Donald Trump is seeding storm clouds with suspicion, predicting that, on Nov. 8, Americans will be victims of a massive fraud. “There’s a lot of dirty pool played at the election, meaning the election is rigged,” he opined to The Washington Post. “We may have people vote 10 times.” He told a crowd that the only way he can lose Pennsylvania, where polls show him trailing Hillary Clinton by double digits, would be “if in certain sections of the state, they cheat.” He called for roving bands of partisan poll monitors to “Help me stop ‘Crooked Hillary’ from rigging this election.”
That Trump should attempt to discredit the entire US electoral system is not surprising. After all, this is the man who sought to undermine the legitimacy of a sitting president with birther conspiracies and wild-eyed claims about “the founder of ISIS.” What is startling is that more than a third of Americans may agree with him. According to a recent Bloomberg poll, 34 percent of likely voters from both parties agreed that “the election will be rigged.” Among Trump supporters that number soared to 56 percent.
But what do we mean by “rigged?” I am reminded of the famous rhetorical feint by Noah Sweat, a Mississippi state legislator, who, asked where he stood on prohibition for whiskey, gave two very different answers. “If, by whiskey,’’ he said, you mean “the devil’s brew,” then Sweat was of course against it. But if by whiskey you mean “the oil of conversation, the philosophic wine,” and other virtues, then he was all for it.
So, if by “rigged,” you mean dark forces conspiring to infiltrate thousands of separate polling locations to stuff ballot boxes, erase inconvenient choices, impersonate voters, cast ballots by noncitizens or dead people, or pay off election monitors with bags of cash, then no, the system is not rigged. An exhaustive report by the Brennan Center for Justice concludes that incidents of intentional voter fraud are more rare than being struck by lightning. An academic study of fraud allegations published recently in The Washington Post found 31 incidents over 14 years of elections – that’s 31 out of more than a billion votes cast. The danger of voter suppression aimed at disfavored groups — minorities, students, the elderly, or those with lower incomes — is far greater than the risk of voter fraud.
But if by “rigged” you mean a system vulnerable to electronic breakdowns, or to mischievous hacking, then there is cause for concern. Last week, news broke of an FBI warning that two state elections systems had been compromised by some kind of computer hack, possibly from overseas. Subsequent reports identified Illinois and Arizona as the two states that were targeted. Luckily, those two states maintain paper ballot trails to back up their electronic voting machines, as do all but five other states. Still, just by stoking suspicions that the election can be tampered with, the hackers have done grave damage.
There are other ways in which our elections are slanted, but you don’t find either major-party candidate complaining about them much. Because if by “rigged” you mean a system where opaque cash manipulates voter anxieties; where debates are more about ratings than reason; where a nonpartisan referee press is nearly extinct; if you mean a system that punishes voters with onerous ID requirements, long lines, inconvenient locations, and confusion; a system where nearly half the eligible population doesnt’ even bother to participate — then yes, our elections are trussed up like a Thanksgiving turkey. American democracy is resilient, but it is not indestructible. You don’t have to be paranoid to see that.Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.