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Election Distrust in America: Unraveling the Past and Shaping the Future

06 Jun 2024
By Dr Enrijeta Shino
Privacy booths that to fill in voting ballots. Source: Joe Shlabotnik /

A recent study shows conservatives and African Americans exhibit higher election distrust, with conservatives fearing fraud and supporting stricter voter ID laws, while African Americans worry about suppression and support expanded felon voting rights. As the 2024 election approaches, Trump’s ongoing claims of vote-by-mail fraud continue to undermine trust in the electoral process.

Fair elections are fundamental to a healthy democracy; without them, a democratic republic cannot function effectively. Accurate ballot counting is essential for the legitimacy of election results. However, democracy relies not only on conducting free and fair elections, but also on the public’s belief in their integrity. The legitimacy of any democratic government depends on the perceived legitimacy of its elections.

Distrust in elections is a frequent topic among academics, political pundits, and the media. But what does it mean? Distrust in elections arises from voters’ perceptions of fraud and suppression during the election cycle. Those who fear fraud worry that illegitimate votes are counted, while those concerned about suppression fear that legitimate votes are not counted. Factors contributing to election distrust include political leaders amplifying fears about election outcomes, voter characteristics, and institutional design.

What affects election distrust and the 2020 presidential election

The 2020 US presidential election stands out for many reasons, but it will likely be remembered most for its aftermath. President Trump’s refusal to accept Joe Biden’s victory fuelled widespread election distrust among his supporters, leading to the January 6 Capitol riots and the unprecedented federal indictment of a former president. Trump repeatedly claimed that Biden’s victory was due to widespread voter fraud enabled by mail voting, a rhetoric he also used before the 2016 elections, which he won. This assertion, which Trump continues to make in 2024, is echoed by other elected officials in his party.

Typically, supporters of losing candidates exhibit lower levels of election trust, and the 2020 election saw unprecedented distrust, especially among Republicans. Despite a consensus among election officials and experts that the election was fair and that ballots were accurately counted, and the near-total dismissal of legal challenges, only a slim majority of Americans believe Biden’s win was legitimate, with even fewer Republicans agreeing.

Racial identity also influences trust in elections, particularly for African Americans, who generally exhibit lower levels of trust. This distrust arises primarily from concerns about voter suppression rather than fraud. Historically, there have been widespread efforts to suppress the Black vote, and contemporary issues like longer wait times at polling stations, frequent irregularities in ballot design and procedures, and photo ID requirements continue to undermine Black voter access.

Institutional setup also affects levels of distrust in the electoral system. The American electoral system’s decentralisation means state and local governments are primarily responsible for administering elections, resulting in significant variation in how elections are run across the country. While decentralisation allows for policy innovation, it also gives state legislatures discretion over policy change and implementation. Election rules influence distrust as they directly affect ballot access and integrity, or at least the perception thereof. Key laws include voter ID requirements, the ease and availability of vote-by-mail (VBM), felon voting rights, early voting, same-day voter registration, maintenance and purging of voter registration rolls, and the security and accessibility of ballot drop boxes. Variations in policy implementation impact voters’ perceptions of fraud and affect trust in the legitimacy of election outcomes.

Election policy support and distrust

Trust in elections is unevenly distributed among the US electorate, with conservatives and African Americans exhibiting higher levels of distrust. A recent study, which analyses survey data from a 2020 nationally representative sample of American voters, examines how support for voter ID laws, vote-by-mail (VBM), felon voting rights, and perceptions of disenfranchisement affect Americans’ beliefs about election integrity. This study focuses on policy issues affecting public perceptions of voter fraud and suppression.

The findings reveal strong support for voter ID laws among both groups, especially conservatives, but differing views on felon voting rights and VBM. Black respondents support felon voting, while conservatives oppose it. Conservatives, influenced by Trump’s rhetoric, also oppose VBM, whereas race does not affect support for this voting method. These groups differ in their perceptions of voter disenfranchisement: conservatives believe it is rare, while Black respondents feel it occurs more frequently.

These differing attitudes toward election policies impact perceptions of election distrust. For conservatives, distrust is linked to a perceived need for stricter voter ID laws and opposition to expanded VBM access. For Black respondents, distrust correlates with support for expanded felon voting rights. Notably, there is no observed connection between election distrust and actual voting experiences within these groups. Black respondents report similar voting experiences to white respondents, and conservatives report fewer negative experiences than liberals, with neither group’s experiences predicting greater distrust.

The bottom line is that although both Black and conservative respondents tend to distrust elections, their reasons differ: conservatives are more likely to suspect fraud in the official vote count, while Black respondents believe legitimate votes are often not counted, indicating suppression.

Implications for distrust on the 2024 presidential election

As the 2024 election approaches, set to be a presidential rematch between Donald Trump and Joe Biden, it feels like political déjà vu. Trump fuelled rhetoric about vote-by-mail (VBM) fraud leading up to his 2016 presidential win and again before the 2020 election. This pattern is likely to persist in the upcoming elections, as evidenced by his recent public statements.

What is concerning is that Trump is not alone in sowing electoral doubts; his rhetoric is embraced by leading Republican figures. Senator Ted Cruz, for example, has publicly stated that he will only accept the results of November’s presidential election if there is no evidence of fraud. These warnings continue despite many Republican state legislatures, such as those in Florida, Georgia, and Alabama, to name a few, having tightened voting rules in response to Trump’s unfounded claims of fraud in 2020.

Efforts to improve trust in elections are complicated, as actions that might increase trust among the most skeptical Americans could decrease trust among others. Politicising election rules and spreading doubts about election fraud will only further damage the already fragile trust Americans have in the electoral process.

Enrijeta Shino is an Assistant Professor of American Politics in the Department of Political Science at the University of Alabama. Her research interests focus on elections, voting behavior, public opinion, political methodology, and survey statistics. Dr. Shino’s primary research examines how institutional design, particularly electoral laws, affects political participation, voter behavior, and representation in the United States.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.