The American midterm contests will determine control of Congress. That is vitally important. The apparent Republican surge may change the tone and timbre of Capitol Hill for the next two years. That is deeply consequential.
But the most significant indicator of the character of contemporary American democracy this fall is not at the ballot box. It is in the courts where, a week before Election Day, more than 100 legal challenges – the most ever at this stage of a political battle – already have been filed.
In that context, perhaps the most comprehensive assessment of the health of American politics, a copy of which has been obtained by The Globe and Mail, has some ominous news – and some rays of hope. This landmark study, to be released Monday, shows that the gap between Democrats and Republicans concerning election integrity has diminished but that significant doubts about the integrity of American political contests remain stubbornly persistent.
Even a decade ago, hardly anyone would pay attention to such a study, let alone summon top scholars from around the country – as Bright Line Watch, a non-partisan group of scholars that monitors threats to democracy in the United States, did – to conduct one. For most of American history, and particularly in modern times, doubts about election integrity were minimal and mostly confined to fringe elements and conspiracy theorists who had little visibility and even less credibility.
Political professionals, commentators and voters acknowledged there that there always were irregularities in elections. However, they were confident that, apart from a few blatant cases – the 1948 Senate primary in Texas where Lyndon Johnson won by 87 votes by virtue of the mysterious late appearance of 202 votes in a remote county precinct is perhaps the most egregious case – elections were generally fair and abuses generally inconsequential.
But with the 2020 presidential election, when former president Donald Trump claimed against all confirmable evidence and in defiance of scores of judicial rulings that he defeated Joe Biden, election denial has become a substantial element of American civic life. This is all the more significant because of evidence that at least a third, and in some surveys more than a majority, of Republican candidates in next week’s races are to some extent election deniers.
However, the large number of pre-election lawsuits in this election cycle come from both sides. Where Republicans see voter fraud, Democrats see voter suppression – and each side makes its claim out of the belief that these critiques motivate base voters. The result: charges of fraud and suppression are, according to Benjamin Ginsberg, who has represented GOP candidates in political disputes including Republican legal efforts during the Florida recount in the deadlocked 2000 election, “baked into” both parties’ strategies.
“There’s so much money being waged in this litigation battle that it’s become an industry,” he said. “Many of the cases are not successful, but their overall effect is to raise questions in voters’ minds about the reliability and fairness of the election system. That is not helpful. "
Brendan Nyhan, a Dartmouth College political scientist involved in the study, said: “Democracy depends on political parties respecting election results and the legitimacy of the other side holding power when they lose.
“When that understanding is called into question, the stability of the political system is threatened. We’ve seen this dynamic play out around the world but not in the U.S. since we became a modern democracy. The prevalence of election denialism in the GOP is a dangerous and destabilizing trend.”
Even so, four in five Republicans agree that it is important for candidates who lose fair elections to acknowledge defeat publicly. But the key element in that calculus is whether individual elections, from the presidency on down, are indeed fair; Democrats (91 per cent of whom believe their vote will be counted fairly) are far more likely than Republicans (68 per cent) to believe so, according to the study.
The implications of this study, and next week’s election, spill beyond the border of the United States.
“The world always watches United States elections carefully,” said Regina Bateson, a political scientist at the University of Ottawa. “The U.S. has been at the forefront of democracy promotion, and so when American democracy falters, democracy worldwide suffers. Election denying has consequences globally.”
Indeed, conspiracy theories are circulating in Brazil about allegedly compromised voting machines made by Dominion Voting Systems and Smartmatic, even though neither company’s software was employed there in Sunday’s election. Those reports are blowing back through social media to the United States, buttressing the notion, promoted by Mr. Trump and others, that the American election was rigged.
Bright Line Watch included a survey of 682 political scientists who, according to the study, rated 2020 election denialism among Republican candidates for statewide office “the most abnormal and important event of the past year,” with 91 per cent of them considering a 2024 Trump candidacy as a threat to democracy, including 35 per cent who rate it as an extraordinary threat.
Political scientists consistently are more confident in American democracy than the public. But that might not matter, for this is an era when elites and expertise are at least as mistrusted as political figures themselves.