From American Enterprise Institute:

Readers of these Election Reform Q&As may recall that I interviewed the R Street Institute’s Matt Germer about the importance of loser’s consent for our democratic system. In short, our democratic republic exists by the consent of the governed, and that consent is renewed when we hold elections and accept the results.

But the gripe “We wuz robbed” is a verity in American electoral politics, and since the Founding there inevitably have been losers who blamed their defeat on their opponents’ unscrupulous behavior. So, should we really be concerned when candidates refuse to concede? Is there any real cost?

To answer this question, I sought out Florian Justwan of the University of Idaho and Ryan D. Williamson of Auburn University and the R Street Institute. They are the coauthors of a new article that assesses the effects of claims of electoral fraud on citizen attitudes.

Kosar: Your article quotes a senior GOP official shortly after the 2020 election saying, “What is the downside for humoring [Trump] for this little bit of time? No one seriously thinks the results will change.” But your article finds there are costs. What are they?

Justwan and Williamson: Our results show that exposure to claims of fraud—even without any supporting evidence—makes people feel worse about democracy and elections. Many individuals are less likely to feel as though their vote was counted fairly, less likely to think the government pays attention to the needs of its citizens, and—most strikingly—less likely to believe that democracy is the best form of government.

Let’s step back for a moment. How did you reach this finding?

We ran an online survey right after the 2020 election of about 1,000 individuals. Within this survey, respondents were given one of two short news stories that were similar in every way except for the content. Half of the respondents were shown a segment of a real story from before the 2020 election where Trump accused Democrats of stealing the election by insisting on mail-in voting. The other half of the respondents were shown a neutral story that had nothing to do with politics or elections. After they read these stories, we asked them a series of questions about their feelings towards government, elections, and democracy as a whole and compared the responses across the two groups.

How do your findings compare with previous studies about claims of fraud on voter attitudes?

Our findings are in line with previous research in this area. Belief in election fraud is a relatively common phenomenon, especially among those who witnessed their preferred party lose an election, as you mentioned earlier. However, concerns about the integrity of elections also generally make individuals feel worse about their political system. In short, our research provides another piece of evidence for the idea that democracy is only as strong as the public’s support for it.

Your survey found GOP voters were more likely to shift their views after reading the media story alleging fraud. Why is this the case?

Most of this comes down to partisan identity. Losing an election can be hard on people, and they will then turn to explanations other than the fact that they simply backed the less popular candidate. Partisan individuals are also much more receptive to messages from their party’s elite and are more likely to reject the opposite party’s narrative out of hand, regardless of the relative strength of the competing messages. Therefore, many Republican voters were looking for an explanation for what happened. That Trump provided one had the effect of changing Republican views more than Democratic perceptions of government and elections.

The presidency is a major office, and voters tend to view the results as consequential. Might this make them more prone to believe claims of fraud coming from a sitting president than someone running for the House of Representatives or city council?

That’s certainly the case as the presidency comes with an extremely large audience and an immense amount of clout. Many rely on the president as a source of information. And all of this is especially true for a figure like Trump, who has millions of ardent supporters. Therefore, a president can give oxygen to essentially any story, immediately raising the saliency and credibility of the issue—even without any supporting evidence—in a way that no other position can.

Thank you, gentlemen.

Image credit: Victor Moussa