The 2022 U.S. midterm elections ran relatively smoothly and faced few consequential accusations of fraud or mismanagement. Yet many Americans don’t trust this essential element of a democracy.
It’s dangerous for peace and stability when the public doubts democratic elections. Disastrous events like the insurrection by supporters of President Donald Trump at the U.S. Capitol in January 2021 make that clear.
But there are subtler effects of such doubt. Trump isn’t the only instigator of this distrust, which he sowed with his false assertions that the 2020 presidential vote was “rigged” and that he was the legitimate winner of the election.
Study after study – in both the U.S. and around the world – make clear that trust in elections predicts whether a person votes and decides to participate in politics in other ways, like attending peaceful demonstrations or even discussing politics. If people don’t think that elections are fair, then they don’t see the point in taking the steps that maintain democracy.
Healthy democracies are countries where regular elections lead to peaceful transfers of power. Citizens are essential to this process, especially as their votes and peaceful protests hold politicians accountable. Their beliefs about election credibility determine whether they are willing and able to play this role.
The consequences of the Capitol riot continue to loom large. The congressional hearings investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection have revealed the extent of then-President Trump’s desire to challenge the legitimacy of Joe Biden’s victory. In behind-the-scenes footage from his address on Jan. 7, 2021, to the nation, Trump said, “I don’t want to say the election is over.”
Trump’s actions on Jan. 6, 2021, were hardly the first time he sowed distrust in American elections. While campaigning in 2016, he warned the election could be “rigged” and called on his supporters to be “Trump Election Observers.” Trump built on the claims of earlier Republican politicians who for years stoked fears about what they called “voter fraud,” even though nonpartisan experts demonstrate such fraud is rare in American elections.
Although GOP politicians have done the most to sow distrust in American elections, some Democrats have also questioned the fairness of elections. In 2018, Stacey Abrams acknowledged losing the race for governor of Georgia to incumbent Brian Kemp, but said “the game was rigged against the voters of Georgia.”
Waning trust in elections not only turns off voters, but it also leads to other problems. Trump supporters deliberately overwhelmed local election officials before the midterms with information requests related to 2020 voting records. Other voters were “angry and confused,” uncertain about how to vote by mail and voting machines.
This situation is made worse by polarization in the United States. Many members of the American public will incorrectly question the accuracy of the midterms. As political scientists who study elections and democracy, we anticipate that post-election distrust will be especially high among the voters who supported candidates who lost.