You wouldn’t know it from social media, but most Americans believe that Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election and Joe Biden won in 2020. They are correct: There has not been a stolen presidential election in America in living memory. Our electoral system is not perfect, but it works. Instead of decrying the whole edifice as fraudulent, people in positions of authority should work to fix those flaws that remain and build up trust in this most important of democratic institutions.

Disappointed partisans try their best to pretend that the system is deeply flawed. In February 2021, shortly after Joe Biden's inauguration, one-third of respondents told AP-NORC pollsters that they did not believe Biden was “legitimately elected” to the White House. Perhaps that is not all that surprising: Shortly after Trump’s election in 2016, more than one-sixth said that his election was illegitimate, too, according to Gallup.

Sadly, this is nothing new. In July 2001, 18% said that George W. Bush had “stolen” the election the year before, and 33% said he had “won on a technicality.” In 2009, 26% of voters told the left-leaning Public Policy Polling that ACORN had stolen the election for Barack Obama.

Crying foul on elections is not an especially modern phenomenon. Andrew Jackson’s supporters invented the idea of a popular vote in 1824, when their candidate won a plurality of votes in both the electoral and popular contests but still lost the contingent election in the House of Representatives. Jacksonians complained about the “corrupt bargain” for the next four years. After Rutherford Hayes beat Samuel Tilden in 1876, Democrats called the president “Rutherfraud” (the 19th-century version of “Drumpf”) and launched tedious investigations in Congress that revealed more fraud from their side than from Republicans.

The partisans of 1876 hit upon probably the most clearly fraudulent election in our history, one that came at the tail end of the most politically divisive era since the Revolution. But even then, as congressional investigations showed, the cheating in Southern elections was so rampant on both sides that it was impossible to say which candidate had fairly won. Democrats used the domestic terror of the Ku Klux Klan to keep black men away from the polls, while Republicans used the machinery of government to make up for that with some “creative” vote-counting.

It was not a fair election in the South, and partisans on both sides were justly aggrieved. The growing disenfranchisement of black Southerners that followed 1876 calls into doubt any electoral result in which the Democrat depended on the “solid South” to win the White House, including Woodrow Wilson’s narrow reelection victory in 1916. But it has been a long time since those conditions prevailed in the South or anywhere else in America. Our modern complaints about voter access or voter fraud are marginal compared to the level of chicanery and outright violence that used to sway national elections.

Richard Hofstadter famously called our penchant for conspiracy “the paranoid style in American politics” and tried to paint it as a right-wing phenomenon. But like many species of political madness, it is a bipartisan malady, brought on by the unbearable agony of having lost an election. Left and Right, populist and establishment: Each has a contingent of enthusiastic partisans who find it all too easy to believe that the only way their views could be rejected by the electorate is through fraud.

A lot of this is sour grapes, the sort of thing that has been around forever in politics. It calls to mind a children’s whiffle ball game, in which the only two outcomes any child claims are “we won” or “they cheated.” When restricted to those irreconcilable party loyalists, such complaints are tolerable. A solid liberal democracy can withstand the insults of a marginal few.

Now, though, we have the last two elections’ losers going around the country claiming they were cheated. Hillary Clinton has maintained this fiction since the moment she lost, repeating often what she said in a memorable 2019 speech, that “you can run the best campaign, you can even become the nominee, and you can have the election stolen from you.” Trump went beyond this, telling supporters on Jan. 6, 2021, that they had just seen “the most corrupt election in the history, maybe of the world,” and that “if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.” In this, Clinton and Trump are two sides of the same coin.

That cynical approach to electoral loss might soothe these candidates’ egos, but it does the country a disservice. When only online extremists are imagining conspiracies, normal people will ignore it. When the candidates themselves cry out that there was large-scale fraud, it makes it more believable and acceptable to the average voter. In this, Clinton and Trump have done what Al Gore, John Kerry, John McCain, and Mitt Romney knew was wrong: degrading trust in the American electoral system rather than admitting that they lost.

Admitting defeat was just one part of what makes the American voting system work. Since the Civil War, widespread use of secret ballots made people trust a system that used to be dominated by overt partisan pressures. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 made sure that everyone had the right to such a ballot, regardless of race. These were important steps toward realizing the vision of a government being fairly chosen by the people. Compared to where we began, America has made tremendous strides, and the voters are right to trust in the system.

This is borne out time and again when anyone takes the trouble to look into claims of fraud or corruption in the system. Georgia’s voting laws are an example of both sides exaggerating the problems instead of fixing those that do exist. Democratic activists have decried Georgia’s voter roll purges for years, calling them racist and disenfranchising. But when the Atlanta Journal-Constitution actually investigated the matter in 2020, it found that nearly all removals were entirely routine — most often because the voter moved out of the jurisdiction. Far from being racist, the investigation found that whites were slightly more likely than black voters to have their names removed from the rolls.

In the 2020 election, Georgia’s voting system also came under attack from the Right, with accusations of outright fraud in the counting of presidential ballots there. But again, an investigation found little evidence of such a conspiracy, with the hand recount being almost exactly the same as the machine count, and nowhere near enough to affect Joe Biden’s 12,000-vote victory there. After counting over 525,000 paper ballots from Fulton County, the total shifted (in favor of Trump) by 345 votes. Even this disparity is too high, but it appeared, according to investigators, to be more human error than deliberate ploy.

There is a wide swath of the electorate that would be open to minor changes to make the vote both more secure and more accessible. Americans, by and large, take voter fraud seriously, and they oppose making voting too onerous. But as Biden calls resistance to his voting law plans “Jim Crow on steroids,” Trump insists that his victory was stolen by big-city Democratic machines, and Clinton rambles on about Russian collusion, all of the room for bipartisan reform is squeezed out by hyperpartisan tribalism.

What should responsible government leaders do instead? Requiring identification to vote is a broadly popular position. According to a Monmouth University poll last year, 80% support the idea, including 62% of Democrats. That’s unsurprising: Americans need to show ID all the time for transactions of far less importance. Elected Democrats pretend this would reimpose the worst of Jim Crow, but Democratic voters mostly think it is a good idea — as do independents and Republicans.

The same poll found that most voters think getting to the polls on Election Day should be made easier. While just 50% thought mail-in voting should be expanded, 71% said in-person voting should be made easier. Again, that makes sense — most voters can see that the safeguards around the secret ballot are much stronger in an in-person polling place. They don’t want to weaken those safeguards, just expand access to them.

All of this has the makings of a fair compromise that many state legislatures could endorse. Expand in-person early voting, tighten up the safeguards on mail voting, and require a government-issued ID to cast a ballot. These are common-sense recommendations that would increase access and security at the ballot box.

Instead, we have national leaders pretending that our voting system is as fraudulent as that of Russia, if not North Korea. It’s a cynical ploy to rile up the base and do some fundraising along the way. But what seems like a no-cost way to rally support is turning out to be more corrosive to faith in our electoral system than anything we have seen in a long time.

Kyle Sammin is editor-at-large at Broad + Liberty and the co-host of the Conservative Minds podcast. Follow him on Twitter @KyleSammin.