Matt Luceen didn’t vote for former President Donald Trump in 2020, but he came to Washington last week to protest President Biden’s inauguration, saying the election was flawed.
Mr. Luceen, a supporter of Sen. Bernard Sanders, said he toted signs that read “COUNT OUR VOTES BY HAND,” and “End the charade.”
“We don’t ever really put the paper into piles and count them by hand anymore,” the 34-year-old computer programmer said. “We just trust the machines, and we shouldn’t because we have documented proof that these machines are vulnerable.”
While Mr. Trump and his supporters have been explosively vocal about their distrust of the election system, discontent runs through a broad swath of voters from across the political spectrum.
In 2016, it was Democrats complaining that the election had been tainted by Russian interference. Two years later, the party complained that Stacey Abrams had been denied the Georgia governorship because of shenanigans with voting rolls.
Ms. Abrams never conceded, and Democrats — who took control of the U.S. House in those 2018 elections — made her cause a rallying cry, vowing to repair elections.
In 2020, it was Mr. Trump sowing complaints early and often, arguing mail-in voting was fraud, suggesting that votes were being manufactured for his opponent, and suggesting some vote-counting systems were siphoning his votes away while building the totals for Mr. Biden.
But Democrats had their own complaints, too. Mr. Luceen feels the nomination was stolen from Mr. Sanders last year — and, he believes, in 2016, too.
“I don’t think Trump is being honest, but I do think his voters may have been disenfranchised, but there is no way to prove it because we are not counting the paper,” he said. “We trust whatever is coming out of the machines.”
In Congress, the Democratic candidate for Iowa’s 2nd District is challenging her loss, and has asked the House to overturn the result, unseat the Republican winner and install her instead.
In New York, meanwhile, the 22nd Congressional District still doesn’t have a winner, two-and-a-half months after Election Day. The Republican holds a lead, but a state judge has ordered more study of ballots that were counted and rejected.
Polling suggests many in both parties are skeptical of how votes are tallied, though the depths of distrust often turn on whether their candidates emerged victorious.
Heading into the 2016 vote, 84% of Democrats had confidence in the system. After Mr. Trump won the presidential race t that year, Democrats who trusted the results fell to 65%, according to Morning Consult.
By contrast, just 56% of Republicans had confidence heading into Election Day. But that number jumped to 73% after Mr. Trump’s win.
Two weeks after the 2020 vote, only 44% of Americans told Monmouth University Polling Institute they were “very confident” the election was fair and accurate. Among Republicans, that was just 22%.
“There is mistrust in elections but Democrats and Republicans have different worries,” said Darrell West, vice president of governance studies at the Brookings Institution.
“Democrats think voter suppression is the real problem while Republicans fear that mail ballots encourage fraud,” Mr. West said. “Since there is more evidence that voter suppression is a problem, Democrats will beef up voting rights enforcement and encourage states to keep early voting and mail ballot options.”
“The one thing both parties agree on is election security and keeping foreign agents from disrupting electoral infrastructure,” he said.
Beyond that common concern, however, a chasm has opened up between Democrats and Republicans when it comes to voting.
Democrats say there are too many restrictions. They want easier registration, longer voting periods and extensions of the right to vote to felons and, in some cases, those under age 18.
For Republicans, voter integrity is the priority. They point to accounts of noncitizens casting ballots, and to counties and districts where there are more voters registered than the census estimates could be possible.
Republicans say the answers lie in cleaner voting rolls and stricter ID checks. Democrats say those tactics amount to voter suppression and are designed to discourage minorities and poor people from voting.
After the 2018 Georgia election, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi put election reforms at the top of her list of legislative priorities.
The effort didn’t go anywhere under split control of Congress, but now that Democrats control both chambers, she’s more optimistic.
“It is a priority for us,” she told reporters last week. “This is really central to the integrity of our government.”
The Democratic-controlled Senate announced Mrs. Pelosi’s bill is a top priority.
Though out of Washington for now, Mr. Trump also plans to focus on elections. He’ll push to tighten the rules and undo many of the coronavirus laws that eased rules on submitting ballots and getting witnesses during the pandemic.
“You’re going to see him emerge as the nation’s leader on ballot voting integrity,” said Trump adviser Jason Miller on “Just the News” on Thursday.
He said Congress won’t address meaningful changes while Democrats are in charge, so Mr. Trump will focus on states with Republican legislatures.
“We’re going to start ramping up here, not immediately … we’ll give them a little bit of a transition period. But this is critical,” Mr. Miller said.
It remains to be seen what Mr. Biden plans to do.
A spokesperson did not respond to an email seeking comment.
At the heart of the debate over elections is a philosophical divide. One side is arguing for the sanctity of Election Day, where exceptions like mail-in balloting are rare. The other side says wants a more expansive voting season, with ballots available through the mail and able to be counted days after the actual Election Day.
The pandemic tipped the scales toward that latter view.
Logan Churchwell of the Public Interest Legal Foundation, which pushes for voter integrity measures, said Mr. Biden could restore trust in the voting system by rolling back the pandemic changes.
“The American experiment has worked this long because we traditionally saw where the chips fell on election night. The further we stray from Election Day and make the act of voting a private affair away from our fellow citizens, distrust will spiral,” Mr. Churchwell said.