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Voters see democracy in peril, but saving it isn’t a priority


Mail ballots are being prepared in Phoenix on Oct. 7, 2022.

By Nick Corasaniti, Michael C. Bender, Ruth Igielnik and Kristen Bayrakdarian


Voters overwhelmingly believe American democracy is under threat, but seem remarkably apathetic about that danger, with few calling it the nation’s most pressing problem, according to a New York Times/Siena College poll.


In fact, more than one-third of independent voters and a smaller but noteworthy contingent of Democrats said they were open to supporting candidates who reject the legitimacy of the 2020 election, as they assigned greater urgency to their concerns about the economy than to fears about the fate of the country’s political system.


The doubts about elections that have infected American politics since the 2020 contest show every sign of persisting well into the future, the poll suggested: Twenty-eight percent of all voters, including 41% of Republicans, said they had little to no faith in the accuracy of this year’s midterm elections.


Political disagreements appear to be seeping into the fabric of everyday life. Fourteen percent of voters said political views revealed a lot about whether someone is a good person, while 34% said it revealed a little. Nearly 1 in 5 said political disagreements had hurt relationships with friends or family.


“I do agree that the biggest threat is survival of our democracy, but it’s the divisiveness that is creating this threat,” said Ben Johnson, 33, a filmmaker from New Orleans and a Democrat. “It feels like on both sides, people aren’t agreeing on facts anymore. We can’t meet in the middle if we can’t agree on simple facts. You’re not going to be able to move forward and continue as a country if you can’t agree on facts.”


The poll showed that voters filtered their faith in democracy through a deeply partisan lens. A majority of voters in both parties identified the opposing party as a “major threat to democracy.”


Most Republicans said the dangers included President Joe Biden, the mainstream media, the federal government and voting by mail. Most Democrats named former President Donald Trump, while large shares of the party’s voters also said the Supreme Court and the Electoral College were threats to democracy.


Seventy-one percent of all voters said democracy was at risk — but just 7% identified that as the most important problem facing the country.


These ostensibly conflicting views — that voters could be so deeply suspicious of one another and of the bedrock institutions of American democracy, while also expressing little urgency to address those concerns — may in part reflect long-standing frustrations and cynicism toward government.


Still, among voters who saw democracy as under threat, the vast majority, 81%, thought the country could fix the problem by using existing laws and institutions, rather than by going “outside the law,” according to the poll. Those who said violence would be necessary were a small minority.


“If we’re just talking about freedom, having freedom, and that we get to have a say in our choices, then I think we still have that,” said Audra Janes, 37, a Republican from Garnavillo, Iowa. She added, “I think that we need to stop trying to rewrite the Constitution and just reread it.”


Overall, voters’ broader frustration with a political system that many view as dangerously divided and corrupt has left them pessimistic that the country is capable of coming together to solve its problems, no matter which party wins in November.


The poll’s findings reinforce the idea that for many Americans, this year’s midterm elections will be largely defined by rising inflation and other economic woes — leaving threats to the country’s democratic institutions lurking in the back of voters’ minds.


The deep distrust of elections, especially among Republicans, points to lingering fallout from the lies and conspiracy theories surrounding the 2020 election that have been fueled by Trump and his supporters.


Days after early voting began, about 4 in 10 Republican voters said they did not trust that the 2022 results would be accurate — even though polls show their party is favored to win control of the House and could also take back the Senate.


Thirteen percent of Democrats and 26% of independents shared a similar mistrust of this year’s eventual results.


Republican voters’ suspicions about the electoral process were underscored by their deep mistrust of mail ballots. While 72% of Democrats and 48% of independents said voting by mail presented no threat at all to democracy, 55% of Republicans called the practice a major danger.


“I just don’t believe in the people who tally it,” Teresa Fogt, 61, a Republican from Sidney, Ohio, said of election officials, arguing that the 2020 election was rigged and that Democrats would try to steal other offices this year.


She added: “It’s hard for me to believe that more of America’s citizens would vote for Joe Biden than Donald Trump. Joe Biden is an idiot. I don’t know him personally, and he probably is a good person, but as a president, he’s an idiot.”


Democratic voters cited the economy and inflation as their top concerns, prioritizing them over democracy and other issues such as abortion access. Some, however, viewed the problems as going hand in hand.


“What the issue is, where you’re seeing the anger, is the shrinkage of the middle class,” said Jeffrey Valfer, 49, a Democrat from Patchogue, New York. He added: “Once you delve into really addressing whatever we need to do to rebuild the middle class of this country, then that should fix a lot of the issues that you’re seeing. It should fix a lot of concerns about our democracy.”


Independent voters were far more worried about issues other than democracy, and some were willing to look past candidates’ election-denying stances if their views aligned on other policies.


“I don’t believe that their opinion on whether or not the election was quote-unquote stolen is important,” said Michael Sprang, 47, a senior electronics technician and independent from Jackson, Michigan. “I’m far more concerned about their stance on policies that actually matter.”


He added: “I’m more concerned about how you feel about the Second Amendment. How do you feel about the First Amendment? How do you feel about the state of the economy?”


The Times/Siena survey of 792 registered voters nationwide was conducted by telephone using live operators from Oct. 9 to Oct. 12, 2022. The margin of sampling error among registered voters is plus or minus 4.0 percentage points.


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