Last week, America watched with mixed emotions as the House of Representatives went blue for the first time in 7 years and the Republican Party secured their lead in the Senate. A few key races remain contested, at least at the time of writing: a Florida senate race and the Florida governorship.

Andrew Gillum — a progressive rising star fitting the mold of Beto O’Rourke — will likely lose the governorship to Ron DeSantis, regardless of how the recount goes. The Senate race between Bill Nelson and Rick Scott, however, remains very close.

Close races in Florida, which are quite common, fuel electoral conspiracy like almost nothing else. The discovery of several boxes marked “provisional ballots” at various polling locations after the election raised questions for both the left (online activists) and the right (online activists and the president). The claim was these boxes were planted post-election by corrupt Democrats in Broward County, stuffed with votes for Nelson. As of last Saturday, though, the Miami Herald reported the box did not contain any ballots.

That these fears ultimately came to nothing makes sense — the outright manufacture of ballots by an American political party would be a subversion of democracy not seen since poll taxes and literacy tests in the Jim Crow South.

The suspicion is not wholly unfounded, however, as Broward County has a unique history of election irregularities. In 2000, it was a focus on the infamous Bush v. Gore lawsuit; in 2002, Broward's elections supervisor, Miriam Oliphant, oversaw a widely criticized rollout of absentee ballots; in 2003, “more mail-in ballots — 17,245 — were returned as undeliverable than were cast”; in 2017,  Democratic primary candidate Tim Canova sued Broward election officials seeking to inspect physical ballots — they were instead destroyed in September, three months after Canova filed the lawsuit, leaving only digital copies, in violation of a federal statute.

Whether or not clerks and election officials — in Broward or elsewhere — are capable of textbook election rigging isn’t the interesting issue. What could have been a local news story about incompetence (or a non-story about overlooked provisional ballots) accelerated into a story that provoked commentary from the president. Why do narratives of election fraud so consume the American consciousness?

For one, the stakes are legitimately high: Senators become national names, they serve six-year terms and an extra vote for either side could mean the difference between solid control and protracted battles (like the one to confirm Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh). More importantly, though, is the effect of negative polarization.

Normal polarization is treated as negative, which I find unfair; people aligning more closely with one of two major parties isn’t inherently bad. Negative polarization, on the other hand, is when this effect is driven by intense dislike of one party to the extent that  one primarily votes to damage/harm the party rather than support its opposition. If this effect is present (and it seems to be) then a narrative of election fraud makes sense. You knew the other party was irredeemable; that’s why you resigned yourself to voting for their opponents.

It’s tempting to place the blame on the "Red/Blue Wave” stories — both sides believed in their overwhelming momentum, and when it didn’t materialize there had to be a reason. The only way the GOP could lose in Florida would be if the Democrats cheated; the only way that President Donald Trump could have lost the popular vote is if “millions of illegals” voted in California; the only way that former State Secretary Hillary Clinton could have lost is if Russians hacked the election.

There is a real subversion of democracy, of course, beyond even the dubious incompetence of officials in Broward and elsewhere in the country. When elites are involved, they suppress the vote before it begins. Intervening after votes is risky and a serious crime. Simply suppressing the vote by increasing time at the polls, refusing to use extra voting machines, and making it harder for certain demographics to cast a ballot is much easier and preserves a patina of legitimacy.

It’s ideologically satisfying but ultimately unhelpful to assume one’s party could only lose because of fraud. Creating barriers to vote in the first place is the way parties undermine elections — not by fabricating votes or destroying ballots.

 

Hank Minor can be reached at hminor@umich.edu.

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