Tight race tests Americans’ trust in system – and each other

Why We Wrote This

Reservoirs of goodwill and trust have been drained over the past two decades by increasing polarization in government, the media, and the public. Dozen of voters interviewed say they still trust the process – they just hope the other side will honor the results.

Rachel Wisniewski/Reuters
Lois Sunflower and Anne Felker hold signs outside the Lehigh County Government Center, where the mail-in ballots are counted, in Allentown, Pennsylvania, Nov. 4, 2020.

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How strong is Americans’ trust in the U.S. electoral system? That’s the test the country faces in the coming days and possibly weeks, as election officials and potentially courts work to determine the winner of this year’s presidential election.

Amid one of the most logistically challenging and tightly contested elections in years, voters across the country are worried about everything from ballots getting lost to deceptive robocalls that told people to stay home on Election Day. But in dozens of Monitor interviews from Salem, New Hampshire, to Santa Clarita, California, perhaps the clearest refrain was: We don’t trust the other side to accept the results.

2019 Pew survey found that while 53% of Americans express confidence that their fellow citizens will accept election results no matter who wins, 47% said they have “not too much” or “no confidence at all.”

“It’s important that the next president be a statesman and appeal to our better angels and try ... [to] make it possible for us to talk to each other again, regard each other with goodwill again, because democracy is going to be weakened the further we stray from that ideal,” says David Greenberg, a presidential historian at Rutgers University.

Amid one of the most logistically challenging and tightly contested elections in years, voters across the country are worried about everything from ballots getting lost to deceptive robocalls that told people to stay home on Election Day. But for many, their greatest fears have less to do with machines or mechanisms than with their fellow Americans.

“I think that Trump supporters will be more supportive if Biden wins than Biden supporters if Trump wins,” says Tabitha McQuait, standing in a field across from a brick church in Goldsboro, Pennsylvania, where dozens of voters have parked haphazardly in the grass.

“Sadly, I agree,” says her mom, Julie McQuait, echoing concerns voiced by Democrats as well. “Whichever candidate wins, I think the other party is going to take it poorly.”

“My question is ... why don’t they have an auditing firm like Deloitte or somebody that comes in and oversees us?” asks the elder Ms. McQuait, who works at a local Fortune 500 company. “They oversee the lottery, why shouldn’t they oversee something as important as our country?”

With the presidential race far closer than polls had predicted, and likely to hinge on a few narrowly contested swing states still tallying their ballots, the wait for an official result could test Americans’ trust in the system – and each other – like never before.

In the two decades since the Supreme Court intervened to resolve Florida’s hanging chad controversy and put George W. Bush in the White House, increased political polarization has frayed the nation’s collective sense of trust and goodwill. Amid declining faith in institutions, the media, pollsters, and each other, the possibility of a disputed electoral outcome may only fuel Americans’ sense of suspicion and cynicism.

“One of the things that allows people to accept laws that are made and to accept the decisions made by their leaders is the acceptance that those leaders are there legitimately, whether they voted for them or not,” says Ryan Enos, a professor of government at Harvard University. “It’s really hard for society to function peacefully and for people to trust one another and many other things when they don’t believe that the people that are making laws for them are legitimate.”

As of Wednesday afternoon, both candidates had a potential path to victory. But with outstanding votes in several key states expected to be heavily Democratic, Mr. Biden was seen as in a stronger position to win the needed 270 Electoral College votes, especially after swing state Wisconsin was called for him mid-afternoon. President Donald Trump, who has for months been sowing doubt about the reliability of mass mail-in voting, vowed in a speech in the wee hours of the morning to contest the results in the Supreme Court. (Any legal challenge would have to start in a lower court and be appealed to be considered by the nation’s highest court.)

Pennsylvania – a closely contested state that last year enacted its most sweeping legislation on election administration in 80 years and overhauled voting systems in all 67 counties – could prove particularly messy. A 4-4 Supreme Court ruling on the eve of the election opened the way for the state to extend the deadline for receipt of mail-in votes to Friday, a move Republicans opposed. With recently confirmed Trump nominee Amy Coney Barrett now filling the ninth seat, a fresh case may yield a different decision.

“It’s just going to be just like back in Gore-Bush’s day, I got a feeling,” says Terry Morgan, a dock worker for a trucking company who voted for former Vice President Joe Biden in Goldsboro, Pennsylvania. “It’s going to take awhile to figure it out. One of the candidates is going to say, ‘I want this recounted.’”

In fact, the Trump campaign announced Wednesday it planned to immediately request a recount in Wisconsin, where Mr. Biden was up about 20,000 votes. The former vice president is also leading the popular vote, with more votes than any candidate in U.S. history, which would make an Electoral College win for Mr. Trump even more difficult for liberal voters to swallow.

Voting amid a pandemic

From Salem, New Hampshire, to Santa Clarita, California, many voters leaving the polls on Election Day had concerns about the U.S. electoral system in this unusual election, held amid a pandemic.

One of the top logistical problems cited was around mail-in ballots.

Eli Bomer and his wife, who both voted for Mr. Trump, say they have confidence in the election process. Still, they came in person to vote at Wiley Canyon Elementary School in Santa Clarita because last time, they say, their absentee ballots were not counted.

Although Democrats more readily embraced mail-in voting, concerns about its reliability reach across the political spectrum.

Sarah Matusek/The Christian Science Monitor
New Yorker Yousef Murden, a sheet metal worker, chose to vote for Joe Biden in person on Election Day. "Anything can happen in the mail," says Mr. Murden outside a Staten Island polling station. "If I actually go vote on my own, I know it's been counted."

“Anything can happen in the mail,” says Yousef Murden, an African American sheet metal worker with gold sneakers and camo pants outside a Staten Island, New York, polling station where he voted for Mr. Biden. “If I actually go vote on my own, I know it’s been counted.”

In Pennsylvania, nine military ballots – all for Mr. Trump – were discarded, while up to 100 deposited in a California ballot box were damaged in an arson attempt. Then there’s the question of how many mail-in ballots might ultimately be invalidated.

Many states have signature-matching requirements, as well as postmark or arrival deadlines and other rules governing what constitutes a valid mailed ballot. Some of those laws have been challenged or changed on relatively short notice this year, in part due to concerns about in-person voting during a pandemic.

Henry Gass/The Christian Science Monitor
Madeleine Johnson (left) and her mother, Krystin, hold the 1,000 cookies they baked for poll workers at the Pioneer Farms polling site in Austin, Texas, Nov. 3, 2020. While they trust the pandemic-altered voting process, they both said they're worried ballots won't be fairly counted.

In Texas, where a legal challenge by four Republicans to toss out 127,000 ballots cast at drive-through polling sites failed in state and federal court, Austin voter Dené Cloud said her faith in the electoral process had been shaken by “people in positions of power trying to use any and every means to disqualify votes.”

Beyond concerns about the administration of the election, many voters are also worried that voters on the other side of the aisle won’t accept the results. A 2019 Pew Research Center survey found that while 53% of Americans express confidence that their fellow citizens will accept election results no matter who wins, 47% said they have “not too much” or “no confidence at all.”

“I don’t think it’s going to be very pretty if Mr. Trump wins,” says Veronica Linehan, a New Hampshire voter who says her brother disowned her after she voted for Mr. Trump in 2016. “[Democrats] just wouldn’t be able to accept it. It took four years and they still don’t accept that he’s president.”

Some experts trace that lack of faith to 2016, or President Barack Obama’s first victory in 2008, or even Mr. Bush’s 2000 win, when he captured Florida by just 537 votes after the Supreme Court halted a recount.

John, a voter in Brooklyn, who didn’t want to give his last name, says he was hoping for a landslide this year to spare confusion. But he says he believes civil unrest is inevitable no matter who wins. He voted for Mr. Trump in 2016, but says the president’s mishandling of the pandemic – in which he lost three co-workers and extended family, as well as his job – made him change his vote to Mr. Biden, whom he sees as the best candidate to unite a fractured nation. “Let’s start repairing – regardless of who wins,” he says.

When both sides think they’ve won

Twice in U.S. history, no presidential candidate received a majority of electors: the 1800 contest between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, and the four-way runoff with Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams in 1824. It took months for those elections to be sorted out, says David Greenberg, a presidential historian at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

But a disputed election today comes in the context of building frustration and a widening partisan divide since the Bush versus Gore contest in 2000. The closer the election, the more ardent the claims of illegitimacy, says Professor Greenberg.

“Both sides right now are convinced they’re the rightful winners, even though they don’t know for sure,” he says. “So whichever way it breaks, people are going to be deeply, viscerally convinced that the country has been hijacked.”

Many voters interviewed by the Monitor expressed concern that the situation could spill over into civil unrest, with store owners from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to Portland, Oregon, preemptively boarding up their windows after a summer that saw many businesses damaged or looted amid the national protests over racial injustice.

“If you’re burning stuff down, you’re looting, you’re hurting people, that’s what’s going to divide the country. That’s what’s going to make people not accept election results,” says Steven Mosley, an African American voter wearing a Republican elephant mask outside a polling station in Alexandria, Virginia. “But if you just accept it and go, ‘OK, well I disagree. I’ll see you again in four years,’ that will unite the country.” 

The narrowly contested election, with possible legal challenges and concerns about the potential for violence, puts even more pressure on the eventual winner to bring the country together.

“It’s important that the next president be a statesman and appeal to our better angels and try at least to shift our political culture and make it possible for us to talk to each other again, regard each other with goodwill again, because democracy is going to be weakened the further we stray from that ideal,” says Professor Greenberg.

For those feeling a sense of impending dread about how this all may play out, presidential historian Allan Lichtman insists that while there might be a lot of hand-wringing and maybe even some outbreaks of violence, whoever wins the Electoral College will become president – just as in the Bush versus Gore battle.

“We thought that [the system was breaking] in 2000 – and it didn’t turn out that way at all,” says Professor Lichtman, of American University. “Bush ... had all the powers and prerogatives of the president and exercised them to the full. There was some griping and groaning, but the system worked.”

Christa Case Bryant contributed reporting from New Hampshire, Story Hinckley from Pennsylvania, and Noah Robertson from Virginia. Staff writers Sarah Matusek contributed reporting from New York, Henry Gass from Texas, and Francine Kiefer from California.

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