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Vote Of Confidence: Can Our Civic Institutions Restore Public Trust?

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A poll worker prepares a voting machine before the South Carolina primary. The recent hacking of the Democratic Party databases has raised questions about potential issues with voting systems.
Sean Rayford/Getty Images
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callie_commentary_120516.mp3

You couldn’t tell Don Quixote that his was a hopeless quest, and you can’t tell Jill Stein either. By their very nature, the ardent windmill tilters are oblivious to what others think. But the Man from La Mancha’s quest was about righting an unrightable wrong. Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein’s push for recounts in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania highlights something else — an overwhelming lack of public trust in formerly trusted civic institutions. Distrust is so widespread that Stein’s Kickstarter recount fundraiser topped her initial $2.5-million request in less than 24 hours. A few days later, she’d raised nearly $7 million.

Sure, there are sore losers among the eager donors — voters who have yet to accept President-elect Donald Trump’s win. They point to Hillary Clinton’s 2.5-million popular vote lead and question the narrowness of his 100,000-vote victories in these three battleground states. But it’s not just that many of the recount donors believe Stein’s claims of voting-machine hacking. Many have lingering suspicions about the institutions that were supposed to guarantee the authenticity of the overall process. In an opinion piece called “Donald Trump and a World of Distrust,” social anthropologist Janine Wedel cites a long-term Gallup survey that measured several decades of “declining trust in 12-17 institutions including banks, Congress, schools, the press, churches, and the presidency.” The George Mason University professor says the distrust trend is worldwide and that “people confronting complex political and economic issues do not always direct their anger at the proper target.”

Be that as it may, there’s no question that 2016's scorched earth presidential campaign left many unsettled by the acknowledged Russian hacking, the theft of DNC voicemails, and the pre-election FBI email investigation, not to mention the poll-obsessed media, which confidently predicted a Clinton victory. In the Huffington Post, Amy Siskind, president of The New Agenda, spoke for many, asking, "How can we trust that this election was fair?”

Unwittingly, Trump has helped boost enthusiasm for the recounts. In a recent tweet, the president-elect claimed, “In addition to winning the electoral college in a landslide, I won the popular vote, if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.”  That claim was immediately debunked, but not before stirring further doubts.

Stein’s recount effort motivated a previously reluctant Clinton to support the recount process. But experts have said there is little evidence of hacked results, and they predict nothing will change as a result of the recounts. That’s not to say they won’t show a voter gap that may narrow or expand slightly, but it won’t be significant. Wedel describes trust as “the lifeblood of a thriving society.” Sadly, I don’t believe that the recounts will offer the “emergency transfusion” needed to rebuild that public trust.

Wisconsin will announce its recount results mid-month; the other states's results may come soon after. Meanwhile, I can’t help thinking about the old carpenter’s mantra — measure twice, cut once. Emphasis on the twice-repeated process. It’s not a guarantee of a perfect outcome, but it definitely reduces the risk of failure and inspires confidence — the kind of confidence that inspires, well, trust.

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