by Michael Beaudet
Las Vegas was the host of the third presidential debate. After the two previous bouts between the candidates, the majority of viewers probably expected more of the same. After accusations of sexual assault, accusations of negligence in the maintenance of the nation’s security, there seemed to be few earth shattering revelations remaining. Of course, in this election cycle there are always more surprises.
The week leading up to the debate should have been evidence of the upcoming shock. Throughout the week, Donald Trump made some interesting remarks. In a tweet posted Oct. 16, Trump alleged that the election is “absolutely being rigged”. This followed several other comments made at campaign events in the preceding weeks. These comments are uncommon in elections but not unexpected from a candidate that has broken all the rules. Few expected him to take it one step further.
Trump defied expectations during the debate when he decided to challenge the veracity of the nation’s electoral process.
Towards the end of the debate, the moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News turned to Mr. Trump and asked, “do you make the same commitment that you will absolutely… accept the results of this election?” Mr. Trump without pause responded, “I will look at it at the time.” This kind of response is without precedent in our nation’s history. Election results have been challenged after the fact but never so far in advance. Some may find Mr. Trump’s statement innocuous, but the political repercussions could be substantial.
America’s electoral process has stood without substantial internal threat for most of its 200 year history. From time to time there are claims of cheating or voting related issues, but the vast majority of election outcomes are fairly certain. Losers mark a clear end to their candidacy with a concession to the other candidate. In contrast, contested outcomes in the electoral process produce a host of problems.
The most concerning is the issue of legitimacy for both the winning candidate, and the process as a whole.
Uncontested outcomes lend much needed legitimacy to the winner of the election. Without that legitimacy the winner cannot claim to have the consent of the governed. This means that not only would they be unpopular among the public, but any initiatives would face challenges from other political actors. A concession from a major party candidate is an admission that the other candidate has won the right to govern. This is a signal to their base that even though they may have done everything in their power to avoid such an outcome, they still need to accept it. This additional legitimacy is especially important after this year’s election cycle.
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Although elections always have controversy, this year has been especially controversial. Due to a seemingly endless number of scandals, both candidates have a major legitimacy problem. This is evidenced by their extremely high unfavorable ratings. In the most recent polls by RealClearPolitics, Trump held an astonishingly high unfavorable rating of 61.2% and Hillary held an almost equally bad unfavorable rating of 52.8%. This means that for both of the candidates over half of the country finds them unfit to govern. Even with the added legitimacy of a concession from the other candidate both may face serious problems once in office. Although a winning candidate is most directly threatened by a contested outcome, it also threatens the underlying electoral process.
Mr. Trump’s refusal to accept the legitimacy of the electoral outcome, (unless it goes his way), is rooted in his belief that the system is “rigged”. Any candidate that pursues such a tactic is knowingly or unknowingly undermining the legitimacy of the electoral system. Fairvote.org, a non-profit, states that electoral competitiveness is one of the most important factors that influence voter turnout.
If voters believe that they cannot influence the outcome, they may decide that it is easier to simply not participate.
Mr. Trump’s claims have also enflamed a passionate base. There are reports of many Trump supporters planning to participate in Election Day as poll watchers, regular citizens that watch polling places for irregularities. Political pundits have passed major concerns that these poll watcher’s behavior could be intimidating to other voters on Election Day. Justifying intimidation at polling places damages the legitimacy of the system for everyone involved. A combination of rejection and intimidation could lead to the end of the system, or at the very least a complete overhaul.
Mr. Trump’s comments are not out of character for the colorful candidate. His associations with Breitbart and the Alt-Right have secured him a solid base of supporter who hold a slew of controversial beliefs. The Southern Poverty Law Center describes them as a group that embraces far-right ideologies and believes their “white identity” is under attack. These groups also tend to support conspiracy theories. One example, is a theory that Clinton was sending hand signals to Lester Holt during the first debate. These beliefs provide a fertile ground for Trump’s claims of a rigged election.
It is likely the Trump campaign developed their “rigged” election line with the Alt-Right in mind.
Even if the rigged election line is just an appeal to the Alt-right, the possibility of a contested outcome is troubling. After such an arduous campaign season, the impact of a contested outcome could be substantial. The winner, whoever it may be, would seriously suffer from a lack of legitimacy. Trump’s words undermine the process in their own right, but poll watchers could do more damage to the process through intimidation. Both will damage the public’s belief in the process. Without legitimacy our election processes will fail to serve the American public in a meaningful way.
Michael Beaudet is a senior economics and foreign affairs major from the University of Virginia. He describes himself as possessing unquenchable ambition and limited knowledge, he hopes to make a difference in the world. His goals are to succeed, meaningfully impact the world in a positive way for others and be happy working hard.
The views expressed in this article are those of the writer. The Contemporary takes no position on matters of policy or opinion.
The photo above was taken by Andrew Salinero at a Donald Trump rally in San Antonio in Summer 2016.