Voters Are Worried About Election Security. Tribalism Is Making It Worse.

Each side is accusing the other of trying to sabotage the election, and it's affecting voter confidence.

With a pandemic-induced surge in mail-in voting this election season, there are legitimate concerns that hundreds of thousands of mailed ballots will be rejected for missing signatures, improper postmarking, or in Pennsylvania’s case, failing to be enclosed by a “secrecy envelope.” We saw this during the primary season, during which more than 500,000 ballots in 23 states were thrown out, according to the Washington Post. In the aftermath of the election, there will almost certainly be a tsunami of lawsuits challenging vote totals, particularly in battleground states.

That’s on top of election insecurity driven by the possibility of foreign interference, and the fact that it could take weeks after Election Day for us to know who actually won. Times like these call for our political leaders to be calm and measured in their response to such challenges, as they have a strong influence on the political decisions that citizens make. 

Instead, leaders from both parties are claiming that the other side is trying to sabotage the election results.

The president is a prime culprit. “We’re going to have to see what happens,” Trump said on Wednesday when asked by a reporter if he would commit to a peaceful transfer of power. The president’s refusal to answer the question quickly and affirmatively is unpresidential to say the least. But the reason he cited in his extended response is even more concerning because it showcases his long-standing strategy to sow doubt about the election results among his supporters.

“Get rid of the ballots and you’ll have a very—we’ll have a very peaceful—there won’t be a transfer frankly, there’ll be a continuation,” he said. The president has railed against mail-in ballots for months now, tweeting in May, for example: “Mail boxes will be robbed, ballots will be forged & even illegally printed out & fraudulently signed.” 

The GOP establishment carries the torch for Trump’s crusade against universal mail-in-voting in the courts. The RNC, for example, is currently involved in approximately 4o legal battles in 19 states, nominally to combat voter fraud, which has been studied extensively and doesn’t influence elections in any meaningful way

And the Department of Justice faced criticism Thursday for issuing a press release not just announcing an investigation into the mishandling of a handful of military ballots, but also revealing that most of those votes had been cast for President Trump.

Democrats, on the other hand, are alleging that Trump is plotting to undermine the U.S. Postal Service before the election. On August 16, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi issued a statement lambasting the president’s alleged “campaign to sabotage the election by manipulating the Postal Service to disenfranchise voters.” 

The rhetoric of our political elites is having a striking effect on voters’ confidence in democratic institutions. An RNC survey from May found that 62 percent of voters believe there is widespread fraud in U.S. elections, and another poll from the Democracy Fund and the UCLA Nationscape Project found that 46 percent of Americans say that they are “not too confident” or “not at all confident” that the November election will be conducted fairly and accurately.

It all circles back to political elites’ long-standing perception of voter turnout. “As a general rule of thumb,” explains Dr. Emily Bacchus, an associate professor of comparative politics at the University of Kentucky who specializes in election fraud, “All political elites, Republican or Democrat, believe that making it harder to vote benefits Republicans and making it easier to vote benefits Democrats.” They believe this, Bacchus explains, “even though political scientists have had a really, really, really hard time showing that.”

“In fact, we don't see strong empirical patterns of turnout favoring Democrats,” she continued. But political elites believe it anyway, meaning their preferences about election laws correlate with that claim. “Anytime you hear someone worrying about voter fraud—wanting voter ID laws, worrying about ineligible people voting—that is 99.9 percent of the time Republicans, and anytime you have people worrying about voter suppression—people not being able to vote, people being stripped of their right to vote—that is 99.9 percent of the time Democrats.”

In February 2020, the Knight Foundation published its 100 Million Project, an attempt to better understand the 100 million eligible voters who did not vote in 2016. After surveying more than 12,000 non-voting but eligible voters, the Knight Foundation found that increased voter turnout among chronic non-voters in 2020 could help Democrats or Republicans in 2020. Only 33 percent of non-voting survey respondents said they would vote for the (as yet to be determined at the time) Democratic nominee, a mere 3 percent advantage over the 30 percent who said they would vote for Trump. Another 18 percent said they would vote for someone else. The project found these eligible non-voters “would add an almost equal share of votes to Democratic and Republican candidates” if they were to cast their ballots this election season. 

“It's important to take a look at these findings here that show that if there was wider turnout [of chronic non-voters], that Republicans would stand to gain as well as Democrats,” said Evette Alexander, one of the leaders of the Knight Foundation’s project. The study also found that chronic non-voters showed a preference for Trump in key battleground states. “The data by swing state shows that if all nonvoters turned out for 2020, President Trump would be the non-voter favorite in Arizona, Florida, Pennsylvania, Virginia and New Hampshire, while the Democratic nominee would be favored by non-voters in Georgia, Michigan and Wisconsin,” the study found. “Their votes would be evenly split in Minnesota and Nevada.”

Given this widespread belief that high turnout favors Democrats, the pandemic’s shift to mail-in-voting this election season created the perfect storm for conspiratorial beliefs about election security to disseminate among Democrats and Republicans alike. “Here we are in a moment where absentee ballots and mail-in-voting have become incredibly polarized, again on a logic of who is likely to benefit from absentee ballots—same as who is likely to benefit from higher turnout,” Bacchus said. 

Americans take cues from experts because it’s often easier than putting in the time it takes to become informed. But, we have a tendency to seek out sources that confirm we already want to believe. According to Jason Brennan, a professor of strategy, economics, ethics, and public policy at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University, humans have a propensity to immediately discredit the reliability or trustworthiness of claims with which we disagree. 

This often subconscious reliance on motivated reasoning is so profound that even when people are presented with simple math problems framed in politicized language, they are far more likely to answer the question correctly when it accords with their preexisting political biases. In 2013, Yale law professor Dan Kahan tested how survey respondents would answer a simple math problem when it was based on crime data in cities that banned handguns. Kahan presented half of the self-identified liberals in the study with a question supporting the conclusion that gun-control legislation reduced crime, and the other half of liberals with a question supporting the opposite conclusion. He did the same with self-identified conservatives. 

Both liberals and conservatives were much more likely to get the question right when the answer to the math problem supported their preexisting opinions about gun-control legislation and its effect on crime. What’s even more striking is that liberal and conservative respondents with better math skills were much more likely than those with weaker math skills to get the answer wrong when the conclusion did not support their pre-existing beliefs. The evidence is clear: Partisanship skews our ability to reason.

Jason Brennan says that a good metaphor for political behavior is sports fandom. “If you're a Red Sox fan,” he explains, “then hating the Yankees is part of being a Red Sox fan.” Just as a Red Sox fan will make excuses when his own team cheats, Republicans and Democrats will make excuses when their own leaders engage in foul play. 

That tendency to defend our political allies no matter the circumstances often warps our perceptions of election security. “If there is suspicion of fraud, people are much more concerned when it is committed by someone that is not their copartisan, and they are dramatically less concerned when that same act is committed by someone who they share their partisanship with,” Bacchus said. Americans’ perception of the Mueller investigation predictably fell along party lines, with far more Democrats in a recent Reuters poll reporting the belief that “President Trump or someone from his campaign worked with Russia to influence the 2016 election.” 

“The political parties always seem to think that a decision is legitimate when it goes their way, and then if it doesn’t, there has been sabotage,” Brennan said. “It’s politically strategic and useful to do that because then you can claim the other side lacks legitimacy.” But even if we didn’t have that political incentive to undermine our opponents for election purposes, he explained, we’d still have the impulse to defame our adversaries. “It’s just part of our tribalism,” Brennan said. “This is what human beings do.” 

If both parties plant these seeds of doubt in voters’ minds long before the election, they can take advantage of that doubt if they lose by a narrow margin. “This is why we hear Trump saying it's a rigged election, this is why we hear the Democrats saying he's trying to sabotage the election through the Postal Service,” Bacchus said. “If the outcome is very close, both sides have a plausible claim to the other having cheated.” No matter who wins in November—if we even have a winner in November, that is—the losing party will have laid the groundwork to claim illegitimacy. 

There even exists in-group pressure to demonize our political opponents. “We’ve got this harsh tribalism that makes us hate others and incentivizes us to prove that we're loyal to the group, and to prove we’re one of the better members of the group by being especially nasty to the other side,” Brennan said. If registered Republicans refuse to buy into the belief that Democrats are engaging in widespread voter fraud when they advocate for universal mail-in-voting, then they are ostracized by those in their own party. The same goes for Democrats who refuse to accept the conspiracy theories propagated by their party leaders.

Some of this can be traced to more heightened polarization. “It’s one thing to have a choice between competing parties, it’s another thing when the competing party is basically equated with Satan,” Bacchus said. Jason Brennan pointed to one of Voltaire’s most quoted letters, “On the Presbyterians,” as a metaphor for the high degree of intolerance among competing political sects in America: “If there were only one religion in England, there would be danger of tyranny; if there were two, they would cut each other’s throats; but there are 30, and they live happily together in peace.” As it turns out, our two-party system is quite conducive to metaphorical throat cutting, with little signs of letting up as we approach November 3.

Photograph by Dan Honda/MediaNews Group/East Bay Times/Getty Images.