As voting gets underway in the Nov. 8 midterm election, most Washington voters are anxious or pessimistic about the future of democracy in the U.S., according to a new statewide poll.
Just 13% in the survey sponsored by The Seattle Times and partners describe U.S. democracy as “strong and resilient.” An additional 40% say it’s “holding firm but being threatened” and 39% say it’s “weakening and may collapse.”
The results of the latest WA Poll reflect the partisan crevasse in a polarized country, nearly two years after supporters of then-President Donald Trump, egged on by his false claims the 2020 election was stolen, stormed the U.S. Capitol trying to halt certification of Joe Biden’s win.
Most Democrats in the poll — 53% — say democracy is holding firm but threatened, with 23% saying it’s weakening and may collapse and 19% describing it as strong and resilient.
Republicans are gloomier, with 56% agreeing democracy may be headed for collapse, 26% saying it’s threatened but holding firm and just 10% calling it strong and resilient.
Independents also lean pessimistic, with 43% saying democracy may fail, compared with 38% who said it is merely threatened, and 9% rating it strong.
Older voters are far more concerned about the current state of U.S. democracy, with just 1% or those over 65 years old describing it as strong, compared with 21% of those 18 to 34 years old.
The findings in Washington mirror somber trends in recent national polling.
Just 9% of U.S. adults believe democracy is working “extremely” or “very well,” while 52% say it’s not working well, according to a poll released last week by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.
The AP poll found 68% of Republicans now say American democracy is not working well — a switch from two years ago, with Trump in the White House, when 32% felt that way. Meanwhile, since Biden’s win, the share of Democrats with bleak views of how democracy is functioning dropped from 65% two years ago to 40% now.
Political tribalism increasingly colors people’s confidence in democratic elections, according to Jake Grumbach, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Washington, the author of a book showing how democracy has been weakened in many states due to partisan gerrymandering and voting restrictions.
While almost everybody supports democratic ideals like free and fair elections and peaceful transfers of power in principle, “in practice most of us tend to be motivated by outcomes rather than the rules of the game,” Grumbach said in an email. “In other words, most people tend to vote for their political party or in support of their goals on social or economic issues rather than to protect democracy. What that means is that oftentimes ideas like ‘democracy,’ ‘obeying the Constitution,’ or ‘free and fair elections’ are code for ‘my party wins’ or ‘things that benefit me.'”
More Democrats expressed frustration with the state of U.S. democracy after the 2016 election upset that put Trump in the White House. With Hillary Clinton’s quick concession, the vast majority of her supporters surveyed just after the election accepted Trump as the legitimate president, according to a November 2016 Gallup Poll. Still, some prominent Democrats during Trump’s term labeled him illegitimate or suggested that election was not on the level, citing Russian election interference.
By contrast, Trump refused to accept his defeat and has obsessively sought to subvert the 2020 election results — efforts that continue to this day. His influence on the Republican Party is reflected in the percentages of GOP voters who still deny Biden’s win. Just 22% of Republicans in Washington agreed Biden definitely won the election, according to a WA Poll in July.
Meanwhile, a touring circuit of election denying speakers had made the rounds in Washington and across the country, continuing to spread false and unsubstantiated claims about voting machines and mail ballots, further eroding trust in the system.
“This conspiracy has led to high rates of Republican voters believing that U.S. democracy is broken. Ironically, it is this conspiracy that is one of the greatest contemporary threats to democracy and the rule of law,” Grumbach said.
He cited the increased potential for “electoral subversion,” in which officials in some states attempt to hand Electoral College votes to a candidate who doesn’t win the most votes.
“This would cause a constitutional crisis and fundamentally break the United States as a democratic republic,” Grumbach said.
Despite continuing attacks by Trump and his allies on mail ballots, the WA Poll found support for vote-by-mail across the political spectrum.
More than two-thirds of poll respondents said more states should conduct vote-by-mail elections like in Washington and Oregon; that included 89% of Democrats and 60% of independents. Republicans were less enthusiastic, but 45% said they agreed with expanded mail voting compared with 34% who disagreed.
The WA Poll is sponsored by The Seattle Times, KING 5, the University of Washington’s Center for an Informed Public and Washington State University’s Murrow College of Communication. The questions about democracy included responses from 719 registered voters, contacted by SurveyUSA between Oct. 14 and 19, and have a credibility interval of plus or minus 4.5 percentage points.
More poll results will be released in the coming days on subjects including abortion, other top issues for voters, and whether Joe Biden and Donald Trump should run for office again.