The Effect of Conspiratorial Thinking and Motivated Reasoning on Belief in Election Fraud

Published date01 December 2017
Date01 December 2017
Subject MatterArticles
/tmp/tmp-18lutu7yqP3jOU/input 721061PRQXXX10.1177/1065912917721061Political Research QuarterlyEdelson et al.
Political Research Quarterly
2017, Vol. 70(4) 933 –946
The Effect of Conspiratorial Thinking
© 2017 University of Utah
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and Motivated Reasoning on Belief in
DOI: 10.1177/1065912917721061
Election Fraud
Jack Edelson1, Alexander Alduncin1, Christopher Krewson1,
James A. Sieja2, and Joseph E. Uscinski3
Belief in electoral fraud has received heightened attention due to elite rhetoric and controversial voter identification
(ID) laws. Using a two-wave national survey administered before and after the 2012 election, we examine the individual-
level correlates of belief in a range of election-related conspiracy theories. Our data show that partisanship affects the
timing and content of belief in election-related conspiracy theories, but a general disposition toward conspiratorial
thinking strongly influences those beliefs. Support for voter ID laws, in contrast, appears to be driven largely by
party identification through elite-mass linkages. Our analysis suggests that belief in election fraud is a common and
predictable consequence of both underlying conspiratorial thinking and motivated partisan reasoning.
conspiracy theory, conspiracy, voter fraud, elections
Despite the assumption that they operate at the fringes of
vote, have paradoxically led to more accusations of fraud.
political thought, conspiracy theories influence debates
The accusations arise because the policies appear, to
over many policies. For example, movements for vaccine
some, to benefit one party over the other. Although the
regulations, genetically modified food labeling, and cam-
U.S. Supreme Court ruled certain types of voter identifi-
paign finance reform are to some degree fueled by a
cation (ID) laws constitutional in Crawford v. Marion
belief that shadowy figures are aligned against the pub-
County Election Board (2008), the public debate over
lic’s interest. Social scientists are currently trying to
these measures has a decidedly conspiratorial tenor.
understand whether conspiracy theories are sometimes
Opponents claim that fraud is not rampant, and that voter
“politics by other means” (i.e., overly heated partisan
ID laws would not prevent the most probable types of
rhetoric) or if they are the product of a separate social-
fraud if it were (Overton 2007). Moreover, opponents
psychological process (e.g., Miller, Saunders, and Farhart
argue the burdens of voter ID laws fall heavily on poor,
2016; Oliver and Wood 2014; Radnitz and Underwood
minority, and elderly voters (Atkeson et al. 2010; Barreto,
2017). We seek to answer this question by examining the
Nuno, and Sanchez 2009; Hajnal, Lajevardi, and Nielson
determinants of belief in election fraud.
2017), tilting elections in favor of the Republicans who
We treat beliefs about specific unproven instances of
support the laws (Leighley and Nagler 2013, 1).
election fraud as conspiracy theories because they fit the
Our purpose is not to adjudicate the consequences of
classic definition: unsubstantiated accusatory beliefs pos-
voter ID laws. Nor do we take a position on the existence
iting small groups working in secret, for their own bene-
of electoral fraud, except to say that the United States has
fit, and against the common good (Uscinski and Parent
well-functioning institutions that make attempts at wide-
2014, 32). The common good in this case is majority rule
spread fraud difficult to manage (Svolik and Rundlett
over free and fair elections. For simplicity, we use elec-
tion fraud
as a blanket term to refer to all forms of fraud
1University of Wisconsin–Madison, USA
that may affect elections, including casting multiple or
2St. Lawrence University, Canton, NY, USA
illegal ballots, voter suppression, bribery, dirty tricks, and
3University of Miami, Coral Gables, FL, USA
fraudulent counting.
Corresponding Author:
Several states have passed voter identification laws
Joseph E. Uscinski, Political Science Department, University of Miami,
since the turn of the millennium (Hicks et al. 2015), and
1300 Campo Sano Blvd. Ste. 160D, Coral Gables, FL 33146, USA.
such policies, while intended to protect the sanctity of the

Political Research Quarterly 70(4)
2016, 180; see also Grimes 2016). We do examine, how-
that the number of people who impersonated others to
ever, why Americans believe electoral fraud exists. This
vote fraudulently is roughly equivalent to the number of
question is particularly important for two reasons: first,
people abducted (and returned!) by extraterrestrials. With
because accusations of electoral fraud seemingly became
this said, there are many types of fraud that could occur
normalized during the 2016 presidential primaries and
beyond voter impersonation. While research suggests
general election, and second, because the Supreme Court
that various types of fraud are almost nonexistent in U.S.
justified voter ID laws in part as a reaction to widespread
elections, there remains widespread belief in malfea-
belief in fraud (Ansolabehere and Persily 2008).
sance. We begin with the situational antecedents of belief
We begin by detailing the prevalence of belief in elec-
in electoral fraud.
tion fraud. Next, we discuss the situational and disposi-
After Mitt Romney’s defeat in 2012, 49 percent of
tional factors that could drive belief in election fraud. For
Republicans believed that the Democrat-leaning activist
situational factors, we focus on whether an individual’s
group, ACORN, had stolen the election for Barack
party won or lost an election; for dispositional factors, we
Obama (only 6 percent of Democrats believed this). It did
focus on partisanship and conspiratorial thinking (i.e., a
not matter much that ACORN no longer existed in 2012.
predisposition toward viewing events and circumstances
Such numbers could give the impression that Republicans
as the product of conspiracy). We then exploit unique pre-
are prone to belief in election fraud; however, instances
and postelection survey data from the 2012 Cooperative
where Democrats lose elections show parity. Following
Congressional Election Study (CCES). We show that
the contentious presidential election of 2000, 31 percent
many electoral fraud beliefs are the predictable conse-
of Democrats believed that George W. Bush had stolen
quence of motivated partisan reasoning: one’s partisan-
the election (only 3 percent of Republicans agreed),1 and
ship determines who they will accuse and of what, and
30 percent of Democrats stated that they would not accept
the status of one’s party drives belief in fraud in certain
George W. Bush as a “legitimate president.”2 After the
circumstances (i.e., after an electoral loss). In addition,
unexpected Republican victory in 2016, 50 percent of
those partisans most likely to believe in various types of
Democrats believed the outcome was due to Russians
electoral fraud are those with elevated levels of conspira-
tampering with vote tallies (there is currently no evidence
torial thinking.
to support this claim).3 To further demonstrate how both
We then investigate opinions toward voter ID laws and
parties explain losses with accusations of fraud, a 2013
find, in accord with extant scholarship (e.g., Bowler et al.
national poll asked respondents about fraud in the 2004
2015; Bowler and Donovan 2016; Wilson and Brewer
and 2008 elections (Cassino and Jenkins 2013). A total of
2013), that partisanship plays a central organizing role.
37 percent of Democrats believed the statement,
To conclude, we argue that, because beliefs about voter
“President Bush’s supporters committed significant voter
fraud are largely the product of nonrational social-psy-
fraud in order to win Ohio in 2004,” was probably true,
chological processes (i.e., motivated reasoning and con-
while only 9 percent of Republicans agreed. This reverses
spiratorial thinking) rather than responses to instances of
in a question about President Obama’s victory in 2012: 36
actual fraud, mere belief in voter fraud should not be used
percent of Republicans believed it was probably true that
to justify election policies that can potentially disenfran-
“President Obama’s supporters committed significant
chise citizens.
voter fraud in the 2012 presidential election,” while only
4 percent of Democrats agreed. Significant portions of
Belief in Voter Fraud
both parties cry foul after they lose, and in near equal
numbers. Thus, the public’s opinions stand in stark con-
Election fraud is a controversial topic in the United
trast to a scholarly consensus that election fraud is negli-
States. Some are convinced it is pervasive (von Spakovsky
gible, and suggest that opinions about fraud depend
2012); others argue it is a “myth” (Minnite 2010). It is
heavily on situational factors.
important to differentiate beliefs in specific instances of
With this said, belief in fraud is not just a symptom of
electoral fraud—which often exist despite a scarcity of
an election night hangover: belief in fraud is also wide-
evidence—and a more general desire to ensure free and
spread prior to the announcement of an electoral outcome.
fair elections. The former makes claims...

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