According to a recent report by Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, the US ranks last in "electoral integrity" among Western democracies, which is mostly, though not exclusively, due to poor campaign financing laws and widespread gerrymandering.
Pippa Norris, a lecturer in comparative politics who authored the report, also believes the 2016 election could expose the worst of our country's faults in spectacular fashion. "Without a comprehensive program of reforms addressing these problems, in a close, heated, and bitterly fought election, the 2016 contest may potentially signify a critical tipping point which undermines the legitimacy of the political process and damages American democracy," she writes.
Chief among the potential causes for this political meltdown are Trump's claims of voter fraud, despite that the Brennan Center at NYU's School of Law found just 241 potentially fraudulent ballots out of one billion ballots cast over a 14 year period. Another investigation by News21 for The Washington Post found only 2,068 cases of alleged voter fraud had been reported from 2000 to 2012, including only 10 cases of voter impersonation. But that hasn't stopped Trump from railing against so-called vote rigging, which could serve to delegitimize the outcome of the election and fuel protests or violence.
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Trump is capitalizing on fears that have been brewing since 2000, according to Norris. "He's not unique in that particular regard —the GOP has been arguing [that voter fraud exists] for some time — but he's certainly extreme in his language and that he goes further than talking about fraud to talk about vote rigging, as well," she says.
A recent Gallup poll found that only six in ten Americans were "very or fairly confident" that their vote would be accurately cast and counted in the election; among Republicans, this number dropped to half—the lowest numbers Gallup has ever recorded.
Norris notes that voters around the world rely on party elites for cues regarding electoral fraud; low confidence among elected officials could erode faith in our democracy. There's also the possibility that some Trump supporters will try to intimidate voters come Election Day, all under the guise of "securing the ballot."
As far as real threats to the legitimacy of our election, Norris's report points out that security breaches rank highly. Cyber-security officials believe Russian hackers were behind the break into DNC servers mere days before the Democratic Convention. Furthermore, the aging equipment and out-of-date software used on many US electronic voting machines, as well as the lack of sophisticated security to protect state voting records, make our voting machines particularly vulnerable to cyber-attack. Many of these machines were purchased in 2002 following the $4 billion "Help America Vote Act"and haven't been overhauled or repaired since; a few targeted attacks in swing states could be enough to throw election results into turmoil.
This isn't normal politics.
Another concern are the byzantine, state-specific laws that dictate who can vote in the election. In 2013, North Carolina—considered a crucial swing state in this upcoming election—enacted voter-ID requirements and simultaneously restricted early voting and ended same-day registration, Sunday voting, and pre registration for teenagers before they turn 18. The ruling was eventually struck down, but 20 other states have added restrictions since the 2010 midterm election: ten now have more restrictive voter ID laws in place, seven enacted laws that make it more difficult for citizens to register, six cut back on early voting days and hours, and three made it harder for those with past criminal convictions to restore voting rights.
To tabulate her worldwide ranking of countries based on the integrity of their elections, Norris reached out to more than 2,400 political scientists who had demonstrated knowledge of the electoral processes in particular countries. According to them, the US ranks 52nd overall, and last among all democracies. At the top of the list were Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Iceland.
To make American elections great again, Norris recommends establishing a central authority responsible for managing and overseeing all contests, in order to circumvent local partisans from passing voter restriction laws, but she notes this will only work if the civil service has a widespread reputation for neutrality. She also recommends following India's lead in providing free photo IDs to all citizens who qualify; currently, IDs in the U.S. cost anywhere from $5 in South Carolina to $28 in Wisconsin. To reduce the perception of voter fraud, she recommends employing skilled, full-time government employees and deploying them nationwide on Election Day rather than relying on poorly-trained, part-time volunteers.
Of course, these longer-term reforms would be close to impossible to enact without bipartisan support. The bigger fear in the short-term is that a combination of factors — both real and imagined — will contribute to the sense that election results are illegitimate.
Norris believes the heated rhetoric swirling around voter fraud, before votes have even been tabulated, is extraordinary for any democracy.
"This isn't normal politics," she says. "This isn't what happens in most other Western democracies. Then again, America is highly fractious right now and the particular strain of populism which Trump embodies has heightened concerns about fraud. We'll have to see what happens."