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In our opinion: America must not let mistrust derail the 2020 election

Bradford Mosteller cuts “I Voted” stickers on the first day of early voting at the Salt Lake County Clerk’s office in the Salt Lake County Government Center in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Feb. 18, 2020.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

An alarmingly large minority of Americans — Democrats and Republicans — are poised to question the results of November’s election if their candidate loses. It’s a blow to trust and democratic ideals at a time when faith in the country’s institutions needs to be higher than ever.

Analysts at the Democracy Fund Voter Study Group capture a cynical snapshot of America in their latest report, “Democracy Maybe,” where they find nearly 40% of Democrats would call for a revote if Trump won the Electoral College but lost the popular vote, and almost 30% of Republicans say it would be appropriate for Trump to refuse to leave office following claims of voter fraud.

The findings take a dark turn as researchers also note 2 out of 10 partisans would find at least “a little” if not “a great deal” of justification for violence if their opponent won.

Most concerning, as the report indicates, is that the outcomes leading to such violence are all conceivable scenarios: Trump indeed won his first term by winning the Electoral College while losing the popular vote, foreign interference in the 2016 election is well documented and the president continues to question the legitimacy of a socially distanced election.

Anything is plausible this fall.

The cure is simple: Americans must have faith in their constitutional institutions to do their job. As the study’s authors observe, “What distinguishes stable liberal democracies from their more endangered peers is not just the quality and integrity of their democratic institutions but the depth of their people’s commitment to them.”

Such abiding assurance — not to people but to structures of government — has been a hallmark of American democracy since George Washington stunned the world by relinquishing his power after two terms as president.

Prescribing that cure, however, is far more difficult. Actors both at home and abroad have done an excellent job fomenting uncertainty in U.S. elections, and even the president continues to baselessly claim mail-in ballots will be stolen from mailboxes or that they will be printed by foreign governments and shipped to the U.S. “It will be the scandal of our times!” he tweeted.

Ask any state, such as Utah, if vote by mail can be effective and secure, and you will hear an unequivocal “yes.” Utah has been running vote-by-mail elections for the past eight years. Last week’s primaries went off without a hitch. Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon and Washington are other states offering sound evidence the practice is safe.

As for foreign interference, a host of national agencies are hard at work ensuring the country is secure, although it’s unclear if the country is any more prepared for this fall than it was in 2016. Attempts to derail the electorate continue daily.

The result, as the authors warn, is that “Americans’ commitment to the norms and institutions of democracy shows worrying signs of softness, equivocation, conditionality or even defection at precisely the moment when our system of self-government most requires mutual restraint and unconditional support.”

Governments and media should quickly adopt practical measures, such as those proposed by University of California Irvine’s 2020 Committee for Election Fairness and Legitimacy.

Beyond that, however, each voter has a responsibility to cut through the din and remember that the Constitution’s balance of power has yet to fail its country in times of crisis. Trusting in the process ensures a civil election. Agitating mistrust, on the other hand, ensures the bad actors win.