From AEI:

“We were robbed” is an age-old kvetch in American politics. Candidates, who toil and suffer innumerable indignities while campaigning understandably will feel pain when votes tallies indicate it was all for naught. And, it must be admitted, election fraud and mischief do occur — although rarely on a scale that affects outcomes. In recent years, there have been very high profile instances of politicians losing but insisting they didn’t, such as Donald Trump and Stacey Abrams.

But the fact that election losers often deny they lost should not be waved away as a harmless foible, according to Matthew Germer, a fellow at the R Street Institute. He recently wrote a white paper that explains the importance of the defeated publicly conceding, and how to stop this norm from further erosion. My chat with Matt follows.

Kosar: You argue that losers’ consent is a critical feature of our system. How so?

Germer: As recognized in the Declaration of Independence, governments “deriv[e] their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Absent a unanimous election, “the governed” includes both winners and losers.

The incentives for winners to consent are obvious; it is their government. Yet, the incentives for losers to consent are not as clear. Ultimately, democratic stability relies upon the losers valuing the institution of government more than they value control of the government.

What political factors are encouraging politicians to refuse to admit defeat?

A few factors push against admitting defeat.

First, humans are social creatures, and minority status can be isolating. Many folks would rather believe that they instead belong to a majority and rightfully deserve political power.

Next, there are financial incentives to refuse to concede. Stacey Abrams and Donald Trump, for example, created financial juggernauts through small-dollar donations and continue to wield substantial political influence by refusing to concede.

Finally, increasing polarization, partisanship, and nationalization combine to make concession difficult. We no longer have “liberal Republicans” or “conservative Democrats,” and a majority of partisans hold “very unfavorable” attitudes about their rivals. Add in a 24/7 national media that feeds on divisiveness, and it’s no wonder that losers find it harder than ever to accept defeat.

Are there any policy changes that can decrease the incentives that candidates have to blame Italian satellites and other bugbears for their defeats?

We must work to provide losers with a greater voice in their government. This could come in a variety of ways, though I am most intrigued by ideas like proportional representation and Final Five Voting.

Under proportional representation, like that in New Zealand, voters not only select their favorite candidates but they also vote for a political party, and additional representatives are added proportional to the party vote. This gives losing voters a greater voice and provides representation for third-party voters. Alternatively, voting systems like Final Five Voting create an incentive for candidates to run on a broadly appealing platform to help push them over the top in the election.

In the end, we should look for ways to make fewer outright losers and tamp down incentives to withhold consent.

Are there ways to make it harder for politicians to blame elections administrators for stealing the vote for the other party?

A good start would be increasing transparency in elections, including establishing clear rules in advance of the election; installing cameras to monitor ballot tabulation; and posting election results quickly. While these are becoming common practices across the country, there is still work to be done.

Our democracy would also benefit from reduced partisanship in election administration. Running an election should be a nonpartisan function with bipartisan oversight, and election administrators need to be on guard against perceived partisanship.

Finally, we must combat misinformation. The internet has made it easier than ever to sow distrust by spreading falsehoods about elections. Everyone needs to learn how to spot misinformation and be quick to respond with accurate information.

Would further stigmatizing sore losers be helpful, or even possible?

We would absolutely benefit from more civic virtue, including greater humility in defeat. To an extent, this requires stigmatization of sore losers; however, it must come from members of the losing coalition.

This doesn’t mean the winning side has no role to play. Sore winners beget sore losers, and an “elections have consequences” attitude only serves to encourage resistance and heighten the stakes of future elections.

Fortunately, while policy changes and structural reform may feel overwhelming, everyone can start working toward a healthier political culture. It may sound lofty, but it’s the first and best step we can each take to stabilize our democracy.

Thank you, Matt.

Featured Publications