American democracy has long had its weaknesses, but a scorched-earth campaign season and the tumultuous weeks that followed the presidential election caused many to fear for its survival. There were unfounded accusations of widespread fraud, a campaign to overturn the results in key states, and an unprecedented unwillingness to acknowledge a clear winner.
With what seems like a more-normal transition now underway, a popular refrain seems to be that, despite it all, the system held and free and fair elections worked. Pippa Norris, Paul F. McGuire Lecturer in Comparative Politics, thinks the story is much more complicated—and potentially dangerous unless political leaders heed this year’s warning flags and take action to stop the erosion of trust in the legitimacy of U.S. elections. Norris directs the Electoral Integrity Project (EIP), which has studied and reported on hundreds of elections around the world with the aim to strengthen democracy. “Electoral Integrity in the 2020 U.S. Elections,” the EIP’s latest report, surveyed nearly 800 elections experts across all 50 states. We asked her about her latest report’s findings.
Q: The first question has to be, did you find any evidence of fraud or rigged elections?
The experts were asked a series of questions about potential fraud in their state’s election at the balloting and vote count and the overwhelming response was that fraud wasn’t a problem. For example, 99% said that votes were counted fairly in their state and 97% said that elections were conducted in accordance with the law.
Q: Having functioning elections seems like a low bar for a democracy like the United States. What, beyond the “no fraud” headline, is the state of elections in this country?
Just because the ballots and vote count worked, doesn’t mean that elections experts thought that this was true of all stages in the election. In particular, they proved critical of other long-standing concerns, such as partisan gerrymandering, campaign finance, and electoral laws restricting voting rights.
“Just because the ballots and vote count worked, doesn’t mean that elections experts thought that this was true of all stages in the election.”
Q: You’ve been observing American democracy for decades, and the EIP has been analyzing elections since 2012. Was 2020 an aberration or was it following existing trendlines?
In fact, the 2020 election was seen as worse than 2016, notably in disputes about the outcome, the loss of public trust and confidence, and threats of violence during the contest. But U.S. elections have many flaws compared with comparable democracies, such as Sweden, Germany and the Netherlands.
Q: Regardless of what elections officials, the courts, academics, and journalists may say, the idea of a stolen election seems to be widely accepted by a large segment of the electorate. Is this feeling new, do you see it as a blip, and what could its effects be on democracy in this country?
American trust in the integrity of their elections was 20 points lower than in Scandinavian societies even before the events of 2020, according to the World Values Survey, so these disputes are likely to worsen confidence in the legitimacy of American democracy.
Q: What solutions do you propose to address the shortcomings you’ve found in your analysis?
The practical solutions would be to pass H.R. 1, the “For the people Act,” which would make it easier to vote, limit partisan gerrymandering, fix campaign finance, and strengthen ethics rules. But that requires political will—and probably Democratic control of the Senate.
Banner image: A university student protests in Mifflintown, Pennsylvania one day before major TV networks projected Joe Biden had defeated Donald Trump in the U.S. presidential election. Photo by Nathan Layne