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Whither Democracy? What the Midterm Elections Mean for the Nation

Whither Democracy? What the Midterm Elections Mean for the Nation
Political science professors Sunshine Hillygus and Adriane Fresh addressed the media Wednesday.

DURHAM, N.C. -- The evidence-free screams of voter fraud and election illegitimacy that caromed across the nation following the 2020 presidential election created a stress test of sorts for American institutions and democracy itself.

The approaching midterm elections may indicate just how much damage has been done in a country whose system of government relies on public faith in the way politicians are elected, a Duke scholar said Wednesday.

“Democracy is not simply a set of institutions like free and fair elections. It also is a set of widely shared values among the populace that these are the proper governing institutions, as well as the shared belief that those proper institutions are functioning according to their intended rules,” said Adriane Fresh, an assistant professor of political science. “Democracy is fragile absent citizen belief in its legitimacy.”

Fresh and Sunshine Hillygus, a Duke professor of political science and public policy, spoke during a virtual briefing for journalists. They discussed voter fraud concerns, election security, the impact of authoritarian rhetoric, the likelihood of young people to vote, and whether all these polls you’re inundated with are accurate. Watch the briefing on YouTube.

Here are excerpts:


Adriane Fresh, political scientist

“There are some warning signs … that suggest candidates may not be willing to accept the outcome of elections, namely in the case of their defeat.”

“What you’re seeing is an unprecedented number of candidates who are repeating this factually incorrect claim that the 2020 election was stolen. According to some counts, this is well over 350 candidates and the majority of GOP candidates.”

“You’re further seeing GOP candidates who lost their primary election claim fraud. As just one example, Kandiss Taylor, GOP candidate for governor in Georgia, garnered less than 5 percent of the primary vote but nevertheless claimed fraud and refused to accept the results.”

“It’s difficult as well to draw the causal arrow between citizens and candidates but we’re also seeing polling that suggests that Republican voters in particular are undemocratically willing to only accept election results in the case that their preferred candidate wins. We’re going to have to wait and see exactly what candidates do after the election, but I do think this rhetoric is worrying and has implications for the stability of our democracy more broadly.”


Adriane Fresh

“The proliferation of this kind of rhetoric about a stolen 2020 election is worrying for  the future of our democratic institutions.”

“The rhetoric of the stolen 2020 election suggests many elites are lacking in these requisite beliefs in democratic institutions. Although we know they’re still willing to participate in so much as they’re running for office.”

“Of course, it’s important to acknowledge this rhetoric may be a ploy or a tactic, but that’s not likely to be the case universally.”

“Beyond this, polling suggests a worrying set of citizens share these elite beliefs as well. Around 40 percent of Republicans polled in recent surveys believe the 2020 election was fraudulent.”

“If we’re concerned about electoral participation or other forms of democratic participation – if citizens withdraw from the democratic process, if they don’t vote, this potentially impacts the extent to which politicians are representing the public. The public may not perceive the rules and regulations they’re subject to, to be legitimate and they may withdraw their compliance.”


Adriane Fresh

“It’s important to both heed the concerns of election administrators who are raising this issue of Freedom of Information Act requests and also not to take this issue too far in questioning the integrity of the upcoming election.”

“The reason that I’m not particularly concerned about the upcoming election is primarily because the job responsibilities of election administrators is first and foremost to administer elections according to the rules – freely and fairly.”

“Because Freedom of Information laws allow some discretion as to the timing with which election administrators can respond to these requests. They often times use language like ‘prompt’ reply without specifying precisely how long an administrator must take to respond.”

“This allows them some ability to focus on the election on hand while still being in compliance with the law.”

“In heeding election administrators’ concerns, we should be looking to the long-term implications.”

“Absent a commensurate increase in resources, that is staff or monetary resources with which election administrators can deal with these requests, it is possible that they interfere with administrators’ primary duty, which is administering elections freely and fairly.”

“This increase in rhetoric about fraudulent elections, the increase in politicians who are sort of unwilling to say they’ll concede defeat were they to lose an election … suggests an increase in individuals, whether on their own or through organized efforts, inundating election administrators with requests for additional information. The breadth and volume of these requests may increase. It may reach a tipping point where they really are interfering with administrators’ duties.”

“What is perhaps more worrying to me is that these burdens may overwhelm administrators in a way that interferes with government’s ability to attract and retain qualified individuals for the job. We’ve already seen some cases, like Gillespie County in Texas, where election administrators resigned in part due to this inundation of FOIA requests.”


Adriane Fresh

“It’s important to separate rhetoric from action. I mean action both in terms of the actions of individuals but also as well the kind of actions of our institutions, that is the functioning of our institutions.”

“When you separate rhetoric and action it’s easier to tease apart what is mere lip service to democracy and what me might construe as genuine concern for the functioning of our institutions.”

“Democracy is just a term when it’s used rhetorically. That term can be strategically deployed. One can argue that the use of the term at the moment is part of this competition for the moral high ground with respect to our institutions.”

“There’s evidence to suggest that when Americans profess support for democracy, it’s often times because of a social norm – their belief that others think they should prefer democracy, as opposed to a deep understand of the constituent components of democracy and support for all of those components.”

“It’s worth saying again and again: There’s no evidence of meaningful fraud that has changed any election outcomes in 2020 or any of these subsequent races. It’s just hard to be any more clear about that. Because of this, those who are professing concern for election integrity – but who are taking actions that actually undermine its integrity – for example inundating elections professionals with these freedom of information requests – and who are also supporting candidates who indicate their support for nondemocratic policies -- as revealed by their actions, if not an authoritarian tendency, which might be too extreme, at the very least it’s a concerning apathy for democracy.”


Sunshine Hillygus, political scientist

“There’s some hope that young people will turn out. We have seen an increase in young voter turnout in 2020 and in 2018. Of course it’s useful to keep in mind that even though we have seen some historic levels of youth turnout, the rates of turnout among young people remain pretty abysmal. In 2018, one of the highest turnout rates in a midterm election from young people, still less than a third of young people actually voted.”

“The gap in turnout between a midterm election and a presidential election is particularly large for young people. There’s no chance we’re going to see the type of turnout rates we saw in a presidential election. I think there’s real questions about whether we match 2018; whether youth turnout will be high enough in states like Georgia, Pennsylvania, Arizona, to be enough to tip those races and make a difference.”

“At the same time that young people have been motivated on issues like abortion, especially in recent months, but also climate change and gun control and other issues, we have seen record numbers of state laws passed with voting restrictions that disproportionately hurt young people. So we kind of have two different things working in different directions.”


Sunshine Hillygus

“North Carolina is one of the handful of states where there has been an increase in voter registration numbers compared to this point in 2018, which gives some suggestion that we might be on track for the type of turnout rates we saw in 2018.When it comes to young people, in North Carolina voter registration has actually been highest in independent voters and among Republicans as opposed to Democrats, and so in terms of predicting what that impact is going to be is quite a bit more difficult.”


Sunshine Hillygus

“The reality of pre-election polling is that, in state-level polls … the vast majority of those are ones that are using lower methodological standards than what you see in presidential elections – when it’s larger polling organizations who are conducting it. So the sampling methodology is less reliable.”

“There are fewer of those polls and many are being conducted by entrepreneurial pollsters, pollsters who are not necessarily being paid by an organization, or by an organization that has a partisan interest.”

“It makes it very difficult to draw inferences given the variety of different errors we see in state level polls.”

“The biggest issue, even if you have the best pollster out there doing the polling – which we don’t -- at the end of the day, the strength of a poll, the reason it’s scientific, is that if you randomly draw a sample from a population, you can make inferences from that sample to the population. But we don’t know the population. We don’t know who is going to vote in a midterm election.”

“When election rates are quite a bit lower, when you have a lot of people registered to vote who don’t turn out, trying to predict who is going to vote is very difficult. At the end of the day, that kind of tool of polling is not particularly useful in a midterm election.”

“We just have to be really cautious, particularly given some of the groups we’re most interested in seeing their movements, whether young people or people of color or independents or the unaffiliated, these are all groups that are particularly difficult to get into polls, and variable from one election to the next.”

“Whether you’re talking about polling in Georgia, polling in North Carolina, I would just urge real caution in over-interpreting those polling numbers.”


Sunshine Hillygus

“There are differences in who is showing up and doing early voting. They are not necessarily going to be representative of how things will look on Election Day.”

“Like polling, early voting results provide some information. But we just don’t have sufficient information to know if those are going to be predictive of the election results.”


Sunshine Hillygus

“It’s not at all a surprise. I also am not sure it should be an expectation that the public understands the nitty gritty of election administration. One of the reasons we have such low turnout is because of the complexity of election laws and the variation in election laws across different states. The layer of rules, the variation of rules, the complexity rules, that is really, when you compare it to other countries, is kind of crazy. Even the number of races that we expect our citizens to vote in. Really? Can people spend time finding out about the dog catcher race and all these different races down the ballot?”

“The expectation of the public to spend time beyond working their jobs and raising their children, to be good citizens, I absolutely don’t think it’s a surprise.”

“That doesn’t mean misperceptions about the process are not important. The echo chamber becomes important. Are there political elites who are responsible for understanding the rules and reflecting those appropriately, is it a concern that they are really pushing misinformation? That is very important and something we have to take seriously and think about how to address.”

Faculty Participants

Adriane Fresh
Adriane Fresh is an assistant professor of political science who studies voting rights, election administration, racial inequality and how elites respond to dramatic economic and institutional change.

Sunshine Hillygus
Sunshine Hillygus is a professor of political science and public policy who studies American political behavior – including young voters, campaigns and elections, survey methods, public opinion and information technology and politics.