By Dan Sally 

The midterm elections in 2010 marked the first time in almost 20 years self-identified independents outnumbered those affiliated with either of America’s two major parties. Since then, that number has fluctuated from 35% to a high of 50% in January of this year.

Not only are American voters increasingly identifying as Independent, they are more often calling for more than two choices on the ballot. It’s no wonder those two phenomena are trending, given that most voters use the term “hold my nose” when describing their experiences at the ballot box. Suffice to say, many Americans don’t feel adequately represented by either major party.

The good news is that, despite growing dissatisfaction with their choices, voters have been turning out at the same rate over the same period of time, with a slight uptick during presidential election years, and upward spikes in the 2018 midterms and the 2020 presidential election. While voters might not feel their choices fully represent their views, they also haven’t lost faith in American democracy.

The bad news—recent polling shows that might be changing, and that the increases in participation in 2018 and 2020 are not a reflection of trust in the system, but rather the depth of political division and fear of the consequences should “the other side win”.

Confidence in Elections at an All-Time Low

While issues around electoral integrity entered into the mainstream conversation with the 2016 election around both concerns around Russian interference and Trump’s claims that millions had voted illegally, questions around voter fraud began circulating in 2008.

At the time, Gallup polling showed only 59% of Americans felt confident that ballots in the election would be counted fairly and accurately across the country—down from 75% during the prior election cycle. This number ticked up slightly in the following years, and then dropping back to 59% after the most recent election.

While much of this is commonly attributed to Republicans who believe Donald Trump’s claims of widespread voter fraud (in 2016, 2018, and then again in 2020), a poll done in 2018 by Grinnell College showed a lack of faith in our electoral system was held by a much wider and diverse swath of voters. In fact, this poll showed no correlation between those who voted for Donald Trump and those who lacked confidence in the system.

Race and ethnicity, however, were much higher indicators, as were political minorities in a given state. It should come as no surprise that Southern African-Americans, who have been the targets of repeated voter suppression efforts, were the most skeptical of our electoral system, with over one-third lacking confidence in the 2018 vote count. Perhaps more surprisingly, Northern Conservatives were more likely to lack faith in our electoral system than Southern Conservatives, indicating some base their faith in elections on how likely their party is to win.

Cracks in the Foundation

The most concerning part of this poll was the relationship lack of confidence in election integrity had on someone’s likelihood to vote. Those who were least confident in our electoral process were between 5% and 15% less likely to have voted in the last two elections.

While this number is relatively small, it reflects on the corrosive effects that doubt can have on voter turnout.

Clues as to how to improve things

It should be noted that there have been zero substantiated claims of voter fraud having swayed the outcome of an election in the United States in recent years. In a database of proven claims of election fraud in the United States, conservative think-tank The Heritage Foundation found a little under 1,400 verifiable cases of voter fraud since 1982.

This number roughly corresponds to findings by the Brennan Center, a more liberal leaning think-tank.

This would indicate that the perception of voter fraud being created by candidates and party members is more harmful to democracy than voter fraud itself.

Given the lack of real voter fraud, it’s fair to ask—if claims of voter fraud make people less likely to vote, why would candidates promote this idea in the first place? Wouldn’t that simply be shooting themselves in the foot?

In America’s plurality, system of voting, the answer is no. Unlike other democracies, which award seats in government in proportion to a party’s share of the popular vote, America’s winner-take-all system allows a candidate to win with a larger minority, meaning someone who garners only 40% of the vote wins if the second most popular candidate gets 39%.

As a result, candidates are incentivized to use divisive, emotional issues to turn out their base, while using those same issues to paint the opposition party as a dire threat to democracy. Voter fraud is an issue that does both. As with most divisive issues, this does little to move voters in the middle towards a candidate, resulting in the “hold my nose” method of voting, assuming they vote at all.

Reforms that move elections away from our current plurality system to one that reflects the true composition of voters would reduce the effectiveness of such claims, requiring candidates and parties to run on issues that appeal to the electorate. Proportional representation, a system where seats in government are awarded according to a party’s share of the popular vote, is currently used successfully in democracies that rank the highest in terms of voter turnout and has been proposed as a reform that could positively affect US elections.

Ranked choice voting, a system where voters rank candidates in order of preference, is an alternate system currently used in the US which has similar effects on changing the incentives for candidates, without some of the legal obstacles proportional representation faces.

Regardless of the reform used, what’s clear is that the behavior of candidates and the tone of elections is a greater threat to democracy than any one party. To change this, we need to change their incentives.

Dan Sally worked with digital marketing software firm, HubSpot, advising companies on how to grow their business via the web. Dan brings his passion for electoral reform, his knowledge of digital marketing to help Rank the Vote reach a wider audience online.

Dan spent 8 years pursuing a career in stand-up comedy, appearing on Comedy Central and as a finalist in the Boston Comedy Festival.