In a constitutional democracy, elections are important, but not for the reasons that supporters of unlimited democracy think they are. Reflecting on this is useful in the context of the January 6 House Committee and of recent declarations by the president of Brazil, Jail Bolsonaro. Bolsonaro fears losing the upcoming election in Brazil and suggests that he could be the victim of electoral fraud as, he also suggests, Trump was (“Biden Pushes Back Against Waning U.S. Influence in Latin America at Summit,” Wall Street Journal, June 9, 2016):

Mr. Biden held a one-on-one meeting later Thursday with Mr. Bolsonaro, a close ally of Mr. Trump who was one of the last global leaders to recognize Mr. Biden’s victory. …

“The American people are the ones that talk about it (election fraud). I will not discuss the sovereignty of another country. But Trump was doing really well,” [Mr. Bolsonaro] said earlier in the week when asked if he believed there had been fraud in Mr. Biden’s victory.

Bolsonaro is preparing to pull the same trick as the former American president did—and as political rulers regular do in backward countries. In fact, Trump suggested even before the 2016 election and before the 2020 election that he would recognize the results only if he won. Bolsonaro is also suggesting that the election outcome will be legitimate only if he wins:

Mr. Bolsonaro has repeatedly criticized the country’s election system ahead of the October presidential election. Polls show he is currently trailing former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva ahead of the vote.

In a constitutional democracy (emphasizing “constitutional” as James Buchanan would say), elections are important not because they express “the will of the people.” Such a thing does not exist because individuals making up “the people” have different preferences, values, and wills (see my article “The Impossibility of Populism” in The Independent Review, Summer 2021). And elections are not important because of any divine right of numerical majorities. On the contrary, the only majority that has normative significance is a 100% majority, that is, unanimous consent; democracy is only meant to approximate, in a sense, this criterion (see my Econlib review of the classic book explaining this idea, Buchanan and Tullock’s The Calculus of Consent).

In a constitutional democracy, elections are important for basically one reason: they allow a peaceful transfer of power. One could also say that elections have a symbolic importance as they remind rulers that all citizens are formally equal and that their consent is equally required.

Once a certain proportion of voters think that that the function of elections is to choose God-on-earth, instead of just vetoing the rascals if necessary, dangerous consequences follow. First, any defeated candidate for the God-on-earth job will be strongly tempted to claim that he won, especially if he thinks that he embodies the people. How can the people vote against itself without fraud? Second, elections will have stopped playing their main, if not only, function.

One objection to my argument could be formulated as follows: Granting that, in backward or backward-to-be countries, defeated candidates will succumb to the temptation of blaming fraud, why did the phenomenon, in advanced countries of our own times, show up first in America and not in Europe? Why, for example, did Charles de Gaulle not claim that his plebiscitary referendum of 1969 was stolen, instead of resigning? Is it because Europeans generally believe in unlimited democracy but not in personal power? A related question: Why is it that, in French elections, the citizens living abroad are encouraged to vote not with mail-in ballots but on the Internet, and that (thus far) no losing candidate blames his loss on these votes?