Why We Believe Election Results
There’s been a slew of news articles in the last few weeks about the possibility that the presidential election vote was somehow rigged, yet most Americans still accept the election night results as fact. There’s a reason for that. The problem with proving that votes were tampered with is that our entire news information system is built to implicitly trust an election outcome, not question it. And it starts the night of the election while the returns are still coming in.
First, the results are reported by our most trusted news institutions. AP, Reuters, major newspapers and the TV networks all report the results as fact as they come in. This imbues those results with legitimacy before they can be questioned or challenged. We know that these institutions report objective facts elsewhere — baseball scores, yesterday’s stock closings — so we instinctively give their election reporting the same faith we have in those objective numerical realities. Authoritative white men with gray hair tell us something, and we believe it.
Second, because the results come gradually — a Chinese water torture drip of counties and then individual states that are turning out contrary to what we believed would happen — we slowly absorb the shock and allow each one to become our new reality before questioning the overall senselessness of it. “Hillary lost North Carolina.” That outcome was plausible and therefore not questioned. “Trump is over-performing in Florida.” Again, an individual outcome that was considered possible so we don’t challenge it. Then slowly other slightly more unlikely outcomes begin to spill in, and with each new one we adjust our belief systems accordingly, letting our earlier doubts be gradually revised to accept the new reality. “It’s tighter than expected in Pennsylvanian… Clinton’s losing in Wisconsin… AP calls Ohio for Trump… Michigan is slipping away… She’s trailing in Pennsylvania… CNN calls Wisconsin for Trump… NBC calls Pennsylvania.” At each step, we adjust our belief system so that the cognitive dissonance of the totality of the outcome — that an election Clinton was destined to win somehow turned out differently — is made believable and acceptable.
Third, as all this is happening, a slew of alleged “experts” come on TV and explain WHY the unexpected outcome happened, further infusing the reported results with legitimacy. Instead of CNN’s John King or NBC’s Steve Schmidt saying, “Hey, these results make no sense. Something is seriously wrong here,” they immediately come on screen to explain a result that is counter-intuitive to everything we knew before. These credible authority figures give us a wide variety of plausible reasons to believe what we doubt:
- rural voters turned out in bigger numbers than anticipated
- young and minority voters did not turn out in the expected numbers
- polling methodology was off
- third party votes shifted the expected results
- the Comey letters created a last-minute wave
- Hillary didn’t campaign in the lost states
- turnout was down significantly
- turnout was up significantly
- turnout by white working-class men was up significantly
- turnout by white married women was down significantly
- women suddenly returned to Trump
- men suddenly abandoned Clinton
- Hillary didn’t have an economic message
- strong GOP Senate race coattails carried Trump
- weak Democratic Senate race coattails let Clinton down
- Millennials voted for Stein
- Millennials voted for Trump (in greater numbers than anticipated)
- Millennials didn’t vote
- Millennials voted, but not for president
- Latinos voted for Trump (in greater numbers than anticipated)
- Latinos didn’t show up in the numbers anticipated
- Latinos only showed up in the numbers anticipated in the states Hillary won
- the Latino vote was suppressed
- the black vote was suppressed
- Cubans voted differently than Mexicans
- voters hate Mexicans
- voters hate Muslims
- voters hate blacks
- voters hate NAFTA
- voters hate Hillary
- voters hate the establishment
- voters hate third terms by one party
- voters hate gridlock
- voters hate ticket-splitting
- voters hate themselves
And that’s only a partial list!
So Americans have a dozen theories competing with the one that is not even being said: that the true election returns have been adversely manipulated by humans.
It goes to the heart of how we all process information. Take for example, the JFK assassination. If you begin with the assumption that Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone gunman, you can work backward to cobble together a slew of unlikely theories and explanations that lead to that conclusion. But if you begin with no assumption about who shot Kennedy, virtually none of the evidence points to Oswald acting alone. (Some doesn’t even point to him firing a single shot.) Yet when our national authorities back a specific conclusion and “prove” it with twisted logic and partial evidence that defy the laws of time and physics, we still accept it because we trust the source. Especially when it’s repeatedly reported on television – the ultimate validator of information (true or false).
This type of counter-intuitive thinking is not exclusive to elections or government reports. Boxing matches and Olympic gymnastic competitions routinely end in judges’ decisions that do not conform to the match that every other spectator witnessed. Millions of Americans believe that professional wrestling is real. And talking heads on TV regularly convince people that cars will change their sex lives, processed cereal will make their kids healthier, a dollar a day will save a third world child’s life (or, even crazier, that the money donated will actually get to a third-world nation), and that if they don’t like their new magic frypan or miracle treadmill they’ll get a “money-back guaranteed” refund with no questions or hassle. Yet none of that is true.
Hell, TV even convinced people that Donald Trump can teach Dennis Rodman to be a businessman.
I can’t prove that the election was rigged, though I believe it. Maybe that’s because my bias and thought process are pre-disposed not to believe Americans would elect Donald Trump. So I start from a place of questioning the results, not blindly accepting them. That’s how I approach it.
But if 62 million Americans can be tricked into believing that a nasty, unethical, misogynistic, philandering, duplicitous, deceitful, self-aggrandizing, uninformed, tax evading, proven con man is worthy of the presidency, they can be convinced that the numbers coming out of a few dozen low populated, predominantly white counties in three states changed the outcome of a national election toward the guy who received two-and-a-half million less votes.