Ever since the contested 2000 presidential election, the way that American elections are run has become increasingly partisan and contentious. The 2016 elections ratcheted up the number of complaints by all parties, yet there is heated disagreement about the nature of the problem — let alone potential solutions. For many years, the main complaint by the GOP has centered on alleged incidents of illegal fraud, in which it is claimed that ineligible people registered and cast ballots, for example non-US citizens and felons, or simply imposters voting more than once. Throughout the campaign Donald Trump stoked up the heated rhetoric by alleging that victory would be stolen from him. After he won the Electoral College vote, he claimed (falsely) that he also won the popular vote “if you deduct millions of people who voted illegally.” In fact, across the country, officials found next to no credible evidence for cases of voter fraud. For Democrats, by contrast, the main problem has been framed as one of the suppression of voting rights designed to depress legitimate citizen participation. Civil rights organizations routinely criticize attempts by GOP state legislatures to tighten voter ID requirements and restrict polling facilities, making it harder to vote, especially for minorities and the elderly. Here the evidence about the impact of implementing stricter registration requirements in depressing the vote is somewhat clearer, although debate continues about the size of the effect, among other questions.
On polling day, journalists highlighted accidental failures in the nuts and bolts of electoral maladministration, including human errors and machine breakdowns in registration and ballotingThe New York Times reported that scattered problems occurred on November 8 in several polling places, with long lines in North Carolina, Virginia, New York, and Texas, sporadic breakdowns for the electronic register in Durham NC, and malfunctioning voter verification in Colorado.
This year’s highly consequential twist was the hacking of the computer server of the Democratic National Committee and the private emails of Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta — an activity the CIA and FBI have pinned on Russia. On the cybersecurity question, President Obama has ordered a report by the CIA and FBI. But more generally, given divergent claims by each party, is there independent and reliable evidence to support criticisms about the performance of American elections?
One useful tool is the Electoral Integrity Project (EIP), an independent academic project based at Harvard and Sydney Universities. For the last five years, we have conducted the Perceptions of Electoral Integrity survey in the US and around the world. EIP interviews political experts about various aspects of elections in the areas where they live, a technique commonly used for evaluating performance in the absence of directly observable indicators. The approach is similar to that employed for the highly respected Corruption Perception Index by Transparency international.