On Dec. 13, 2000, after perhaps the most hotly contested presidential election in American history (and a Supreme Court decision that divided Americans), Al Gore did one of the most important things that keeps American democracy working: he conceded.
“Let there be no doubt: While I strongly disagree with the court’s decision, I accept it,” he said in a seven-minute statement. He added, “And tonight for the sake of our unity as a people and the strength of our democracy, I offer my concession.”
No one expected a recount process that would drag out until December. But this year, before the ballots are even cast — much less counted — Donald Trump is signaling that he is ready to challenge the presidential election results.
“I’m telling you, Nov. 8, we’d better be careful, because that election is going to be rigged,” Trump told Fox News earlier this week. “And I hope the Republicans are watching closely or it’s going to be taken away from us.”
His former adviser and longtime associate Roger Stone elaborated later in the week that the campaign should encourage supporters to challenge any unfavorable results.
“I think he’s gotta put them on notice that their inauguration will be a rhetorical, and when I mean civil disobedience, not violence, but it will be a bloodbath,” he said. “The government will be shut down if they attempt to steal this and swear Hillary in. No, we will not stand for it. We will not stand for it.”
The exact consequences of that kind of message — the idea that a candidate would preemptively threaten to challenge an election’s legitimacy if s/he loses — are unknowable. But it’s something unusual in American politics. The U.S. certainly has had its contentious elections, recounts and questions of fairness.
But American democracy is founded on peaceful transitions. President Obama reaffirmed in a news conference Thursday that even if Trump, someone he has called “unfit” to serve in the office, were to win the presidency, Obama would do everything he could to make sure Trump is as prepared as possible in a peaceful transition.
Cries about the validity of an election are usually heard more often in third-world countries, places with authoritarian regimes lacking established democracies and fair checks and balances. They’re the kinds of places the U.S. and United Nations might send election monitors. For the voting process to be called into question, experts say, it is a threat to American democracy itself.
“I think it’s a dangerous game because our democracy depends upon losers having confidence that the election was fairly run,” said Rick Hasen, a professor of law and political science at University of California-Irvine. “That’s really what separates democracies from other places: Losers accept being on the short end of an election result. So I do think that there is reason to be concerned.”
Playing with fire
Trump isn’t exactly breaking completely new ground with these statements. In 2008, Republican nominee John McCain alleged in a debate that the community organizing group ACORN was going to perpetrate “one of the greatest frauds in voter history in this country.” There were instances of the group attempting to improperly register voters, but allegations of widespread fraud were dismissed. Obama won easily.
Trump similarly questioned the election results in 2012 — and he, of course, has questioned the legitimacy of President Obama himself by leading the “birther” charge. He alleged Obama might not have been born in the United States, but rather in Kenya. That allegation, which gained steam in conspiracy circles on the right, is false: Obama was born in Hawaii. That’s been proven not only by his short- and long-form birth certificates but also a birth announcement published at the time in a Hawaii newspaper.
Even in 1996, Republican Bob Dole alleged potential fraud on Bill Clinton’s part, as NBC News’ Zachary Roth wrote this week. Dole claimed Clinton, the incumbent president, was trying to legalize immigrants in the U.S. illegally in time for the election. Clinton coasted to reelection by 9 points in the popular vote and in an electoral vote landslide.
Still, while some charges of fraud in an election are not new, the magnitude of the remarks by Trump (and Stone, for that matter) is.
McCain, for example, never used the term “bloodbath.” He conceded to Obama and noted the historic nature of his candidacy in being the first African-American elected to the office. McCain also said he’d lost fair and square. The “American people have spoken, and they have spoken clearly.”
Dole, for his part, also congratulated Clinton on election night 20 years ago. When he told a crowd of his supporters that he’d done so, they began to boo and make “sharp anti-Clinton remarks.” But Dole chided them.
“No, wait a minute,” he said. “I’ve said repeatedly in this campaign that the president is my opponent, not my enemy. And I wish him well, and I pledge my support in whatever advances the cause of a better America. That’s what the race is about.”
Supporters of any losing candidate will inevitably and understandably be upset. Some, in the moments after learning the result, will even make allegations of having an election stolen. But leaders in a free democracy set an example.
“Donald Trump is not the first one to make these kinds of statements, although I think this is more extreme than statements we’ve seen in the past,” Hasen said. “And this also — it’s not backed up by any kind of credible claim.”
An erosion in institutions
Americans’ faith in government — and perhaps even democracy itself — has eroded in recent years, developing some small cracks. Trust in government is near historic lows and as Marc Hetherington, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University, pointed out to NPR last month, that makes the nation more vulnerable in crises.
Not only that, but a striking number of Americans — around a quarter — say they have “hardly any confidence” that their votes will be counted correctly, according to an AP/NORC survey conducted earlier this year.
Polarization is also as high as it’s ever been, leading not only to Congressional gridlock but also to Americans genuinely distrusting each other. More than one in four Democrats and more than a third of Republicans told Pew in 2014 that the other party is “a threat to the nation’s well-being.”
Another factor complicating possible reactions to November: the idea of “rigging” elections has been a prominent storyline throughout the 2016 campaign in both parties. Not only has Trump charged that the general election will be rigged, he also claimed the GOP primary process was “rigged,” too (before he went on to win the nomination). On the Democratic side, many Bernie Sanders supporters believed the primary process was unfair, believing the superdelegate system favored Clinton. The recent Democratic National Committee email scandal added fuel to that fire.
So it won’t be much of a surprise if a sizable number of voters wake up on Nov. 9 questioning the legitimacy of the results, whichever way they go. Of course, as President Obama noted Thursday, the federal government does not run elections — the states do. With about 200,000 polling places across the U.S., pulling off widespread “rigging” would be quite a feat.
How salient could charges of rigging be?
To be clear, just a charge of a “rigged election” isn’t quite reason to panic. No matter the outcome, there will (as always) be some people — usually on the losing side — who doubt the outcomes of the election. But how flammable those charges end up being depends on the outcome and how much it agrees with the polls, says one political scientist.
“If the polls in November look like they do now, then I don’t see much of an issue,” Hetherington said. “No one will find credible charges of election fraud if it looks like a blowout in advance.”
In a “blowout,” there would be little evidence to convince a broad swath of people that the election truly was illegitimate.
But, he added, “If the polls are close as Election Day approaches, then it is a different ball of wax. Charges of fraud would have much more resonance.”
(Charging that an election is “rigged” also could create an interesting quandary for Trump should he win.)
If the election is close, though, there may not be evidence of the kind Trump is talking about to suggest “rigging.” Trump specifically told the Washington Post this week that he thinks rigging will take the form of voter identification fraud. But, as Hasen told NPR this week, the kind of fraud that voter ID laws are intended to counter just doesn’t seem to exist.
Another reason why charges of “rigging” don’t necessarily have to be dangerous: the U.S. has 240 years of generally stable democracy. According to Matthew Layton, who studies Latin-American democracies, lack of trust in the legitimacy of elections in younger or less stable democracies leads to more instability.
“More established democracies have a sort of reserve of goodwill,” he said, meaning people have bought into the democratic process so firmly for so long that it’s hard to shake that foundation — even when voters are as angry as they are right now.