So the 2020 US Presidential Election has concluded in all but name and President-elect Joe Biden has won with somewhere around 51.0% of the vote and 290 electoral votes against Trump's 47.3% and 232. While not the near-landside that pre-election polls indicated were possible, it is a comfortable win with an average margin. Yet the Trump campaign, as they have telegraphed was their intention for months in advance, is claiming voter fraud and refusing to concede. This only inflames the already record-low faith Americans have in their institutions. But this isn't merely an exercise to salve Trump's ego. In fact, the only thing unprecedented about it is that the candidate himself is the main proponent of such conspiracies.
A week ago, Senator Lindsey Graham, one of Trump's most loyal defenders, stated on Hannity that "[Republicans] need to fight back. We win because of our ideas and we lose elections because [Democrats] cheat us." Charitably this can be interpreted as hyperbole stemming from the Reagan-era belief that the United States is fundamentally a center-right country. Whether or not this remains (or ever was) true is arguable, but on many contentious issues, Democratic positions line up more closely with majority opinion including on the environment, tax policy, gun control, abortion, and gay marriage.
The less charitable interpretation (and one more in line with decades of Republican strategy and messaging), is that it's a reflection of the belief that big-d Democratic governance is fundamentally illegitimate and that the use of any tactic to thwart it is justified. Republicans have become increasingly fond of referring to their mostly white, mostly rural, mostly christian base as Real Americans, by implication labeling those outside of their base as an inferior form of American, or perhaps not truly American at all. Thus, the last three Democratic presidents who have been elected by their own increasingly diverse and urban base have been accused of being illegitimate representatives of the American people, accusations which have only become more popular and more extreme over time.
The first time such accusations were leveled in the modern era occurred after the 1992 election of Bill Clinton. Because of the surprisingly strong candidacy of Ross Perot, Clinton won his first term with a 43.0% plurality of the vote compared to George H. W. Bush's 37.4% and Perot's 18.9%. Future 1996 Republican candidate Bob Dole declared "...57 percent of the Americans who voted in the Presidential election voted against Bill Clinton, and I intend to represent that majority on the floor of the U.S. Senate." This was a relatively tame contention compared to that said about future presidents, but it was based on the assumption that Bush would have won had Perot not siphoned off votes that otherwise would've gone to him. Exit polls later indicated that Perot voters split almost equally when it came to their second choice: one third reported they would've voted for Clinton, one third for Bush, and one third not at all.
(Conservatives often counter that many Democrats viewed George W. Bush as fundamentally illegitimate as well. I don't personally believe he was, however to my mind it's more understandable given that Bush lost the national popular vote but won the electoral vote by carrying Florida with a margin of only 537 after an abbreviated recount. Bush would later go on to win reelection in 2004 by a much larger margin.)
Barack Obama was dogged his entire presidency by accusations that he was ineligible for the office because he wasn't born in America, a belief evangelized in a large part by Donald Trump. This belief peaked in 2011 at 51% of likely Republican primary voters and approximately 20% of registered republicans overall, then dropped sharply after Hawaii released Obama's long form birth certificate in April 2011. But during the candidacy of Donald Trump in June 2016 it had again risen, with 41% of republicans believing that Obama was born outside the United States with another 31% saying they didn't know. (It is worth mentioning that Obama's margin of 7.2% and 9.5 million votes and the ensuing electoral advantage was far too large to plausibly attribute to fraud, perhaps why the accusations focused on his eligibility rather than the results of the election itself.)
To those who have been living under a rock for the last four years, Trump won the 2016 election in a narrow upset, carrying the electoral vote while losing the popular vote by 2.1% or 2.9 million votes. Despite this, he claimed that he had in fact won the popular vote as well but that 3 to 5 million illegal votes had been cast for Hillary Clinton presenting the 'illusion' of her winning more. He assembled a bipartisan Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity and tasked it with revealing such fraud. However, seven months after calling for it, Trump disbanded the commission which ultimately released no official findings. Two weeks earlier a judge had ordered the commission to turn over internal documents which had been withheld from Democratic members of the commission. When those documents were later released, they revealed little to no evidence of mass voter fraud.
And now in the aftermath of Joe Biden's win by an even larger 3.6% and 5.5 million votes, Trump is again claiming massive voter fraud and seeking to legally invalidate anywhere from dozens to tens of thousands of votes in key states. While it is true that some states went narrowly for Biden (the closest margins are Georgia by 14 thousand votes and Arizona by 10 thousand), even flipping those two states would not change the result. And while the elections are close enough to trigger an automatic recount, they are wide enough that the chances of it reversing the outcome are minimal. On average, a recount results in a change of 430 votes.
As for the lawsuits, the Trump campaign has lost 63 out of 64 (as of January, 2021), with most summarily dismissed for lack of evidence. One has succeeded in throwing out an unclear number of votes, however it appears that after prior litigation, these votes weren't even counted to begin with and so didn't change the numbers at all. The buzzword of the moment in the conservative news ecosystem is affidavit which is an important legal sounding word which just means 'a signed statement under oath'. The contents of an affidavit can often turn out to be wrong or attest to actions which aren't illegal, it only requires that the person making it believes them to be true. (An example: it would be fairly easy to go to a packed baseball game and get a few hundred sworn statements from the audience that a player called out was actually safe instead.) Thus, most of the cases relying on such affidavits are easily dismissed because they report legal behavior or are otherwise disproved by more reliable evidence than eyewitness testimony. This is not a bad thing, this is the system how it's supposed to work and the whole purpose of poll-watchers to begin with.
The implausibility of such widespread voter fraud is compounded by the fact that Biden's election was coupled with a surprisingly large number of Democratic losses in down-ticket races. At the moment--with many races uncalled and others requiring a runoff election--Democrats have lost five seats in the House from their majority (and likely many more) and gained only one seat in the Senate, far fewer than expected giving the closeness of pre-election polls. If the fix were truly in, you'd think Biden would have been elected with much longer coattails. In addition, the larger a conspiracy gets, the more likely someone will become a whistleblower. Such a massive voter fraud effort would require the concerted silence of hundreds if not thousands of conspirators, an implausible number considering the various high-profile leaks in the last decade including those of Edward Snowden, the Panama Papers, John Podesta's emails, and an endless stream of leaks from the Trump administration.
Their hopes now rest on an end run around the entire election--convincing state legislatures (the majority of which are controlled by Republicans) to appoint a new slate of pro-Trump electors before the electoral college meets and votes in December. This would be in violation of their own state laws as well as the will of their constituents and would likely be grossly unconstitutional. The irony of this is that it would far more constitute a 'stolen election' than anything they've accused the Democrats of. Thankfully state legislators have expressed little interest in the idea, and for the moment it's remained contained to the fever swamps of talk radio and Fox News.
Of course, for the conspiracy minded, this is never good enough. To them it shows just how deep the conspiracy goes and how effective the cover-up. There is no arguing with these people. At heart, they can't bear the reality that they lost fairly and that more people simply disagree with them on the merits of a particular politician without being thralls to an evil cabal.
So, in a direct response to those who say that allegations of voter fraud are serious and deserve to be investigated, they are and they have been and there has been nearly no reliable evidence of widespread, coordinated fraud to elect a particular candidate. There is always some fraud and many more mistakes: the occasional double voter, people who died between sending their absentee ballot and election day, mistakes in the counting process (thus, automatic recounts in close elections), and unauthorized people filling out votes on behalf of others. However, the overwhelming majority of these cases are caught and invalidated before they are counted. The system isn't perfect and can of course be improved. But all evidence shows that the 2020 election was not 'stolen' and any accusations that it was are merely the latest example of a thirty year refusal to accept the legitimacy of the opposition.