Rachael Cobb, associate professor of political science and legal studies at Suffolk University, joined the Newton Free Library and Ashland Public Library on Friday to address rising threats to democratic legitimacy.
“We have a challenge before us where what we even think of as elections and what their outcome is is in question,” Cobb said in the Zoom webinar.
Cobb cited dwindling confidence in voter experience and cues from political candidates, who she referred to as “elites,” as the main factors weakening democracy.
“Voter confidence is confidence in our democratic institutions,” she said. “If we have confidence, then we believe that the outcome is legitimate.”
A key component of confidence is the voter experience, aspects of which can range from time spent waiting in line to the behavior and attitude of poll workers, according to Cobb. She added that the more positive the voting process is for the voter, the more likely they are to have faith in the results.
“A very negative voting experience … can make people really question the legitimacy of the election,” she said.
Cobb said that one simple variable can influence the faith of voters: whether or not their preferred candidate wins.
“If you supported the winner, you have higher levels of confidence in the outcome, and if you supported the loser, you have lower levels of confidence,” Cobb said.
This public distrust of election results stems from both major political parties and occurred on a national level as recently as 2020, according to Cobb.
“Before the 2020 election, 40 percent of both Democrats and Republicans said they would not accept a win by the candidate from the other party,” Cobb said. “The questioning of the legitimacy and the confidence that people have in elections is something that is shared between members of opposite political parties.”
On a broader scale, Cobb indicated fundamental issues with the electoral college that contribute to the overall lack of faith in American democracy.
“We have a Supreme Court that has five justices appointed by presidents who lost the popular vote,” she said.
The final factor Cobb mentioned was misinformation, particularly the speed at which it can spread in the digital age.
“What has happened recently is the speed with which false information can be spread and disseminated,” she said. “False information is highly problematic.”
Once false information begins to spread, its effects can be problematic and even deadly, according to Cobb.
“False claims about Dominion’s voting machines led to threats against the company and weakened trust in the democratic process,” she said. “False claims about election fraud in 2020 led to the assault on the U.S. Capitol on January 6.”
Given the substantial problems plaguing the future of our democracy, Cobb cannot help but feel nervous about the future.
“I am really nervous,” she said. “There has been an erosion of our democratic institutions.”
After outlining past threats to democratic legitimacy in great detail, Cobb looked ahead to how the U.S. may remedy this phenomenon in the future: by breaking through partisan divides and, above all, remaining hopeful.
“There are all kinds of policies that we can put into place, but at the end of the day, the faith in the policies is coming from people who need to also have faith in each other,” she said. “There are a lot of great organizations out there and a lot of great young people who are filled with hope, and when they’re filled with hope, I’m filled with hope.