shares in a way that’s proportional? What about gerrymandering? I think these are concerns more likely to be held by young voters. But when I think about how to change all of those laws, those systems—who is empowered to make these decisions about the way in which American democracy works? It’s elected officials, so you’ve got to vote for them, or else you don’t have any impact or any chance of changing them. And voting isn’t the only thing that people do in American politics. We saw in the summer of 2020, the biggest public protests ever in American history, the largest mass protest movement ever. We’ve seen a lot of small donor giving, which is another important form of political participation that’s made campaign funding a bit more widespread across the population. And we see a lot of young people who are going to work in politics. Young voters who want to change the system know that voting is the first and not the only step towards doing that.

Will you be doing more surveys over the next couple of years?

This is our third survey in the last two years. We’re going to be working with our partners in these four states to design new surveys leading into the 2024 election, because we want to give the people who are on the frontlines of democracy, who are trying to explain what they do and get people to trust them, we want to give them some data-driven rigorous tools to decide what works and what doesn’t for helping to build that trust. We’d love to come back here and talk about our next survey.

Yeah, we would love to check in with you again soon. Thad Kousser, thanks for being with us on Talking Policy.

Thanks so much for having me.