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  • Writer's pictureJennifer N. Victor

But really, why should you believe in elections?

Washington DC protest march with US Capitol in backdrop.
Photo by Ted Eytan, Creative Commons license

Election Day is less than two weeks away in the United States, and around 40 million people have already voted. While the election is intensifying and on-going, the incumbent president continues to sow insecurity about the validity of the election and suggest that he may not adhere to its results. So, when should one trust the outcome of an election? And when is it appropriate to protest it as invalid?

First things first. Elections are administered by state, county, and local officials and bureaucrats, not by the federal government. There is no national election in the US. For anything. Even the president and vice president are elected using the Electoral College, which is just a peculiar way to add up votes from states.

During COVID-19, election administrators have had to scramble to help more people vote by mail, to help prevent crowds at polling places that might lead to more virus outbreaks. States and localities all over the country have gone to great lengths to adjust rules, ramp up personnel, buy new equipment, and generally prepare for the rapid changes to administering the 2020 election. And by and large, they have stepped up, with the help of legions of volunteers.

Claims of fraud without evidence may be attempts to discredit or disrupt the election process.

But sometimes things go wrong. Humans make errors, and as Hanlon’s Razor says: do not ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence. Mistakes will happen, and the vast majority of them will be minor accidents that will not affect election outcomes. These may include ballot printing errors, filing errors, envelope printing errors, and the like. The incidence of intentional voter fraud is miniscule, and most election administrators are sticklers for details. Where there are mistakes, it is appropriate to correct them, to the extent that’s feasible. Where there are claims of fraud, they must be accompanied by evidence.

Claims of fraud without evidence may be attempts to discredit or disrupt the election process, which is anti-democratic and undermines the whole enterprise.

But let’s say that an election is well administered. Now is it okay to believe their results? Can elections really tell us something about what people want and how they aim to self-govern? How can we trust a process that includes so many seemingly random, disconnected, and dissimilar simultaneous events? Why should we?

Here are three potential reasons we should trust that elections are useful and that we should believe the produce a valid result.

Believing in elections is a matter of faith

The so-called folk theory of democracy is that elections are the mechanism that help us discover the “will of the people.” Since democracy is a system of self-governance, it is believed that discovering this collective will is essential to our ability to govern ourselves. And if we believe in this folktale then of course everyone should vote and everyone should believe that the outcome of the election is valid, revealing the people’s will.

But this is false. Elections do not discover the will of the people. Most of the time, people do not have a single will, or desire; they have many. How can an election discover something that does not exist? In any large group of people making complex choices, there are many possible and valid outcomes that different majorities might support. An election is simply a mechanism for discovering a will of the people. As a group, there are many possible majorities that could form. An election is a mechanism for discovering just one of those majorities.

Elections do not discover the will of the people--if anything, they discover a will of the people.

So, if multiple outcomes are valid, why should anyone accept the only observed outcome as the true outcome?

Put simply, we accept the outcome as valid because we believe it is valid. In this way, elections have a sort of Tinker Bell quality to them.

When the story of Peter Pan is performed on stage, there is often a brief moment where the fourth wall is broken, and the audience is asked to collectively bring their power of belief to help a fairy fly. What happens when the fairy performs the magical act is that everyone in the audience is automatically connected to one another having achieved something as a group. And the power of that common group connection leaves the audience with a sense of wonder and accomplishment.

You might accept an election outcome in this same way because of the powerful connection that you have made with others around you to participate in a collective act of self-governance that empowers one person to a position of authority.

Political scientists know that the will of the people is a mess, and even if it exists, elections are an unreliable means of discovering it. A national election is a collective act. Engaging in a collective action to produce something as a group, which cannot be produced by any single individual, requires a certain amount of faith. It requires faith in the process and faith in one another. To be accepted as valid, elections require collective faith.

Elections work because you’ve seen them work

For the less spiritual, one might accept an election outcome as legitimate simply because you’ve seen elections “work” before. But this is also a sort of magical thinking.

Remember, in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, when Harry observes himself in the future performing a seemingly impossible magical act to save the life of someone he loves? When he reaches the point in time when he is called upon to perform the act, believing he is not powerful enough to perform it, at the last moment he realizes he is able to perform the act only because he observed himself doing it previously. You might think that it’s this same magic that makes elections work. They produce a legitimate outcome because we have observed them doing so in the past and accepted them.

Maybe elections cannot mathematically derive the will of the people. And maybe voters are fickle, uninformed, and make choices using all sorts of cognitive biases. But if we believe they produce valid outcomes because we’ve observed them doing that in the past, then it’s reasonable to accept their outcomes again. It’s just rational.

Elections as a social contract

But it doesn’t have to be faith or magic. A third possibility about why we might believe in the legitimacy of an election is out of a sense of contractual obligation. As a citizen of a democracy we agree to follow a set of rules and to accept the outcomes those rules produce.

Agreeing on the rules is agreeing to accept the outcome of the game.

If you play a game of Monopoly with your family, you all agree to a certain set of rules when you begin play. You may not play the game with the same rules each time that you play; but the important part is that all of the players agree on the rules before the game begins. The game is literally defined by its rules. The rules are the game. When the rules are violated or changed midstream, the players lose faith in the outcome of the game.

The same is true in a democracy. In an election, when rules are violated or changed midway through, any outcome produced by any election is seen as less legitimate. In this way the rules determine the outcome of the game. For this reason, conflict over the rules of a game can sometimes be more intense than the competition in the game itself.

Intense disagreement about rules is not only about determining the winner, it’s also about our ability to observe the arbitrary nature of the competition. When any outcome is theoretically possible, the rules provide the outcome a sense of legitimacy and stability. Agreeing on the rules is agreeing to accept the outcome of the game.

If a candidate agrees to the rules and plays the game but then does not accept the outcome of the game, such as Trump suggesting he might not accept the election results, the player violates the contract made among its players.

Moreover, it would be okay only to believe that elections produce legitimate outcomes as a way to avoid chaos. All people make compromises in their lives in the name of generating stability and certainty for themselves.

What if everybody does not accept the outcome?

In a political environment where partisan polarization is strong, as the distance between partisans grows, the cost of losing to your political opponent increases. Losses are hard in polarized environments. When Trump won in 2016, thousands of liberals protested in cities all over the US for several days. And after Trump was inaugurated in 2017, hundreds of thousands protested. Liberals took the loss hard.

Losses are hard in polarized environments.

However, these protests were largely peaceful gatherings. For the most part, protests were not accompanied by violence, looting, or riots. Protest is an act protected by rights in the First Amendment and, as a form of dissent, is itself a democratic act. Violence, however, is not.

When protests are largely a way of communicating disappointment in a loss, the protest itself can still be consistent with the norms of democracy and the social contract of the election. But when protest becomes a form of dissent in which masses refuse to accept an outcome, do not move on, or resort to violence, the contract is broken and democratic values and institutions are damaged.

We can expect that whichever side loses in 2020, will take it hard. There will be protests. If Trump loses, he will almost certainly protest the result, and perhaps refused to concede. At that point, people will need to evaluate claims of fraud for any evidence. We should expect protests. But whether those protests are a matter of expressing disappointment, or a form of refusing to accept the outcome as legitimate, turns largely on political leaders.

When political leaders communicate to their followers and the citizenry at large that they themselves accept the contract of the election, and even if they are disappointed, they will move on, then the masses will generally follow this leadership. This is why concession speeches are important—not because they have any legitimate legal authority regarding an election outcome, but because they demonstrate leadership that provides a path forward for those on the losing side of an election.

Political psychologists tell us that liberals generally have an easier time managing disappointments and accepting ambiguous endings, relative to conservatives. Ideological conservatives may struggle more to accept a loss, have a greater need to find an emotional sense of closure, and require more leadership to help guide a loss process.

The purpose of the contest is not to prevail; rather, the purpose is to produce a winner that everyone agrees is the winner.

If Republicans lose in 2020, the loss will be hard, and Republican voters will need leaders to help them accept the outcome of the election. The same is true for liberals, but the need for closure may be less critical, psychologically speaking.

Why I believe in elections

Individuals can develop their own rationales for believing election outcomes. The legitimacy of the process rests upon our collective willingness to find some reason to believe the final results. At the end of the day, the purpose of having faith, believing in the magic, or agreeing to the contract is to accept that the purpose of the contest is not to prevail; rather, the purpose is to produce a winner that everyone agrees is the winner.

I don’t believe in election outcomes because they discover the will of the people, or even because they discover a will of the people. I believe in election outcomes because I live in a civilized society where we’ve made a social contract with one another to believe in election outcomes, unless we have evidence off fraudulent behavior that significantly undermines the process. By participating in an election, I bind myself to my community in a collective promise to participate in a common outcome. Arguably, these bonds are themselves part of the value of an election that participants in a democracy revere and agree to respect.

Jennifer Victor is a political scientist at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, and a co-founding contributor to this blog--the Mischiefs of Faction, an independent blog about parties and politics written by political scientists since 2012.

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