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The Faith We Place in Our Elections



Last updated 9/17/2020 at 11:07am

I’ve lost track of the times over the years I’ve heard a politician say, “This is the most important election of my lifetime.” In fact, I’ve said it myself. I’m sure we all believed it at the time, but in my case, at least, I know I was wrong in the past. Because this year’s election is the most important of my lifetime.

Elections are the crown jewel of a representative democracy. We do at least three things when we vote: we vote for our preferred candidates; we vote to direct policy; and we place our stamp of approval on the system itself. Then, whatever the result, we accept it.

This is one of the remarkable things about the American political system—the degree to which Americans over the centuries have placed their faith in election results, win or lose. It’s been a vitally important part of our system that we’ve taken too much for granted.

This year, it’s fair to say, we’re not taking it for granted. Many Americans are worried about foreign meddling. But that’s nothing compared to the undermining coming from the very top: A sitting president who refuses, so far at least, to say whether he will accept the results of the election, who floats the idea of postponing it, who questions the validity of the venerable absentee ballot, and who talks constantly about “corrupt” elections. No wonder a lot of Americans of both parties worry about the legitimacy of the results in November.

Now, it’s not uncommon to hear charges of voter fraud, but study after study has found that actual voter fraud in the U.S. is rare. More worrisome are chicanery by politicians bent on disenfranchising voters whose politics they don’t like and decades of underfunding the actual machinery of elections.

But here’s the thing. We have over 200 years of success at transferring power peacefully, often between political leaders who disagreed vehemently with one another. That has been one of the keys to American success. I’m not alone in thinking of this year’s vote as the most important of my lifetime, and woe betide us if our confidence in the result – which will play a big part in our willingness to accept the result – is betrayed by politicians seeking to game the system or by elections officials who don’t live up to the trust Americans place in them to get it right.

Editor’s Note: Lee Hamilton is a senior advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a distinguished scholar at the IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies; and a professor of practice at the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

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