What most surprised me about the poll, though, is that many Biden supporters also said they would doubt the validity of the election if they didn’t like the outcome. Just one in five Biden supporters said that a win by Trump would be because he received more votes than Biden; nearly two in three said it would be due to “voter suppression and foreign interference.”
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Doubt and suspicion are not equally justified on both sides. There is much more evidence of voter suppression affecting the ability of American citizens to make their votes count than there is of voter fraud occurring at significant scale. And in the bigger picture, Trump is more likely to win the election despite gaining fewer votes because, according to forecasting models, the Electoral College strongly favors him.
But engaging in false equivalencies is not necessary to recognize that these findings are a dark sign for what awaits us come November. Whether Biden or Trump emerges as the winner, millions of Americans will likely believe that their candidate was robbed.
Underlying all this doubt is the fact that America’s voting system is indeed marred by obstacles to participation, including long lines (particularly in minority neighborhoods) and the absurdity of holding Election Day on a workday. The pandemic has added an additional layer of difficulty, as voters are wary of participating in person. Millions will vote by mail for the first time; some ballots may get lost in transit, arrive too late to be counted, or be disqualified because they do not meet formal requirements. Possible foreign interference represents yet another cause for concern.
Given this reality, how can Americans know if the outcome is free and fair? And how can they distinguish between an election tarnished by imperfections and one that has been so compromised, its outcome is illegitimate? I put that question to a number of the country’s leading election experts and political scientists. They couldn’t provide a simple checklist, but they did have some advice.
Above all, they urged voters to be alert to how politicians might try to sow confusion. According to Trevor Potter, the president of the Campaign Legal Center and a former chairman of the Federal Election Commission, Democrats are likely to use mail-in and absentee ballots in much greater numbers than Republicans. As a result, the votes that are counted on Election Night could skew in Trump’s favor even though he is headed for defeat. Under such a scenario, Potter warned, “Trump is likely to argue that absentee ballots are fraudulent and that the election is being stolen.” Ignore him.
They also advised voters to distinguish between ordinary forms of electoral malfunction and an extraordinary attack. As in virtually every American election, voter suppression may take place in some form. This is manifestly unjust. But, Potter cautioned, “unless the elections are extremely close, that should not be seen as undermining the legitimacy of the election’s outcome.” If voting machines were hacked en masse, or if the federal government issued stay-at-home orders that applied only in major cities, however, that would signal illegitimacy.