Electoral Vulnerabilities in the United States: Past, Present, and Future
Working Paper No.:  131
Date Published:  2017-01-30


Charles Stewart III, Massachusetts Institute of Technology


A surprising theme of the American presidential election in 2016 was that of election integrity.

Despite the fact that election administrators have worked long hours and spent billions of dollars

since the disputed presidential election of 2000 to improve elections, and despite a growing body

of scholarly work that documents an improvement in election performance since then, the

American public was thrown into a panic over the possibility that the 2016 election would be a


Unfortunately, the 2016 election fit a pattern that has been emerging over the past two

decades, in which the integrity of election operations themselves have been called into question.

In 2016, this pattern was manifest most notably highlighted in charges that Russian interests

“hacked” the presidential election, but it also through charges throughout the fall by Donald

Trump that Hillary Clinton was “rigging” the election, and through post-election alarm bells rung

by Green Party candidate Jill Stein over computerized voting equipment. Even before the

general election season had begun, presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Trump had

regularly leveled charges against party insiders that they were stacking the decks against their

campaigns in the primaries, through the design of the process and actions taken to advantage

other candidates.

The purpose of this paper is to put the issues of election integrity that arose in 2016 in

context, and to suggest along the way how it is that one should be sanguine about the

administration of elections in the United States. First, I identify four integrity-related themes that

have arisen in American elections since the 2000 presidential election. Second, I briefly discuss

what it means to assess the health of the American electoral system, to help confine the scope of

this article. Third, I provide two frameworks for assessing the health of the election system, one

that takes the perspective of a typical voter, and the other that focuses on the flow of information

conveyed in an election. In each of these assessments, I make reference to research conducted

over the past two decades that inform our assessment of the health of the election process. I

conclude by bringing this discussion back to the specific case of 2016, providing a preliminary

assessment of the health of the election process in the most recent federal election.


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