How Much Do Doubts About Election Fairness Affect Voting—and Democracy?

It’s complicated, say Tufts political experts, but there are ways to increase participation and voting

In the 2016 presidential election, almost 42% of the American electorate didn’t vote. The percentage was lower in 2020—33%, the lowest in decades—but it still prompts the question: why don’t more Americans vote?

Early last fall the Knight Foundation released a report on its 100 Million Project—that’s roughly the number of eligible voters who didn’t cast a ballot in the 2016 presidential election. The top takeaway was that many people lack faith in the election system and have serious doubts about the impact of their own votes.

Fast forward a year, and Donald Trump continues to issue statements that his loss in the 2020 election was rigged, a claim repeated by many Republican officials.

Brian Schaffner, the Newhouse Professor of Civic Studies at Tufts, thinks there’s an argument to be made that the reason Democrats control the Senate right now is “because of the claims Trump made after the election about the validity of the voting system, and it essentially depressed Republican turnout in the Georgia runoff elections that happened in early January.”

“Some very high percentage of Trump voters think the election was stolen,” he adds. “But whatever the polls say, I don’t think nearly as many people who say they believe in Trump’s claims actually believe them. But even if it’s only 10% or 15% of the American public who believes these things, that’s still really high—and really problematic.”

And it is “enough so that people were willing to act on it in a violent way in January,” Schaffner says. “That’s obviously not good for democracy, especially when it means that people feel like they have to take sides. That puts people in a difficult position, where they feel like there’s no nuance to this.”

It’s important to remember, though, that narratives of unfair elections cross party lines, says Eitan Hersh, A05, a professor of political science. “Democrats have been told for a really long time that super PACs [political action committees] and big money have corrupted elections, so that voters don’t have a say at all,” he says. “And a lot of people think the electoral college makes elections completely undemocratic.”

In general, political scientists treat these kinds of statements “as essentially a method of mobilization,” says Hersh. “I’m going to tell you to be really upset about this election law change or about Citizens United because that riles people up and makes them want to engage more.”

But there is some risk, he adds, “whether on the right or the left, that voters react the opposite way—they throw up their hands.”

“You can imagine that if somebody tells you that your vote doesn’t count, you won’t vote,” says Peter Levine, the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life. “But you can also imagine that it’ll have a boomerang effect, and you will get very angry that someone was trying to steal your vote and you will vote.”

There’s also a concern about the reaction to those decrying significant problems with the electoral system, from gerrymandering to voter suppression. “Some people have wondered whether when we say voter suppression is terrible, which I’ve said as a witness in a federal case, are we discouraging people from voting?” says Levine.

Some research, he says, suggest the boomerang effect is stronger than inhibiting voting. African American voters told about voter suppression tended to be more likely to vote, he says.

“What’s tricky from a political science perspective is to make the causal leap between any one cause—like language around corruption and election processes—and the feeling that voting is useless,” says Hersh.

Saying It’s Not Fair

In the 1941 movie Citizen Kane, Orson Wells plays Charles Foster Kane, a publishing magnate who runs for governor of New York. On election night, we see his newspaper’s editors with two potential front pages. One headline shouts “Kane Elected.” The alternate cries “Fraud at Polls!” Kane loses, and needless to say, his paper runs the second headline.

Hersh remembers when he was a student at Tufts and heard Al Gore talking on campus, making claims about unfairness in the election he lost. “I think some of Trump’s defenders say that’s exactly what it’s like for Trump, too, when he talks about rigged elections,” says Hersh.

“But it is different—and the difference is January 6 happened,” he says. “There’s just no way we could ever talk about any of this again without talking about the fact that he sent a mob to try to raid the Capitol.”

Levine points out that never in more than 100 years has the losing presidential candidate been “the main source of very strong, very consistent rhetoric that the election was stolen.” Add to that the fact that Trump “is not only the losing candidate, but he’s a prospective candidate, and that’s unprecedented.”

The focus on the narrative that elections are fraudulent is leading to more efforts to restrict voting in states with Republican-led legislatures, too. “There’s been a big push during the first part of this year to pass legislation in many states that makes it harder for people to vote, either before or on election day,” says Schaffner.

“Republicans were probably going to push some of this legislation anyway, but I think this just gave them more fuel for the argument that these measures were needed,” he says, citing early voting and voting by mail.

The measures affect all voters, of course. “It’s not too long ago that the conventional wisdom was people who voted early were more Republican than Democratic—it was actually a way to make voting easier for Republicans,” Schaffner says. “And now Republicans want to curtail some of that.”

One test of the question of whether rigged election talk lowers voting could be the upcoming November elections, especially the gubernatorial races in Virginia and New Jersey, says Schaffner. “I’m interested to see how these races turn out, because especially if we get some surprises, if Democrats win by a fairly large margin, the story may end up being that Trump is depressing Republican turnout, which is an interesting problem for Republicans,” he says.

How the Youth Vote Is Affected

The Knight 100 Million Project also found that young voters ages 18-24 “more closely resemble non-voters than active voters,” a worrying trend, per the report. (Hersh was one of two academic advisors to the project, and Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, Newhouse Director of CIRCLE at Tisch College was on the review committee.)

In a survey run immediately following the 2020 election by CIRCLE—the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement—young people aged 18-29 were asked if they agreed with this statement: “I believe the 2020 election process was fair and I will trust the outcomes.” Nearly a quarter of them said they disagreed; 76% said they agreed.

“When we broke it down, half of Trump voters disagreed and half agreed,” says Abby Kiesa, deputy director of CIRCLE. “That’s a big chunk of Trump voters. And while 87% of Biden voters said they agreed that the election was fair and they trust the elections, 13% disagreed.”

That might seem like a high number for supporters of a winning candidate, but Kiesa isn’t surprised. “I’m worried that as a country, we’re not regularly reminding people how democracy works and why it works in certain ways,” she says. “It is a really important thing that civic classes do, especially explaining that on the local level. But that usually happens only once in school. So how do we keep the awareness of that going so that people don’t forget?”

One way is to meet young people where they are, which can help reach a broader diversity of young people, not just those extremely interested in politics. “If they want to talk about pop culture, we can talk about politics in conjunction with pop culture—electoral politics, activist politics,” says Kiesa, citing design and art with political messages or celebrities who make statements about issues.

There’s also the material culture—things like Converse offering badges for their shoes to support voting and other similar fashion statements. Young people also promote causes via social media, Kiesa notes. In fact, last fall CIRCLE teamed up with Snapchat to encourage young people to either nominate someone to run for office or to run themselves.

Still, for young people on the fence about voting or who don’t fully understand how voting works—“or young Republicans or people who lean conservative, to see people you trust saying that elections are rigged—these are all things that worry me,” says Kiesa.

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