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Was the 2020 Election Legitimate? Well…

Video version of this blog post

Short answer: I think so, but we can’t be certain. And this is the wrong question anyway.

Long answer: I see three steps to a legitimate election, and we only hit two of them at best. Every other national election in my lifetime has been definitely legitimate according to these criteria. But not in 2020. Let me explain.

  1. The design of the election process includes a bunch of features to prevent fraud and ensure privacy and security, such as audit trails, locked ballot boxes, and poll watchers.
  2. Experts all over the country know how these systems work, acknowledge they are credible and effective—and make certain they are followed during the course of the election.
  3. Virtually all of the rest of us believe the experts and trust the results when they are called.

For the 2020 election, we definitely had the first item on this list. If you voted in person, you saw many of these provisions first hand: signature and ID checks, paper ballots, etc. And if you dropped off a ballot or voted by mail you can certainly imagine how this is supposed to work. After all, people have paid their bills by mail for centuries. With careful procedures at the clearinghouse the money pretty much always gets applied to the right account. Votes can be counted correctly.

We also had #2. It’s easy enough to find statements from experts saying things like “[this] was the most secure election in American history [1].” These included people at all levels from both major parties, law enforcement agencies, court opinions, academics, and leading journalists [2].

But not that last one on the list. An enormous number of Americans do not believe the election was free and fair. That is, these Americans do not trust the preponderance of institutions and experts who say the election was free and fair. How many Americans are we talking about? Roughly a third of voters, according to the media and the pollsters [3]. One in three of us.

This is very, very bad. And the mainstream political response—treating this minority [4] as if they are crazy—is only making the problem worse. Telling people they are falling for “The Big Lie” isn’t going to win them over. Instead it contributes to events like those of January 6. And let’s be clear, these Americans who increasingly believe their government is tyrannical are going to take their cues from the colonists who believed their government was tyrannical.

If we don’t do something about this growing distrust, it’s going to get worse for everyone.

There are options, and I think we still have hope. The first step is to name the problem. If a third of the country thinks the last election was a sham, a third of the country does not consent to being governed. That is the crisis. Lack of trust is the existential and immediate threat. It will tear our nation apart long before anything else that might concern you.

There is no work today that is more urgent than regaining the trust of all Americans. And that work begins with you: speaking out on what it would take for you to trust again.

This is the essential work for all of us. Thank you for reading.




[4] If loads of us don’t trust the institution of American elections, then how many of us trust the institution of opinion polls based on statistical sampling? Maybe because of distrust we’re not all truthful when answering the surveys.

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