American Democracy on the Eve of the 2020 Election 
Bright Line Watch October 2020 surveys

As the 2020 election approach­es, news stories with impli­ca­tions for U.S. democracy have dropped at a dizzying rate. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg died and President Trump quickly announced he would seek to confirm a replace­ment “without delay.” The New York Times published new details of Trump’s tax and financial history. The country endured a pres­i­den­tial debate called the “worst in living memory” in which the president fre­quent­ly refused to let his opponent speak unin­ter­rupt­ed, failed to condemn white suprema­cist groups when asked to do so, falsely attacked the integrity of the election, and refused to commit to accepting the election’s result if he lost. Then the country learned that President Trump had tested positive for the novel coro­n­avirus along with numerous other executive branch staff and elected officials who attended a White House event announc­ing the president’s Supreme Court nominee, Judge Amy Coney Barrett. 

In this context, Bright Line Watch fielded parallel surveys of political science experts and of a rep­re­sen­ta­tive sample of Americans from October 5–16. As in previous surveys, we asked each group to assess the quality of U.S. democracy overall and to rate per­for­mance on 30 distinct demo­c­ra­t­ic prin­ci­ples. For this pre-election survey, we also asked our experts to rate the like­li­hood of 28 scenarios related to the November election that could produce political crises and asked our public sample questions about the legit­i­ma­cy of different election results, their con­fi­dence votes will be counted fairly, their beliefs about voter fraud, and their will­ing­ness to tolerate political violence. 

We report a number of key findings below:

  • Our expert respon­dents antic­i­pate a flood of online mis­in­for­ma­tion and poten­tial­ly desta­bi­liz­ing rhetoric from President Trump during and after November 3. They also see sub­stan­tial risks of other scenarios that could threaten the election, including potential dys­func­tion in the mechanics of casting and counting votes, the Electoral College, and the res­o­lu­tion of electoral disputes.
  • Our experts rate President Trump’s statement that the 2020 election should be delayed and his refusal to commit to a peaceful transfer of power as the most important and abnormal of the 169 events they have rated over the course of his presidency.
  • Citizens are generally confident their votes will be counted as intended at the local level and as voters intend in their states but somewhat less confident in the process at the national level.
  • Only 44% of Trump sup­port­ers say they would regard a Biden victory as legit­i­mate and only 34% of Trump opponents said they would view a Trump victory as legitimate.
  • Both sup­port­ers and opponents of President Trump recognize that the election result may not be clear on November 3. Majorities of both groups say they are prepared to recognize outcomes that differ from the initial count on Election Night as legitimate.
  • Trump’s sup­port­ers and opponents have starkly different beliefs about the preva­lence of voter fraud in U.S. elections.
  • Most Americans, regard­less of political affil­i­a­tion, reject the use of violence to advance political goals, but sub­stan­tial minori­ties are willing to condone violence and incivility.
  • Americans’ con­fi­dence that their gov­ern­ment protects them from political violence and guar­an­tees their right to peaceful protest have declined since March.

We present the results from our surveys in two parts. First, we offer forward-looking results that describe how our expert and public respon­dents view the election ahead — expert ratings of the like­li­hood of various nightmare scenarios and public con­fi­dence that the election will be pro­ce­du­ral­ly fair and free of fraud and violence. We then examine how public and expert assess­ments of the state of U.S. democracy changed since prior surveys and how our experts judge the impor­tance and normality of recent events.

Nightmare scenarios

In recent months, experts and scholars have warned of scenarios in which the election creates a crisis for demo­c­ra­t­ic insti­tu­tions. These con­tin­gen­cies have attracted sub­stan­tial attention in the news media. However, dis­cus­sion of these scenarios often proceeds without reference to their like­li­hood in either relative or absolute terms. 

We therefore asked experts to rate the like­li­hood of scenarios that have been proposed like the following:

  • The Department of Justice seeks to block the counting of mail-in ballots.”
  • One or both pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates declare victory before the race has been called by the Associated Press.”
  • President Trump is declared the loser of the election by the Associated Press but refuses to imme­di­ate­ly concede defeat.”
  • One or more legal disputes over the election are decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.”

Each expert par­tic­i­pant saw a random subset of 12 of the 28 scenarios and was asked to predict their like­li­hood from 0% to 100%. (The full set of state­ments is included in the Appendix to this report.)

The figure below reports the median prob­a­bil­i­ty estimate and the density of prob­a­bil­i­ty estimates across the available range of 0% to 100% for each scenario among our expert respon­dents. Items are listed in descend­ing order of estimated median like­li­hood. The scenarios are grouped in terciles with the density plots of the highest prob­a­bil­i­ty group con­cen­trat­ed on the right-hand side of the scale and shaded red. Those of the middle group, which are widely dispersed, are shaded orange. The longshots, which have estimates con­cen­trat­ed on the left-hand side, are shaded yellow.

We first note that median expert estimates for the scenarios, which range from 5% to 94.5%, are higher than expected, par­tic­u­lar­ly for some which seem extremely unlikely — for example, a faithless elector being pivotal (10%), an acting president being appointed under the 20th Amendment (18.5%), or millions of coun­ter­feit ballots being dis­trib­uted by mail (5%). The tendency to over­es­ti­mate the prob­a­bil­i­ty of these scenarios may reflect people’s tendency to over­es­ti­mate the like­li­hood of low-prob­a­bil­i­ty events or other psy­cho­log­i­cal factors such as avail­abil­i­ty bias. However, scholars have shown that even when experts’ forecasts are too high or too low in general, they can still reliably predict which prob­a­bil­i­ties are higher or lower than others. This ability to dis­tin­guish among relative prob­a­bil­i­ties, which is called dis­crim­i­na­tion, is what we focus on below. In that sense, our data should provide an indi­ca­tion of what risks the experts see as more or less likely than others and therefore help us to pri­or­i­tize our attention over the next few weeks.

Within the higher prob­a­bil­i­ty group, the scenarios rated as most likely concern potential problems on Election Day such a pro­lif­er­a­tion of false claims on social media about election integrity and long lines and delays at the polls. Also near the top are a cluster of items related to President Trump — that he will decry an antic­i­pat­ed “blue shift” as ballots are counted, insisting that the initial totals on Election Night were correct; that he will encourage violence and intim­i­da­tion during voting or ballot counting; and that he will refuse to concede the election after having been declared to have lost by the Associated Press. The next three items focus on the mechanics of vote counting, a challenge in an election in which unprece­dent­ed numbers of votes will be cast by mail and a subject of political con­tro­ver­sy given the President’s repeated attacks on mail balloting.

Our experts expect that the dis­qual­i­fi­ca­tion of mail-in ballots will surpass 5% in at least one state, that early vote counts (which are expected to under­rep­re­sent mail ballots) will lean Republican, and that at least one candidate will declare victory before the Associated Press regards the outcome as sealed. Finally, our expert respon­dents see it as likely that Trump would seek to negotiate legal amnesty after the election (pre­sum­ably after a loss).

Scenarios in the middle category concern other potential election admin­is­tra­tion failures; inter­ven­tions in the election process by Trump or federal actors; and legal changes or disputes related to the election. Some focus on the mechanics of voting and counting at the state level, including the potential for wide­spread closure of polling places, a delay of at least one million ballots in the mail, and vote counting delays and other state-level disputes causing at least one state to miss the “safe harbor” deadline of December 8 for selecting its pres­i­den­tial electors. Other scenarios in this set involve Trump or other federal officials deploying force during or after votes are cast and the Department of Justice seeking to block the counting of mail-in ballots. Another set of items in this set concerns potential dis­rup­tions to the Electoral College, including one or more states sending competing slates of electors, aban­don­ing the popular vote as an allo­ca­tion mechanism, a conflict between the Speaker of the House and the Vice-President over the tally of electors, or the Supreme Court deciding a dispute related to the election. 

Finally, experts rated some events as long shots, though all of them would create sub­stan­tial dis­rup­tions if realized. This set includes more dramatic chal­lenges to con­ven­tion­al practices in the Electoral College: a state changing its allo­ca­tion procedure away from winner-take-all (the current rule in 48 states) to district-by-district allo­ca­tion, a faithless elector deciding the election outcome, or Joe Biden seeking to overturn an Electoral College loss in which he wins the popular vote. This set also includes “unex­pect­ed president” scenarios in which at least one party replaces its candidate, President Trump tem­porar­i­ly turns over power to Vice-President Pence, or an unre­solved conflict over the Electoral College prompts appoint­ment of an acting president under the 20th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Finally, this low-prob­a­bil­i­ty set includes two scenarios con­cern­ing foreign inter­fer­ence in the election — Russia hacking the voter reg­is­tra­tion or election systems in one more states or millions of coun­ter­feit ballots being mailed to U.S. voters from abroad. Our experts are seemingly more pre­oc­cu­pied by domestic dys­func­tion than foreign disruption.

On the whole, our experts’ assess­ments are not reas­sur­ing. They see scenarios in which main­stream news and social media are flooded with false and irre­spon­si­ble messages, election admin­is­tra­tion failures are wide­spread, and the President refuses to concede if defeated as most likely. They also give some credence to the potential for serious legal disputes over the election and federal inter­fer­ence in the process. However, they rate sub­stan­tial foreign inter­fer­ence, a Biden campaign against the Electoral College, or an unex­pect­ed president as longer shots.

The public’s view of the election

We also asked our public respon­dents a series of questions designed to gauge their con­fi­dence in the upcoming election, their views of possible election outcomes, their beliefs about the preva­lence of voter fraud, and their will­ing­ness to tolerate or support political violence.

Confidence in the ballot and the count

We first asked public par­tic­i­pants how confident they are that everyone who is legally entitled to vote and seeks to do so will be able to do so. Overall, 74% of respon­dents indicated that they were very or somewhat confident in universal ballot access. However, approvers of President Trump were more sanguine than dis­ap­provers (85% versus 65%; see Figure A3 in Appendix).

We then asked respon­dents about their con­fi­dence that their own vote would be counted as they intend, that votes in their state would be counted as voters intend, and that votes nation­wide would be counted as voters intend. The results are illus­trat­ed in the figure below, which dis­tin­guish­es between Trump approvers and dis­ap­provers. Large majori­ties are confident that their own votes will be counted accu­rate­ly, with little dif­fer­ence between Trump sup­port­ers (82%) and opponents (78%). Confidence is slightly lower in state-level counts. However, we again see no dis­cernible dif­fer­ence across the political divide. At the national level, however, con­fi­dence drops sub­stan­tial­ly. Only 59% of Americans express con­fi­dence that votes will be counted as voters intend nation­al­ly. These numbers vary slightly by Trump approval; the President’s sup­port­ers are somewhat more skeptical (56%) than his opponents (61%).

We can gain more insight into the sources of con­fi­dence in electoral admin­is­tra­tion by con­sid­er­ing how partisan control over state gov­ern­ments affects responses. We place each state into one of three cat­e­gories: Democratic control, Republican control, or split party control according to whether the same party controls the gov­er­nor­ship as well as both chambers of the state leg­is­la­ture (or in Nebraska, the single chamber). Among our respon­dents, both Democrats and Republicans express the strongest con­fi­dence when their own party fully controls their state gov­ern­ment, less con­fi­dence under split control, and weakest con­fi­dence when the other party holds the reins. Independents, fittingly, express strongest con­fi­dence in states under split party control. Notably, con­fi­dence among Republicans is far more sensitive to partisan control than among Democrats. Among respon­dents who identify as Democrats, the con­fi­dence dif­fer­ence in a state fully con­trolled by their own party (86%) is 8 points higher than in a state fully con­trolled by Republicans (78%). Among Republicans, the cor­re­spond­ing con­fi­dence gap is 22 point — 91% in a state con­trolled by co-partisans compared to 69% in one con­trolled by Democrats. 

Looking ahead to November’s vote count, the only pres­i­den­tial bat­tle­ground state with full Democratic control is Nevada. There, Republicans’ lack of faith in Democratic electoral admin­is­tra­tion could prove polit­i­cal­ly con­tentious. By contrast, a number of bat­tle­grounds, including Florida, Georgia, Ohio, and Iowa, have full Republican control. Vote counts that are close and contested in those states, in par­tic­u­lar, may test the faith of Democratic voters in their partisan adversaries. 


To probe their will­ing­ness to accept specific election outcomes, we asked each public par­tic­i­pant in our survey whether they would regard each candidate as the rightful winner of the pres­i­den­tial election if that candidate should be declared the victor (with their order ran­dom­ized). Unsurprisingly, Trump approvers over­whelm­ing­ly said they would view him as the rightful winner if he won (95%). Similarly, those who dis­ap­prove of Trump say they would see Biden as the rightful winner if he won (93%). However, only 44% of Trump approvers say they would regard a vic­to­ri­ous Biden as the rightful winner and only 34% of Trump dis­ap­provers would see Trump as such (see Figure A4 in the Appendix). Among each group of respon­dents, the gaps in their will­ing­ness to recognize the prospect of a legit­i­mate oppo­si­tion win are vast and troubling.

We also asked par­tic­i­pants how they would regard a win by a candidate who was behind after pre­lim­i­nary vote counts reported on election night, a prospect that has worried com­men­ta­tors. On this count, responses were reas­sur­ing; solid majori­ties indicated they would regard a winner who was initially behind on election night as either somewhat or entirely legit­i­mate. Strikingly, dif­fer­ences between Trump sup­port­ers and opponents were limited as illus­trat­ed in the figure below. 

Incidence of voter fraud

President Trump has made an unprece­dent­ed stream of alle­ga­tions that the election is fraud­u­lent or rigged. These claims are false — voter fraud is van­ish­ing­ly rare — but may be affecting public opinion. We therefore asked respon­dents about the preva­lence of five different forms of fraud: voting by non-citizens, voting under a false identity, stealing or tampering with ballots, voting more than once, and voting with another person’s absentee ballot. Responses are illus­trat­ed in the figure below, which shows the per­cent­age who indicated believing that thousands of illegal votes or more are cast that way in each election. (Participants selected from the following options: “Less than ten”; “Less than a hundred”; “Hundreds”; “Thousands”; “Tens of thousands”; “Hundreds of thousands”; “A million or more”.)

The figure under­scores the vast partisan divide over voter fraud. The per­cent­age of Americans who believe that thousands of each type of illegal votes are cast in elections ranges from 41% to 50% overall. However, it never rises above 29% among those who dis­ap­prove of President Trump, whereas the per­cent­ages range from 67% (voting more than once) to 78% (non-US citizens voting, and stealing or tampering with ballots) among Americans who approve of Trump. The average gap between Trump’s sup­port­ers and opponents on these items is 50 per­cent­age points. 

Toleration for violence

Finally, we consider how the public views potential political violence, which has come to be seen as a risk during this incred­i­bly heated campaign. Borrowing from questions created by the political sci­en­tists Nathan Kalmoe and Liliana Mason, we asked our respon­dents about whether it is ever justified to harass partisan opponents online, send a threat­en­ing message to an opposing party leader, use violence to advance one’s goals (generally), use violence if the other party wins the 2020 election, or use violence if the other party uses it during the election. 

Reassuringly, a majority of each subgroup and Americans overall say it is never accept­able to engage in these behaviors. But political violence can degrade democracy without popular support. The figure shows reason for concern as non-trivial minori­ties indicate a will­ing­ness to condone inci­vil­i­ty and violence. On each item, will­ing­ness to support inci­vil­i­ty, harass­ment, and violence are higher among President Trump’s sup­port­ers than among his opponents. Notably, 23% of respon­dents, including 26% Trump approvers and 21% of opponents, condone violence in response to an opposing party’s electoral victory. These numbers skyrocket if partisan opponents use violence first. In that case, 40% of all respon­dents, including 46% of Trump sup­port­ers and 36% of Trump opponents, regard retal­ia­to­ry violence as justified at least occa­sion­al­ly. These numbers are worrisome given the potential of social media and cable news to quickly amplify cases of political violence across the country, which could both encourage copycat behavior as well as prompt support for retaliation.

Performance of democracy

As in previous surveys, we also asked our respon­dents — both expert and public — to assess the quality of U.S. democracy overall on a scale of 0 to 100 and to evaluate its per­for­mance on 30 distinct demo­c­ra­t­ic prin­ci­ples (including two new items on equal enforce­ment of the law and respect for election outcomes; see Appendix for wording). The figure below shows mean responses on the 0–100 scale for experts, the public overall,  Trump sup­port­ers, and Trump opponents. Since March 2020, the rating of every group has declined at least somewhat. The mean rating has dropped among experts from 63.4 to 60.6; from 54.1 to 53.1 among the public overall; from 61.2 to 60.4 among Trump sup­port­ers; and from 48.7 to 48.1 among opponents. Looking back further to when Bright Line Watch began its surveys in 2017, these ratings show a pattern of gradual decline. (We antic­i­pate the potential for sub­stan­tial shifts, however, in the wake of the November election.)

Performance on 30 democratic principles

Our last joint elite/public survey was fielded in March 2020, but we also surveyed our expert sample in August 2020. We therefore first consider how experts’ per­cep­tions have shifted since August. In Figure A5 in the Appendix, we show that the per­cent­age of respon­dents indi­cat­ing that the U.S. “mostly” or “fully meets” the standard in question dropped pre­cip­i­tous­ly on two items: inde­pen­dence of the judiciary (down from 61% to 46%), and the pro­tec­tion of citizens from political violence from private actors (from 53% to 34%). We under­stand the first change as a likely response to the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in September and the sub­se­quent rush by the Trump admin­is­tra­tion and Senate Republicans to put a replace­ment on the bench. Our expert respon­dents appear to regard these events as indi­cat­ing (further) politi­ciza­tion of the Court, par­tic­u­lar­ly in light of the Republican stonewall against Judge Merrick Garland’s nom­i­na­tion in 2016. 

The sharp decline in expert per­cep­tions that the gov­ern­ment effec­tive­ly prevents private actors from engaging in polit­i­cal­ly-motivated violence or intim­i­da­tion also seems linked to recent events. The period since our last survey was marked by shocking incidents of polit­i­cal­ly-motivated violence by private actors, including the alleged shootings on August 25 by self-styled militia member Kyle Rittenhouse at protests following the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, as well as a shooting in Portland, Oregon, of a pro-Trump protestor by Michael Forrest Rienoehl, who had publicly expressed support for antifa, and who was sub­se­quent­ly killed by law enforce­ment. Finally, while our survey was in the field, the FBI charged 6 men, and the state of Michigan 7 others, in a plot to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat who has come under sustained attack for her policies related to the COVID pandemic.

Taking a longer view, the figure below illus­trates changes in perceived demo­c­ra­t­ic per­for­mance between the March and October 2020 survey waves for both the expert and public samples. Over this time frame, both groups perceive a decline in pro­tec­tion for the right to peaceful protest and experts perceive a decline in pro­tec­tion from political violence (the public shift is sub­stan­tive­ly large at 6.2 per­cent­age points but just short of sta­tis­ti­cal sig­nif­i­cance). These shifts are likely a response to the massive wave of public protests that began after the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police in May and the violence that accom­pa­nied them. Though most protests were peaceful, there were in some instances rioters and looters within the ranks of pro­test­ers. In other cases, violence was initiated by coun­ter­pro­tes­tors. In addition, police and agents of the federal gov­ern­ment often met protests with violence.

The importance and normality of events in August and September 2020

As in prior surveys, we asked our experts to sep­a­rate­ly assess the impor­tance and normalcy of notable events that took place since our last report in August. Results are presented in the figures below. The events of greatest concern are those situated in the upper-right quadrant. These events are ones that experts deem highly uncon­ven­tion­al and con­se­quen­tial; these are often major depar­tures from demo­c­ra­t­ic norms. In this survey, in par­tic­u­lar, numerous events we asked about fall in this region.

The figure below therefore provides a mag­ni­fi­ca­tion of the top right sector high­light­ed in gray above, labeling the densely clustered items (labels in black) and super­im­pos­ing them against items rated in that same top right sector from previous survey waves.

Most strik­ing­ly, the October 2020 survey finds four events crowded into the furthest top right corner of the chart, where the highest combined levels of abnor­mal­i­ty and impor­tance are rep­re­sent­ed. The previous outlier events in this region were the July 2018 summit meeting in which President Trump took Russian President Vladimir Putin’s side in dis­miss­ing U.S. intel­li­gence findings that Russia had inter­fered in the 2016 U.S. election and Trump’s April 2019 phone call to Ukrainian President Volodimyr Zelensky, which even­tu­al­ly triggered Trump’s impeach­ment. In our most recent survey, two items are located northeast of the Putin summit: President Trump’s refusal to commit to a peaceful tran­si­tion of power should he lose the election and his sug­ges­tion to delay the election alto­geth­er. Trump’s baseless claims that mail-in ballots will “totally rig” the 2020 election are rated as even more important than these claims and nearly as abnormal. The figure provides a strong signal that our experts think that President Trump’s public state­ments ques­tion­ing the legit­i­ma­cy of the 2020 election and refusing to commit to a peaceful transfer of power con­sti­tute a genuine crisis of U.S. democracy.


Figure A1

Figure A2Figure A3 

Figure A4

Figure A5

Bright Line Watch surveys on the state of America’s democracy, October 2020

From October 5–16, 2020, Bright Line Watch conducted its twelfth survey of academic experts, and ninth of the general public, on the quality of democracy in the United States. Our public sample consisted of 2700 survey par­tic­i­pants from the YouGov sample who were selected and weighted to be rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the U.S. adult pop­u­la­tion. We also surveyed 738 political science experts across a diverse range of subfields (7% of solicited invi­ta­tions). Our email list was con­struct­ed from the faculty list of U.S. insti­tu­tions rep­re­sent­ed in the online program of the 2016 American Political Science Association con­fer­ence and updated by reviewing depart­ment websites and job placement records from Ph.D. programs in the period since.

All estimates shown in the report used weights provided by YouGov. Our expert sample is tra­di­tion­al­ly unweight­ed because we do not collect demo­graph­ic data to protect anonymity. Error bars in our graphs represent 95% con­fi­dence intervals. Data are available here.

Both the expert and public samples in Wave 12 responded to a battery of questions about demo­c­ra­t­ic per­for­mance in the United States (see below). Afterward, they were asked to evaluate the quality of American democracy overall on a 100-point scale. Experts were also asked to evaluate the quality of democracy in their state and several other states they iden­ti­fied as having par­tic­u­lar­ly high or low quality. Expert respon­dents were then asked to respond to two addi­tion­al batteries: one in which they were presented with a list of political events and asked to rate them on normalcy and impor­tance and another which they were asked to evaluate hypo­thet­i­cal scenarios related to the upcoming election (lists of both are provided below). 

Nightmare scenarios

  1. Russian hackers cripple voter reg­is­tra­tion and election systems in one or more states.
  2. Stay-at-home orders prevent voters from going to the polls on Election Day in one or more large cities (250,000+).
  3. Millions of Americans are exposed to false claims about voter fraud and election integrity on social media from unknown or obscure sources on Election Day.
  4. One or both pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates declare victory before the race has been called by the Associated Press.
  5. More than one thousand planned polling locations con­sol­i­date or shut down nation­wide on Election Day due to poll worker shortages.
  6. Tens of thousands of voters are still in line when polls are scheduled to close in at least one state due to long lines and delays on Election Day.
  7. Postal service delays cause more than one million mail ballots sent by voters to not be delivered to election officials in time to be counted.
  8. President Trump attacks the “blue shift” toward Democrats as mail votes are counted, insisting that the initial totals on Election Night were correct.
  9. Interim Election Night totals under­state Democratic votes, creating wide­spread suspicion of the results.
  10. President Trump is declared the loser of the election by the Associated Press but refuses to imme­di­ate­ly concede defeat.
  11. President Trump makes state­ments or posts tweets encour­ag­ing violence and intim­i­da­tion during voting or ballot counting.
  12. President Trump deploys federal law enforce­ment or the military during voting or ballot counting.
  13. The Department of Justice seeks to block the counting of mail-in ballots.
  14. President Trump attempts to negotiate legal amnesty for himself and his family after the election.
  15. One or more states switch from the winner-take-all format to district-by-district allo­ca­tion of pres­i­den­tial electors.
  16. One or more states send competing slates of electors to the Electoral College.
  17. One or more states are unable to resolve an election dispute before the safe harbor deadline.
  18. A dispute over the results of the election creates a conflict between the Vice President and the Speaker of the House over accepting Electoral College votes.
  19. A conflict over Electoral College votes causes the appoint­ment of an acting president under the terms of the Twentieth Amendment on January 20, 2021.
  20. One or more legal disputes over the election are decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.
  21. One or more state leg­is­la­tures enact a bill that would overturn the statewide popular vote as an allo­ca­tion mechanism for electors and/or stop the counting of ballots.
  22. 5% or more of ballots cast by mail are rejected in one or more states.
  23. Biden seeks to overturn an apparent defeat in the Electoral College after winning the popular vote.
  24. Millions of coun­ter­feit ballots are mailed to Americans from a foreign county.
  25. A faithless elector decides the presidency.
  26. The pres­i­den­tial election is decided by the House of Representatives.
  27. The RNC or DNC selects a replace­ment candidate for president before Election Day.
  28. President Trump tem­porar­i­ly turns over duties to Vice President Pence at least once.


  1. Trump repeat­ed­ly inter­rupts Joe Biden at first pres­i­den­tial debate.
  2. Trump says far-right Proud Boys group should “stand back and stand by” after being asked if he will disavow white supremacists.
  3. Trump says the election might be “fraud­u­lent” during the first pres­i­den­tial debate.
  4. The Justice Department inter­venes on Trump’s behalf in E. Jean Carroll defama­tion lawsuit.
  5. President Trump accepts renom­i­na­tion in front of the White House.
  6. President Trump claims the election will be “totally rigged” if mail-in ballots are allowed.
  7. Senate Republicans allocate $1.75B from COVID relief bill to build FBI headquarters.
  8. President Trump signs executive actions after COVID stimulus talks break down.
  9. President Trump suggests sup­port­ers should try to vote twice.
  10. President Trump suggests the 2020 election should be delayed.
  11. Pentagon training course refers to pro­test­ers and jour­nal­ists as “adver­saries.”
  12. President Trump refuses to commit to a peaceful tran­si­tion of power if he loses.
  13. The Director of National Intelligence cancels in-person election briefings for Congress.
  14. President Trump calls incident of reporter getting hit with a rubber bullet “law and order”
  15. President Trump jokes about signing executive order barring Biden presidency.
  16. President Trump calls for Goodyear boycott after company bans MAGA attire.
  17. The Secretary of Health and Human Services bans health agencies from issuing new rules.
  18. The Trump admin­is­tra­tion bans WeChat from US app stores.
  19. President Trump states that the Supreme Court needs nine justices, including his nominee, to handle election disputes.
  20. President Trump blames California for wildfires and threatens to withhold federal funds.
  21. The Postmaster General imple­ments measures that cause delays in mail delivery.
  22. President Trump approves $13 billion in aid for Puerto Rico.
  23. President Trump bans diversity training in the federal government.
  24. President Trump seeks to nominate and confirm a new Supreme Court justice weeks before the election.
  25. President Trump suggests deploying law enforce­ment officials to monitor polls.
  26. WH officials pressure CDC to downplay risk of schools reopening.
  27. Secretary of State Pompeo speaks at the GOP con­ven­tion from Jerusalem.
  28. Bipartisan committee finds Manafort col­lab­o­rat­ed with Russians and shared internal polls.
  29. The Trump admin­is­tra­tion seeks to end the Census early.
  30. Attorney General Bill Barr says mail-in ballots are not secret and briefs President on inves­ti­ga­tion of 9 mis­han­dled ballots.

Democratic principles

The foun­da­tion of Bright Line Watch’s surveys is a list of 30 state­ments express­ing a range of demo­c­ra­t­ic prin­ci­ples (the full list is provided below). Democracy is a mul­ti­di­men­sion­al concept. Our goal is to provide a detailed set of measures of demo­c­ra­t­ic values and of the quality of American democracy. We are also inter­est­ed in the resilience of democracy and the nature of potential threats it faces. Based on the expe­ri­ences of other countries that have expe­ri­enced demo­c­ra­t­ic setbacks, we recognize that demo­c­ra­t­ic erosion is not nec­es­sar­i­ly an across-the-board phe­nom­e­non. Some facets of democracy may be under­mined first while others remain intact, at least initially. The range of prin­ci­ples that we measure allows us to focus attention on variation in specific insti­tu­tions and practices that, in com­bi­na­tion, shape the overall per­for­mance of our democracy.

Bright Line Watch’s Wave 1 survey included 19 state­ments of demo­c­ra­t­ic prin­ci­ples. Based on feedback from respon­dents and con­sul­ta­tion with col­leagues, we expanded that list to 29 state­ments in Wave 2. We then reduced that set to a set of 27 state­ments for the Wave 3 through Wave 8 surveys. 17 of those 27 state­ments were included in Wave 1, and all 27 were included in Wave 2. We added one statement to the list in Wave 9. In this wave, we asked respon­dents to assess two addi­tion­al principles: 

  • The law is enforced equally for all persons
  • Politicians who lose free and fair elections will concede defeat

The full set of state­ments is presented below and grouped the­mat­i­cal­ly for clarity. In the surveys, the prin­ci­ples were not cat­e­go­rized or labeled. Each respon­dent was shown a randomly selected subset of state­ments (14 for the public, 9 for experts) and asked to rate the per­for­mance of the United States on those dimensions.


      • Elections are conducted, ballots counted, and winners deter­mined without pervasive fraud or manipulation
      • Citizens have access to infor­ma­tion about can­di­dates that is relevant to how they would govern
      • The geo­graph­ic bound­aries of electoral districts do not sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly advantage any par­tic­u­lar political party
      • Information about the sources of campaign funding is available to the public
      • Public policy is not deter­mined by large campaign contributions
      • Elections are free from foreign influence
      • Politicians who lose free and fair elections will concede defeat


      • All adult citizens have equal oppor­tu­ni­ty to vote
      • All votes have equal impact on election outcomes
      • Voter par­tic­i­pa­tion in elections is generally high


      • All adult citizens enjoy the same legal and political rights
      • Parties and can­di­dates are not barred due to their political beliefs and ideologies
      • Government protects indi­vid­u­als’ right to engage in unpopular speech or expression
      • Government protects indi­vid­u­als’ right to engage in peaceful protest
      • Citizens can make their opinions heard in open debate about policies that are under consideration
      • The law is enforced equally for all persons


      • Government does not interfere with jour­nal­ists or news organizations
      • Government effec­tive­ly prevents private actors from engaging in polit­i­cal­ly-motivated violence or intimidation
      • Government agencies are not used to monitor, attack, or punish political opponents


      • Government officials are legally sanc­tioned for misconduct
      • Government officials do not use public office for private gain
      • Law enforce­ment inves­ti­ga­tions of public officials or their asso­ciates are free from political influence or interference
      • Government sta­tis­tics and data are produced by experts who are not influ­enced by political considerations


      • Executive authority cannot be expanded beyond con­sti­tu­tion­al limits
      • The leg­is­la­ture is able to effec­tive­ly limit executive power
      • The judiciary is able to effec­tive­ly limit executive power
      • The elected branches respect judicial independence


      • Even when there are dis­agree­ments about ideology or policy, political leaders generally share a common under­stand­ing of relevant facts
      • Elected officials seek com­pro­mise with political opponents
      • Political com­pe­ti­tion occurs without criticism of opponents’ loyalty or patriotism

To measure perceived demo­c­ra­t­ic per­for­mance, the survey asked, “How well do the following state­ments describe the United States as of today?” Each respon­dent was then presented with 14 state­ments of principle, randomly drawn from the set above, and offered the following response options:

      • The U.S. does not meet this standard
      • The U.S. partly meets this standard
      • The U.S. mostly meets this standard
      • The U.S. fully meets this standard
      • Not sure

The order in which state­ments were presented in the battery was ran­dom­ized for each respon­dent so there should be no priming or ordering effects in how they were assessed.