Eroding trust: How election deniers endanger US democracy

Experts say deniers may not be able to overturn elections but they weaken public confidence in democratic institutions.

Profile of Donald Trump pointing while wearing MAGA hat
Nearly two years on, former US President Donald Trump continues to falsely claim that the 2020 election was rigged [File: Go Nakamura/Reuters]

Washington, DC – Democrats have argued the future of democracy in the United States is at stake in the upcoming midterm elections as the Republican Party has nominated hundreds of candidates for public office who deny the legitimacy of the 2020 vote.

Experts say the decentralised US election system, coupled with legal checks and balances on the vote-counting process, make it extremely difficult for officials to illegitimately sway future contests.

However, election denialism does pose a threat, said Lisa Bryant, a political science professor at California State University, Fresno: the erosion of trust in the democratic process and the institutions it produces.

And that, Bryant told Al Jazeera, can lead to a breakdown in the rule of law.

“If you don’t view the government as legitimate, then do you view the laws that it creates as legitimate? And so then are you subject to follow them?” she said.

Hundreds of election deniers

Election denialism – fuelled in large part by former US President Donald Trump who continues to falsely say that widespread voter fraud propelled Joe Biden to victory in 2020 – has gained prominence in the Republican Party over the past two years.

A January 2021 Pew Research Center poll showed that 75 percent of Trump voters believed he won the 2020 presidential race and most Republicans believed that fraud often happens in elections.

According to a recent analysis by the Washington Post, the majority of the Republican Party’s nominees for office, nearly 300 candidates, are election deniers. This includes people running for positions that allow them to oversee future elections.

For example, in Michigan, the Republican nominee for secretary of state rose to prominence in right-wing circles after amplifying Trump’s unfounded fraud allegations. If elected, Kristina Karamo – who has said Trump won Michigan in 2020 despite losing by 150,000 votes – would become the highest election authority in the state.

In a year when Republicans are expected to make political gains, Karamo and other election-denying candidates, many of whom have been endorsed by Trump himself, may win in swing states that decide future presidential contests.

“Democracy cannot survive when one side believes there are only two outcomes to an election: either they win or they were cheated,” President Joe Biden said in a September speech.

Days earlier, Biden had called on supporters to vote in November to “literally save democracy”, describing Trump’s approach to politics as “semi-fascism”. Other Democratic-leaning commentators have also accused the Republican Party of authoritarianism and fascism.

Republicans vehemently reject those charges, accusing Democrats who make them of deepening divisions in the country by demonising millions of conservative Americans.

‘Feedback loop’

Mitchell Brown, a political science professor at Auburn University in Alabama, said election deniers in state legislatures may pass laws making voting more difficult; administrators who organise elections also could enact restrictive rules that trickle down to the local level.

But there are checks and balances, including the court system, to push back against such moves. “It’s not like all is lost,” Brown told Al Jazeera. “But it means continual fighting for a while until we can sort out this period of discord with elections.”

Election safeguards kicked into action after Trump tried to overturn the 2020 elections, with courts dismissing dozens of lawsuits alleging fraud and with legislators and state officials – including many Republicans – rejecting the then-president’s calls against certifying the vote.

Echoing Bryant, Brown said the “real danger” of election denialism is that it may chip away at general trust in democratic institutions.

“Any kind of democratic system is based off of the will of the people and the belief in the legitimacy of government,” she said. “And as we saw what happened on January 6, that was the beginning of a real problem that … is being dealt with. But if trust continues to erode in the institutions, that is a real cause for concern.”

Through nine public hearings, a congressional panel investigating the January 6, 2021 attack on the US Capitol building in Washington, DC has tried to link the deadly assault to Trump’s election denialism.

Despite that effort, Trump-backed Republican candidates won hundreds of primaries before the crucial November 8 midterm elections that will decide the makeup of Congress, as well as top positions in dozens of states.

Some conservative candidates have moderated their earlier rejection of the 2020 election results after winning the Republican nomination. For example, Blake Master, who is running for the US Senate in Arizona, removed a statement from his campaign website that proclaimed Trump would be in the Oval Office if the 2020 election had been “free and fair”.

However, Bryant said the prevalence of election denialism among the Republican electorate pushes candidates to adopt the stance, which in turn lends perceived legitimacy to the false claim that the 2020 vote was marred by fraud.

It is a “feedback loop” that fuels itself and helps insulate election deniers from the scrutiny of fact-checks, Bryant said. “As a candidate, you can use that to leverage yourself in a campaign and get a following and get donors and supporters.”

“That’s why it doesn’t matter if it’s true. It’s that people believe it’s true; they want somebody else to confirm that that belief has legitimacy. Candidates go out there and confirm it even if they don’t believe it’s true because they know it’ll work.”

Increased education

Still, Brown said the current wave of election denialism is a “Trump phenomenon” that will likely end when the former president, who still holds tremendous sway over the GOP and is expected to seek the party’s nomination in 2024, eventually fades away from US politics.

“So my guess is that this is a short-term problem in the course of history. This is an eight-to-10-year problem – not a forever-problem,” she said.

Asked about potential solutions to the issue, Brown called for better civic education and said Americans should demand that elected officials remember their oath of office is to the US Constitution, not their political parties.

“It’s easy to fool people and feed them lies when they don’t really understand what’s happening,” Brown said.

For her part, Bryant urged greater awareness and transparency around the vote-counting process, saying many local and state officials are already working towards that end.

“Basically once voters cast their ballot, they probably don’t have a really good idea of what happens after they go home and wait for the news to present the results,” she said.

Source: Al Jazeera