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Democratic and Republican voters share a mistrust in the electoral process

Tony Dokoupil looks into election mistrust
Americans on both sides of the political aisle share mistrust in the electoral process 06:32

The 2020 election was — in the words of former President Trump's own department of homeland security — "the most secure in American history."

But ahead of that vote, nearly 60% of all Americans said they lacked confidence in the honesty of U.S. elections, according to a Gallup poll from earlier that year. 

One year later, two-thirds of all Americans believe U.S. democracy is threatened, according to a CBS News poll. That crisis of trust is bigger than just one party — both Republican and Democratic voters have expressed doubt in the system.

As people stormed the Capitol last year, Sharon Story and her husband Victor didn't follow the crowd inside.

The grandmother of 10, who had driven all the way from Gaffney, South Carolina, to be there, firmly believes that the American democracy she used to teach about in her sixth grade classroom is on the edge of collapse.

"I think if they push people too far against the wall, especially the Southerners, they're not gonna take it," Story said when asked if she thought a civil war was possible in her lifetime.

And it's not just Story who worries that. University of California at San Diego political science professor Barbara F. Walter says in her book "How Civil Wars Start," when it comes to actual fighting, "we are closer to civil war than any of us would like to believe."

Story is also "not at all" confident that the 2020 election was the most secure in American history.

That feeling of fraud — if only a feeling — is what led so many to Washington, D.C., on January 6, 2021, to, in their minds, defend democracy.

The atmosphere at the Capitol riot was "patriotic, unity, hope," Story said.

"I feel upset," Story said, when asked how she reacts to others describing January 6 as a riot or an insurrection.

Her belief that the election was stolen is shared by millions, and it doesn't seem like anything or anybody can restore their faith.

"Not even Republicans," Story said of who she trusts. "Even Fox News, who we used to have respect for, you know, seems to let us down and called the election early."

What's particularly dangerous about this moment, though, according to Harvard professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt in their book "How Democracies Die" is that these feelings of mistrust exist across party lines, albeit for very different reasons.

Alesha Sedasey, recalling how she felt watching Bernie Sanders lose to Hillary Clinton in the 2016 primary, said, "That was when I lost a good amount of my faith in the system.

Sedasey is a bartender in Brooklyn, New York, who believes the will of the voters was thwarted in 2016 by superdelegates in the primary and again by the Electoral College in the general election.

"I don't think that any part of the election had democracy fulfilled," Sedasey said. "I mean, Trump didn't get the majority of votes, so how is that democracy, right?"

While Sedasey's doubts in the system are different from those expressed at the Capitol last year, the effect is very much the same.

"It's hard to trust Congress," Sedasey said.

Despite their differences, both Sedasey and Story see themselves as defenders of the same underlying principles — they both see themselves as patriots.

"I think that I am a patriot because I'm fighting for what our constitutional rights are supposed to be and what this country says it is," Sedasey said.

And both say they'll continue to vote and even organize for their side.

"I still participate in it because I have faith that there is the possibility for change," Sedasey said.

"I vote, because I always vote, but I don't know that I'll trust 'em," Story said.

So, regardless of who wins in 2024, many voters — maybe even most — could once again doubt the results, raising the question of how our republic can withstand such a crisis.

"I'm very concerned," Story said. "I think we're at a pivotal point. I think that good people can't stand by and do nothing anymore."

When asked if the U.S. would be able to keep its record as the longest continuously operating democracy, Sedasey replied, "All empires fall."

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