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One might assume that ballots and vote counts come close to an absolute truth, that large-scale election fraud is nearly impossible in stable and wealthy democratic countries: Public observers and reviews, recounts and challenge in courts, if demanded. Also, basic political processes are more important to people than historical events, where conspiracy theories may be adopted solely for entertainment (such as moon-hoax, JFK and 9/11).

This refers to the voting and vote count itself, not other influences, like biased media, voter suppression before ballots are cast, or distortion by the process (intermediate instances like districts with "winner takes it all" principle, or the electoral college in the USA).

On the other hand, in less stable countries or fake democracies, election fraud is common: Ballots being destroyed or not counted, fake ballots, minors, dead or non-existing people "voting", or simply fabricated results.

Are there any investigations, and possibly results, on what makes, for example, a huge part of US voters seriously believe that the voting process itself was fraudulent, similar to that of a developing country? I assume that a majority of them does not intend to bring Trump back into office at all cost, even by overthrowing democracy itself and installing him as a dictator.

https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-election-poll/half-of-republicans-say-biden-won-because-of-a-rigged-election-reuters-ipsos-poll-idUSKBN27Y1AJ

Suggestions:

  • Trust in an individual (e.g. Trump) over trust in a system
  • Confusion of "hard" facts (poll results) with "soft" points-of-view (e.g. biased media).
  • Large scale delusion (belief in conspiracy theories, QAnon etc. of entities exercising even unlikely levels of control)
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    This is a good question, but I'm not sure it can answered more definitively than with the hypotheses you've mentioned. In particular, I'm not sure one can really tell the difference between social conformity and motivated reasoning, at least not with usual polling methods. Jan 14, 2021 at 13:48
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    This paper may interest you journal.sjdm.org/13/13313/jdm13313.pdf in general on such topics. Jan 14, 2021 at 13:53
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    How about willful ignorance, an excuse not to accept the results b/c they are not in your favour? We are dealing with fascists here who refuse to accept democracy when the outcome is not to their liking. If you had any doubts about that, Wednesday’s attack on Congress should have ended them. Jan 14, 2021 at 15:32
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    I don't think you can really restrict the question to election fraud. The real question (and I'm not sure it's even appropriate for Politics) is "Why do people believe Donald Trump?" After all, he lies about a great many other things - COVID-19, for a notable example - and the same subset of the population believe his lies about that.
    – jamesqf
    Jan 14, 2021 at 17:45
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    One difficulty is that in lots of cases where there is a belief in widespread election fraud, it is in fragile or flawed democracies where there really is election fraud, and that very few established democracies have widespread belief in election fraud. Indeed, one could attribute the distrust in the U.S. case to its regression from a stable established democracy into a flawed one.
    – ohwilleke
    Mar 3, 2023 at 23:44

3 Answers 3

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Since the U.S. is given as an example, there is a simple item that is missing on your list:

Complexity/convolution of the election process.

A trustworthy election process should not only be transparent but also as simple and coherent as possible, since it is quite obviously a bad thing if you have to explain the results to voters.

Since every U.S. state does things its own way, you got 50 different combinations of vote counting processes, dates, deadlines, mail-in-ballot-handling etc... To this you then add the nonsensical, sensationalism-driven election state-by-state live coverage and you already got one big convoluted mess.
The year 2020 then provided two additional recipe items that turned this big convoluted mess into a big explosive convoluted mess:

First: There were far more mail-in-ballots because of COVID which combines VERY badly with the aforementioned election live coverage. Experts specifically warned that a so called "Mirage" might occur, where one candidate seems to be leading until the mail-in-ballots are counted and cause the lead to disappear almost miraculously. This obviously was specifically what happened. The usual big election night live coverage, which the media just couldn't refrain from greatly exacerbated this mirage.

Second: Polarization. The U.S. is currently extremely polarized with a lot of distrust, anger and contempt between the two political sides, which decreases the overall willingness to accept a loss.

Add all of that together and you got the perfect recipe for what happened. No third-world-issues needed...

If the election process were different with all states having the same procedural rules, dates and deadlines, overall preliminary results being published at a specific date without state-by-state live coverage and so on, there would still be frustration, owed to the aforementionted polarization, but the election fraud case would be significantly harder to make.

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    You're assuming those who disagree with the outcome of an election, particularly the violent extremists who attacked the Capitol on Wednesday, are genuinely interested in the truth. Jan 14, 2021 at 15:37
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    This is at most a minor contributor. The reasons are not significantly different from the reasons anyone believes any conspiracy theory. bbc.com/news/world-47144738 Jan 14, 2021 at 17:17
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    @Ryan_L If Donald J Trump, 45th President of the United States of America, spent several months repeating that we did not land on the moon and the whole thing was a Democrat hoax, I think you'd see them in similar numbers. Jan 14, 2021 at 17:30
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    I strongly believe that Pres. Trump (and pretty much every other Republican) completely understood the Mirage and that is why (and considering how Trump and his own family voted) he made mail-in-voting (being) fraudulent a major component of pre-election campaigning.
    – CGCampbell
    Jan 14, 2021 at 17:44
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    He laid all the same groundwork of saying "this election will be fraudulent" before the 2016 election, he just didn't need it then. Jan 14, 2021 at 19:00
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There is some research, e.g. this 2017 article. It begins by laying out some context:

After Mitt Romney’s defeat in 2012, 49 percent of Republicans believed that the Democrat-leaning activist group, ACORN, had stolen the election for Barack Obama (only 6 percent of Democrats believed this). [...]

Such numbers could give the impression that Republicans are prone to belief in election fraud; however, instances where Democrats lose elections show parity. Following the contentious presidential election of 2000, 31 percent of Democrats believed that George W. Bush had stolen the election (only 3 percent of Republicans agreed) [...]

I'm not aware of any studies that purport to address the most upvoted reason here, i.e. complexity of the system, or how much that would weight relative to other factors, but that piece also touches on the issue that fraud is sometimes mutually suspected, possibly when there are disputed technical issues (like the famous hanging chads)

With this said, belief in fraud is not just a symptom of an election night hangover: belief in fraud is also widespread prior to the announcement of an electoral outcome. To take a high-profile example, during the protracted recount in 2000, both parties were equally wary of fraud prior to the announcement of a winner: 52 percent of Republicans were either “not too confident” or “not at all confident” that the recount process in Florida would be fair; a similar number of Democrats, 47 percent, agreed with them.

I cannot get here into too much of the methodological details of their study and regression model, because it goes on for multiple pages, but as teaser/nutshell they find that belief correlates with predisposition in conspiratorial thinking other areas

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Our first two dependent variables measure belief in fraud before and after the election. In the preelection survey, we asked, “If [respondent’s preferred candidate] does not win the presidential election, how likely do you think election fraud will have been involved?” In the postelection survey, we asked, “How likely do you think election fraud was involved in the outcome of the election?” Respondents could answer both questions on a 4-point scale from very likely” to very unlikely.” The first of these questions captures the dispositional nature of fraud beliefs, while the latter captures the situational nature because one party would have won and the other lost. These two variables are labeled Fraud if Lose and Fraud Affect Outcome in Table 2. [...]

Our independent variable of note is labeled Conspiratorial Predispositions. [...] This measure is an additive scale composed of three items adapted from McClosky and Chong (1985). “Much of our lives are being controlled by plots hatched in secret places,” “Even though we live in a democracy, a few people will always run things anyway,” and “The people who really ‘run’ the country, are not known to the voters.” Agreement with each statement was measured on a 5-point scale running from strong agreement to strong disagreement. We combined the responses and scaled them from 0 to 1 so that 0 indicates minimal conspiratorial ideation (strong disagreement with all three items) and 1 indicates maximal conspiratorial predispositions (strong agreement with all three items.) The scale has a Cronbach’s alpha of .79. This measure is similar to other measures currently used to tap conspiracy thinking (Lantian et al. 2016; Uscinski et al. 2016; Uscinski and Parent 2014).

To assess the validity of our conspiratorial predispositions scale, we also asked respondents to select from a list which groups they felt “work in secret against the rest of us.” The list included “corporations and the rich,” “Republicans or other conservative groups,” “Democrats or other liberal groups,” “Communists and Socialists,” “the government,” “Foreign countries,” “International Organizations (e.g., United Nations, International Monetary Fund, World Bank),” “the Freemasons, or some other fraternal group,” “labor unions,” and “some other group.” We expect that if our measure of conspiratorial predispositions is valid, those higher on the conspiratorial predispositions measure will identify more groups. A bivariate negative binomial regression analysis indicates exactly this: our conspiratorial thought measure is positively correlated with the number of groups selected (b = 316, p < .001). Substantively, an increase in the predisposition measure from its minimum to its maximum is correlated with an increase of about three groups.

[....] Trust is based on agreement with the statement, “The government can be trusted most of the time.” This variable ranges from 0 to 1, in 0.25 increments. The correlation between conspiratorial predispositions and distrust of government is only .24, suggesting that even if conspiratorial predispositions are related to trust in government, they are nonetheless distinct. If the effects of conspiratorial predispositions remain significant even when trust in government is included in our models, this suggests that they have an effect on belief about election fraud distinct from conventional trust measures. [...] Political Interest is self-reported interest in following political news, also coded from 0 to 1 in increments of one-third.

[...] Prior to the election, conspiratorial predispositions strongly predict the belief that if one’s candidate were to lose, fraud would have been involved. The magnitude of this effect is substantial. [...] Our other key explanatory variable, party identification, predicts little in this [first] model [column/model 1 in table 2]. It is worth noting that the effect of Trust is significant and negative, signifying that greater trust in government leads to less belief in fraud. While the effects of trust are substantial—a shift across the range of this variable leads to a predicted 18 percentage point shift in the belief in fraud—this is much smaller than the effect of conspiratorial predispositions.

The second model in Table 2 addresses the belief that fraud affected the outcome in the postelection survey wave. Again, Conspiratorial Predispositions has a statistically and substantively significant effect, though it is smaller than in the preelection question. All else equal, among strong Republicans, a move from the lowest to the highest value results in a predicted 27 percentage point increase across the two “agree” categories of the dependent variable; among strong Democrats, the predicted effect size is 14 points.

So yeah, there's a combination of general predisposition for conspiratorial thinking and (situational) motivated reasoning among the main drivers.

Although the authors of this study don't comment much on the [observed] correlation with the interest in following political news, it's probably fair to assume that if media is filled with such news of fraud allegations, it would maintain such beliefs over [a longer period of] time.

I suspect that "trust in government" correlates with trust in the technical details of the election process, but I'm not sure if the degree of that linkage [belief] has been studied in detail.


There's also an open access 2022 paper that has some perhaps interesting historical analysis in re the US case, but otherwise doesn't add much to the general issue, except perhaps to posit that [sustained] polarization may also play a role

For Republicans, the decline in 2020 was a continuation of a two-decade-long decline in confidence in the vote count, after an uncharacteristic uptick in 2018. For Democrats, the upward swing in confidence in 2020 was uncharacteristic of the steady pattern of the preceding two decades.

Perhaps the 2020 Democratic upswing was due to the euphoria over the victory of Joseph Biden over Donald Trump, but one must wonder whether Democrats’ responses to the confidence questions in 2020 were influenced by a strong negative repudiation of Trump’s calling the results of the election into question. At the very least, it bears underscoring that if the two parties diverged dramatically in how confident they are in the voting process, that divergence seems to be more affected by changes in Democratic responses than to changes among Republicans.

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A long history of crooked politics.

Simply put, the US Democratic Party has been rigging elections for decades, dating back to the days of Tammany Hall, the Chicago Machine,. I can't find a source for it at the moment, but I remember reading that even Richard Nixon, infamous for his attempt at wiretapping his political opponents, was merely copying the se sorts of tactics his political opponents themselves used, and was smeared in the press not for the gravity of his crimes, but because he was a Republican.

Given the context of decades of fraud by one party, is it any surprise that people would believe that they rig elections in the modern day?

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    Two references from over a century ago meddling in smaller scale state/local politics does not equate to 'long history of crooked politics'. If you want to prove that the USA had a history of crooked politics, to a level higher then other first world nations, you should at least cite something that happened in the last hundred years, and preferable on the federal level instead of state. Only examples I can think of are Nixon and the Trump/Russia thing which is a little more complicated. I doubt the Trump example drove Trump supporter motivations so that's leave on relevant example at most
    – dsollen
    Mar 6, 2023 at 17:24

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