Donald Trump has been ruminating recently that the election could be rigged against him. His comments inspired The Washington Post's Dave Weigel to take a larger look at the notion that our vote counts are unreliable. I have a cameo in Weigel's story:
Since the 2000 election, which ended in a legal battle that stopped recounts of ballots in Florida, paranoia about the nation's election system has mushroomed. According to a Pew Research Center survey, just 48 percent of Americans were confident that "the votes across the country were accurately counted" in the 2004 election. After 2012, an election with a wider popular vote margin, that percentage fell to 31 percent. Among Republicans, it was 21 percent.
"The idea that the person who won the presidency did so illegitimately is not new," said Jesse Walker, the author of "The United States of Paranoia," a history of conspiracy theories. "What's new is the possibility of a possible loser in the presidential contest making an issue out of it. I can't think of another example in the last century."
Let me expand on that a bit. It is standard these days for a significant slice of the population to believe that the latest election was rigged and the president holds power illegitimately. This is true not just in the wake of a vote like 2000, when it would take just a little petty theft to alter the outcome, but after a vote that's not nearly narrow enough for that to be plausible. And if you don't think it was ballot-box stuffing that carried the day, you can still challenge the president's legitimacy some other way—say, by suggesting he's not a natural-born citizen and therefore is constitutionally ineligible for the job.
So we have lived a long time with a lot of Americans doubting that their rulers hold power lawfully. The only real difference here is the possibility that a defeated presidential hopeful will publicly join them. Usually these allegations have a more samizdat flavor. They circulate at the grassroots, get aired in the alternative press, maybe are mentioned by some backbenchers in Congress, but the candidate himself accepts his loss. Even Richard Nixon in 1960 and Al Gore in 2000—the losers who could make the most credible cases that they were robbed—conceded after the vote totals were announced in Nixon's case and after the Supreme Court stopped the Florida recount in Gore's.
Trump's comments have prompted a lot of hand-wringing about the possibility that we might not see a peaceful transfer of power. But expecting that requires you to expect two things that don't seem obviously likely to me. One is that if Trump loses, he will actually contest the results. To me it seems at least as likely that he's just preparing an excuse to salve his ego. His pal Roger Stone may be running his mouth about resisting the Clinton imperium—"the government will be shut down if they attempt to steal this and swear Hillary in"—but Roger Stone is capable of saying stuff like that about any election. Trump's more the guy who pretends he really succeeded as he declares bankruptcy and walks away.
And if Trump does try to make an issue out of it? Then we run into the other shaky expectation: that his complaints will have much resonance beyond the hardcore Trumpelos who were already sure to screech at any unfavorable results. If we're looking at a tight margin, that could happen. But at this point, it is—how shall I put this?—far from clear that the vote will be close.
In any event, let's keep our eye on the problem here. It isn't unhealthy for Americans to have doubts about the system. The trouble is the motivated reasoning that leads people to feel such doubts only when they're losing. That, and this idea that there once was some golden age of legitimacy that can be restored by backing an authoritarian peddling snake oil.
Bonus link: This week NPR ran a story headlined "Hacking An Election: Why It's Not As Far-Fetched As You Might Think." Hmm.