Beyond Donald Trump: Election conspiracy theories flourish globally

Large segments of the public in established democracies on both sides of the Atlantic distrust the democratic process.

Evan Vucci/AP
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally on Wednesday in Miami. Outraged claims of voting fraud are no longer only a regular part of elections in unsteady, young democracies. Voters in older democracies feel that way, too.

Do you trust that your vote in the Nov. 8 presidential elections will be counted accurately?

If not, then you are one of a substantial number of voters in established democracies on both sides of the Atlantic that are at least somewhat suspicious that voter fraud may mar national elections.

How much validity you give those concerns depends on whom you trust, research and polling show.

In the United States, rumblings of potential voter fraud were amplified when, in the last presidential debate, Republican nominee Donald Trump declined to commit to honoring the results of the election. And while research shows voter fraud in America is next to nonexistent, Mr. Trump’s repeated warnings of a "rigged" election are gaining credibility, especially among Republican voters. While claims of voter fraud used to be associated with young and unstable democracies, Trump voters are joined by many European counterparts also heeding the calls of populist politicians from Britain to France to Austria.

"A wide segment of people is questioning democratic institutions across Europe and the US," Brian Klaas of the London School of Economics and Political Science told the Associated Press.

In some of Europe’s former-Communist, younger democracies, such claims of voter fraud have been voiced by opposition parties. For example, in the previously Yugoslav republics of Montenegro and Macedonia countercultural candidates have questioned the veracity of national elections in the past year. Poland's right-wing Law and Justice party, now in government, has also challenged local election results.

But these claims are no longer restricted to new democracies. In Austria, which has been democratic republic since that system was restored after World War II, the right-wing party managed to overturn election results after its candidate narrowly lost; in Britain the country’s electoral commission said voters who feared their pencil-marked ballots might be tampered with could use pen.

In America, there is no evidence of significant voter fraud. One study by Justin Levitt, a Loyola Law School professor in Los Angeles, found 31 instances where voter impersonation was alleged out of 1 billion votes cast in US elections between 2000 and 2014.

The internet may be one possible explanation as to why, despite the absence of substantial evidence, these claims have gained so much traction among segments of the European and American publics.

"There is more false information easily available and more information is channeled toward us that is primed and selected based on our past [internet] activities," political scientist Nicholas Cheeseman of Oxford University told the AP. "So you are likely trapped into a set of images or conversations that reflect or reinforce your beliefs."

But for voters who fundamentally distrust the political establishment and the democratic process, the comments of one Trump supporter, Roger Stone, reveal another rationale.

"I think we have widespread voter fraud, but the first thing that Trump needs to do is begin talking about it constantly," Mr. Stone said in a podcast discussion with conservative Milo Yiannopoulos.

"If there's voter fraud, this election will be illegitimate, the election of the winner will be illegitimate, we will have a constitutional crisis, widespread civil disobedience, and the government will no longer be the government."

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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