A new study suggests that the persistent and baseless claims of election fraud in 2020 by former President Donald Trump and his allies may have fundamentally altered the attitudes of a substantial portion of Republican voters. The findings, published in Political Research Quarterly, indicate that Americans’ confidence in their election system is heavily influenced by partisan biases and election outcomes rather than objective measures of election administration performance.
The integrity of electoral processes is a cornerstone of any democracy. Following the controversial 2000 presidential election in the United States, marked by the vote counting fiasco in Florida, a series of reforms were introduced to improve electoral administration.
However, despite these reforms, the 2020 presidential election saw a resurgence of allegations about absentee/mail voting fraud and misconduct in ballot processing, primarily from Republican sources. This context set the stage for researchers to explore how these allegations and partisan influences have shaped public perceptions of election integrity, especially in light of Trump’s disproven allegations of widespread election fraud in 2020.
“Donald Trump’s long-standing assault on the integrity of U.S. elections reached new highs in 2020 (or lows, perhaps) with him repeating false statements about voting-by-mail, the integrity of late-counted ballots, and his assailing the integrity of officials who administer elections,” explained study author Todd Donovan, a professor of political science at Western Washington University.
“Our previous research found modest differences in how partisans viewed the conduct of elections, and some evidence that an objective measure of the state-level quality of how elections were administered also predicted voter confidence in the conduct of elections. So, we were interested in seeing what this looked like after President Trump’s ‘Big Lie’ about the 2020 election being ‘rigged’ and ‘stolen’ from him.”
The study was conducted using data from the Survey of the Performance of American Elections for the years 2016 and 2020. This survey, conducted after each federal election since 2008, interviews 200 registered voters from each state, including Washington, D.C., totaling a sample size of over 10,000 respondents. These interviews provide insights into voters’ experiences and perceptions across different states.
The researchers also incorporated data from the Elections Performance Index (EPI), a tool developed to assess how well each state’s election administration functions. This Index includes numerous indicators such as voter turnout, registration rate, and ballot problems. By comparing individual perceptions with the EPI, researchers could determine if there was a correlation between the quality of state election administration and public confidence.
The researchers found evidence that partisan differences in confidence in election integrity was contingent on election results. Democrats were more confident in 2020, a year they won, compared to 2016, a year they lost. The opposite was true for Republicans. This suggests that partisans’ confidence in elections may be influenced by whether their preferred candidate wins or loses.
However, Donovan was surprised to find that “the measure of quality of a state’s election administration had no relationship with public confidence in their state’s vote counting.” Instead, partisan influences, particularly the narrative around Trump’s unfounded claims of widespread fraud in the 2020 election appeared to be the primary drivers of diminished trust in the U.S. electoral process among Republican voters.
A stark difference emerged in how Republicans and Democrats viewed the integrity of the 2020 election. The study found an increase in the perception of fraud among Republicans in 2020 compared to 2016, with Democrats showing the opposite trend. Notably, these partisan influences were not as pronounced in the 2016 election. This distinction indicates a potential shift in the attitudes of Republican voters and elites towards the legitimacy of democratic elections in the U.S., moving beyond the normal ebb and flow of partisan confidence that typically correlates with which party wins an election.
“The gulf between Democrats’ and Republicans’ views of election of voter fraud being common widened massively from 2016 to 2020, and Republicans in 2020 were much more likely than Republicans in 2016 to think fraud was common,” Donovan told PsyPost. “Partisan differences in confidence in one’s state’s vote counting went from almost nothing in 2016 to a nearly 50% difference between strong Republicans and strong Democrats in 2020. A large gap persisted through the 2022 elections.”
Additionally, in states where vote counting was delayed in 2020, residents showed significantly lower confidence in their state’s vote count compared to other states. This points to the influence of narratives around the election, particularly those propagated by Trump, in shaping public perception in these specific states. Similarly, in 2020, Republicans living in states not controlled by their party were less confident in vote counting, reflecting the impact of partisan messaging on perceptions of electoral integrity.
“The Big Lie seems to have taken a stronger hold in places targeted by Trump’s false narrative – battleground states still counting ballots after election night, and states where Republicans were not in control of the state government,” Donovan explained. “Republicans in these states were significantly less confident in their state’s vote counting than Republicans elsewhere.”
While the study offers critical insights, it is important to note some limitations. First, the study’s reliance on self-reported data means that the findings are subject to the accuracy of respondents’ perceptions and recollections. Additionally, the study captures a snapshot of attitudes during a particularly polarized period in American politics, which may not be representative of more typical electoral cycles.
Future research could explore the long-term effects of these partisan perceptions on election integrity and the potential impact of continued election reforms on public confidence. Additionally, studying these dynamics in less polarized contexts could provide a more comprehensive understanding of the underlying factors influencing public confidence in election systems.
“We still need to better understand forces, other than partisanship, that explain why so many people say they think voter fraud is common and lack confidence in how their votes are counted,” Donovan said.