Contrary to pollsters’ predictions of a Democratic landslide or at least a decisive win by Joe Biden, the 2020 election turned out to be the most uncertain since the litigious 2000 contest that put George W. Bush in the White House. Biden’s national popular vote lead was solid but not overwhelming, and the two candidates came within just a few percentage points in almost all of the decisive states for an electoral college victory. The Senate and House of Representatives are nearly split down the middle. A clear referendum on the Trump presidency it was not. The country was divided in 2016, and it’s divided today, if not along exactly the same lines.
Both before and after Tuesday’s vote, observers worried that a disputed result would further weaken the authority of an electoral system that both the sitting president and his opponents have claimed was vulnerable to fraud and manipulation ever since 2016. For weeks, many warned that Trump’s supporters would not accept the results of the election if their candidate lost. At the same time, Democratic partisans and anti-Trump activists promised to flood into the streets to reject any result they view as illegitimate. Trump, for his part, took to Twitter soon after the election to allege fraud in states where he was losing. Meanwhile, amidst all the uncertainty, the shambling, uneven progress of the vote count raised another specter of illegitimacy: how can people maintain faith in a system unable to determine a clear outcome promptly?
On the other hand, the idea that the indecisiveness of the result calls the system into question contradicts other common intuitions. After all, closely contested votes are often cited as ratifying the efficacy of voting, since they seem to substantiate the conviction that “every vote matters.” When an election comes down to just a small number of ballots, we would like to imagine, individual voters’ power to reset the course of their nation’s history comes fully into view.
Conversely, the opposite scenario — a decisive result — does not always bestow credibility on a regime. In fact, nations where a party wins a commanding victory may descend into instability since coups and uprisings can result from a situation where a political faction concludes that it cannot win electorally and must achieve power by other means. In other words, both blowout victories and nail-biters might equally legitimize — or delegitimize — a democratic regime.
These apparent contradictions suggest that we need to return to the more fundamental question of where a democracy’s legitimacy comes from. In his book The Mark of the Sacred, the philosopher Jean-Pierre Dupuy notes that universal suffrage, which is “generally thought to be the very essence of modern democracy,” is based on the premise that “human beings [are] solely responsible for creating the society they inhabit.” This “search for immanence,” Dupuy notes, distinguishes our system from those that derive their ultimate authority from the transcendent realm of the gods and the sacred. However, Dupuy argues that voting is more irrational and riven with paradox than we tend to believe. This is because it “exhibits a very curious, indeed suspect, relationship to chance that cannot fail to bring to mind the crucial role chance plays in religious practices and beliefs.”
Numerous societies throughout history have resolved conflicts and made decisions by drawing lots and similar procedures. One such system was found in ancient Athens, “cradle of democracy,” which incorporated randomized mechanisms into its votation. (Early theorists of democracy saw no problem with this: “[v]oting by lot is in the nature of democracy,” said Montesquieu.) Dupuy attributes such practices to the “need to shift responsibility for decisions on which the life of a community depends away from the members of this community.” They allow a society to offload responsibility for what befalls it onto a transcendent power equivalent to fate, since chance can be seen as manifesting this higher will. This may seem to violate the basic principle of popular sovereignty, but Dupuy argues the opposite is true: democratic systems too “are held to be legitimate and meaningful exactly to the extent that they create exteriority and transcendence.”
To illustrate how this archaic logic still holds in modern times, Dupuy examines the 2000 US election, in which the result came down to a few hundred ballots in Florida. In that election, “for once, each person had the sense that his or her vote actually counted.” However, the reality was far more complicated, since “the point at which the democratic promise comes closest to being fulfilled is also, by logical necessity, the one at which the arbitrariness of the voting process must seem to a neutral observer to reach its height.” This is because “the movement of an almost unimaginably small number of votes from one column to the other is liable to have a major impact, amplified by the presence of unavoidable errors in counting — the ‘noise’ in the system.” What comes to the fore in close votes, that is, is not the decisive impact of individuals but an irresolvable indeterminacy.
In 2000, the random “noise” took the form of the “chads,” “hanging,” “dimpled,” and “pregnant,” that plagued the Florida vote count. In 2020, it is evident in the “irregularities” alleged by the Trump campaign and Republican observers, but also in a variety of “mundane infrastructure glitches” recently reported on in the New York Times, including a ballot counting machine that was jammed by hand sanitizer. Such incidents, of course, also occur in elections with a decisive victor, but only become politically significant in the case of narrow victory margins. According to Dupuy, this is why the belief that individuals “wield extraordinary power” in tight elections “is an illusion.” On the contrary, in such instances “the voting procedure [is] so sensitive to the noise in the system as to be indistinguishable from the flipping of a coin.” In the end, randomness outweighs deliberation.
When an election comes down to a margin so narrow that “noise” prevails over rational determination of collective preference, we are faced with the equivalent of ancient societies drawing lots to determine their fate. After all, “a cause so small as to be unknowable, yet large enough to determine a matter of surpassing importance to the future of the world, is the very definition of chance.” In the end, then, the 2000 election (and the current one) “amounted to flipping a coin on a vast scale — the coin spinning about in the air for a very long time, until finally it fell to the ground, deciding the undecidable.” And this, far from an aberration, is the point, according to Dupuy’s account: as he writes, “democracy never so much resembles what it aspires to be as when it is indistinguishable from a gigantic lottery.” Far from discrediting the electoral process, Dupuy argues, such interventions of chance are essential to its perpetuation.
After the Supreme Court allowed George W. Bush to enter the White House in 2000, pundits and politicians “reaffirm[ed] faith — faith in the abiding power of the Constitution, faith in the rule of law and the greatness of a system that puts the law above men.” According to Dupuy, the system retained this status not in spite of the hanging chads and related causes of indeterminacy, but in part because of them. The final arbitrariness of the result, which despite the controversy and litigation around it ultimately had the same practical consequence as a landslide victory, proved that the electoral process can generate outcomes that transcend the sum of individual preferences. It is not ultimately the voters that decide: rather, the system abstracts the result from all aggregated choices through operations that in some cases may seem patently arbitrary and irrational.
Dupuy notes that US democracy includes mechanisms that formalize this separation between aggregated preferences and final outcomes, most notably the Electoral College. In both 2000 and 2016, of course, the popular vote and electoral vote diverged, reminding us that convergence of the popular will with the final result is not a necessary outcome. As Dupuy notes, seeing this situation as irrational is not totally incorrect, but the assumption that the system’s legitimacy derives from its rationality is mistaken. As he writes, “[p]ermitting the popular vote and the vote of the Electoral College to diverge appears to be a scandalous defect of this system if one believes that voting is a rational procedure meant to reveal the general will. It takes on a quite different aspect, however, if one conceives of it as a way of referring the decision to an authority that transcends the preferences expressed by individual voters — a substitute for fate, as it were.” The same logic may apply to any arbitrary-seeming final result that emerges from an undecidably close contest.
Viewed from another perspective, this logic is less counterintuitive than it might seem. Deciding a particular result is erroneous or capricious can perpetuate faith in the electoral system by reinforcing the basic assumption that the process is essentially fair and only contingently flawed. We do not have to go back to 2000 to find a clear illustration of this point. The Democrats’ reaction to Trump’s victory in 2016 points in the same direction. The party and its supporters have asserted over and over that Trump’s victory was illegitimate because of foreign interference, “fake news,” and social media manipulation. But they also told supporters there was only one response: “vote.”
In a more extreme example, ‘Remainers’ similarly alleged that the Brexit referendum was fraudulent, manipulated, and so on, but their proposed remedy was — another referendum.
Recent ‘civil war’ fear mongers in the US, while their predictions were hyperbolic, were correct to identify the problem that any political system must solve: preventing the “war of all against all” that threatens to dissolve a society into irreconcilable factions — or at least, in the contemporary context, displacing this war onto the symbolic realm of televised debates and social media disputes. But their diagnosis of the threats to democracy falsely assumed that an election whose results some view as illegitimate will cast a pall of illegitimacy on the whole system — the necessary prerequisite to civil war. In fact, a situation where many view a particular winner as illegitimate may well prop up the credibility of the system as a whole. Both the Bush and Trump administrations have made that clear, and there’s no good reason to think the next four years will be all that different.