In a true democracy, the legitimacy of an elected official depends on the validity of the election that put them in office. While properly defining a valid election is a subject worthy of a book, I will endeavor to lay out some obvious standards and briefly discuss their state going into the 2020 presidential election.
First, every eligible citizen must have reasonable and reliable access to the voting process. This includes registering to vote and the actual casting of the vote. A citizen can freely choose not to participate but if this choice is due to unjust barriers, then this would undercut the legitimacy of the election.
While registering to vote is easy, it should be automatic for eligible citizens—the default should be that every eligible citizen is registered with an option to opt out. This would increase the number of registered voters and might slightly increase participation.
Republicans have focused considerable effort on suppressing voters, most especially minority voters. These efforts take various forms and include such tactics as voter ID laws, closing of poling stations, limiting early voting, and restricting voting hours. Experts disagree about the actual impact of these tactics but even if they had little impact, they would serve to damage the legitimacy of elections—especially when Republicans win. After all, one can always ask whether the Republican only won because voters were suppressed.
Republicans contend that their efforts are aimed at preventing voter fraud. They are right to consider this matter since the second standard is that those who are justly ineligible to vote must be prevented from voting. If ineligible people vote (or someone votes for them), then the legitimacy of the election is damaged. Fortunately, voter fraud is all but nonexistent in the United States, despite concerted efforts to find it. As such, while election officials should remain vigilant against the possibility, an official is more likely to be struck by lightning than witness actual voter fraud. There have been cases of election fraud, which is the third standard: the election must be run properly to ensure that each legitimate ballot is counted, and no illegitimate ballots are counted.
Somewhat ironically (but not surprising) the most recent election fraud was conducted by a Republican operative in North Carolina. The fraud was detected and addressed, but the same Republicans who cry wolf about voter fraud remained silent about this episode. Democrats did, of course, run some rather famous election frauds in Chicago over the years—this is a bipartisan thing. Fortunately, election fraud is still relatively rare—but recent and past occurrences show that elections need to be diligently policed to root out such fraud.
The fourth standard deals with the election equipment. If the means of collecting and tallying the votes are not secure and reliable, then the legitimacy of an election is in question. Unfortunately, this area is a disaster.
One major concern is that the voting machines are woefully insecure and most can be easily hacked with very basic skills. Even if no one is actively trying to sabotage an election, the machines can fail, and errors can occur that impact the election. As such it is reasonable to wonder if votes are being properly recorded and counted. Since Russia and other foreign actors seem to favor Trump and the Republicans, this vulnerability favors them. The possibility of errors favors neither party, since errors could benefit either. Also of concern is the fact that many of the machines do not create a paper trail, so the results cannot be confirmed.
While a perfect machine is impossible, a better machine is certainly a very real possibility and machines that create a paper trail can be easily made. Unfortunately, the Republicans have not been very interested in addressing these matters, most likely because they have been winning. However, this should be a bipartisan concern since the next election shenanigans might not favor the Republicans.
In addition to outside actors and machine failures, there is also the concern that 85% of voting machines are manufactured by two vendors. Both vendors are owned by private equity and hence their funding and control are unknown. This raises the worry that the machines could be manipulated by the vendors to swing elections. While this might sound like a movie plot, a Global/Diebold machine “lost” 16,00o Gore votes in 2000 and there are connections between these companies and Paul Manafort. While errors are to be expected, the voting machines issues of these companies seem to have consistently favored Republicans—thus raising serious concerns about the integrity of the election.
One proposed solution is to develop an open source voting machine and having the machine’s manufacturers operate with transparency would go a long way. While some might think that open source would make them vulnerable, this is actually the opposite—open source software is, in a seeming paradox, more secure.
Given that the legitimacy of elected officials rests on the legitimacy of the elections, these problems should be addressed. To the degree they are not, officials will lack legitimacy—especially those in the party engaging in election misdeeds.