Donald Trump has been claiming, of late, that if he loses in November, it will be because the election was “rigged.” After all, he says, look at the big, enthusiastic crowds he attracts at his events.
Of course, massive crowds do not necessarily foretell victory. Often they are more a sign of passion and devotion, or the entertainment value of a candidate, and don’t guarantee success – as Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders saw in his losing battle for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Mr. Trump, it appears, is preparing the groundwork to lose, as his poll numbers in key electoral battlegrounds sink. In the meantime, he’s calling on his supporters to register online as volunteer election observers, and in the process is also gathering voter contact information and asking for contributions. So in a way, the “rigged election” cries are just another avenue for voter engagement.
But more ominously, Trump threatens to delegitimize the outcome in November, if he loses and convinces his supporters that Hillary Clinton stole the election. That could undermine the very fabric of American democracy.
Rigging election extraordinarily hard
“Something like this is unprecedented, as far as I know – where a major presidential contender openly raises doubts about the legitimacy of an election before the vote, and without any evidence,” says Matthew Kerbel, political science chairman at Villanova University in Pennsylvania.
What’s more, it would be “extraordinarily difficult” to rig a presidential election in the way Trump suggests, Professor Kerbel says. “You’re talking about rigging an election in the Electoral College, where you would have to rig a combination of states."
Perhaps the biggest protection to US elections is their decentralized nature. The US Constitution and federal law give states broad leeway in how they run elections, resulting in a multitude of voting systems, even within states. So to rig the results of a national election at the ballot box or with absentee ballots, a vast conspiracy would be required.
Trump has centered his allegations of planned cheating in a handful of key states. In Pennsylvania, he has bemoaned the fact that the commonwealth does not require a voter to present photo identification to cast a ballot.
“We don't want to see people voting five times, folks,” Trump said last Friday in Altoona, Pa. “I don’t even know, maybe you should go down and volunteer or do something. But without voter ID, there's no way you're going to be able to check it properly.”
Earlier in the week, in Wilmington, N.C., Trump suggested that Clinton supporters could now vote “15 times” for her, given the federal appeals court ruling last month rejecting the state’s voter ID law. The law, which also ended same-day registration and shortened the state’s early-voting period, had a racially “discriminatory intent,” the ruling said.
Trump has also raised the prospect of voter fraud in Ohio, another critical battleground state.
But the kind of cheating Trump envisions on a mass scale is virtually impossible to pull off – including in states that don’t require the showing of a photo ID. Even in such states, to vote 10 or 15 times, one would have to go to 10 or 15 different polling places and provide the names and addresses of people who live in those precincts and had not yet voted.
The call for “Trump Election Observers” creates the appearance that in-person voter fraud is common. But election experts call the rate of such fraud vanishingly small. In 2014, an investigation by Justin Levitt, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, found only 31 credible incidents of voter impersonation out of 1 billion votes cast in the US between 2000 and 2014.
To put that number in perspective, someone is more than three times more likely to win the jackpot in Pennsylvania's Cash 5 lottery as they are to have impersonated another voter.
What’s more, Professor Levitt points out, people in states with voter ID laws did not have greater confidence in the integrity of their elections than voters in states without such laws.
“The factor that really influences whether people think the elections are fair? Whether their preferred candidates win,” Levitt writes.
Another issue for the Trump campaign is the matter of a 1982 court order that limits the Republican National Committee’s ability to challenge the eligibility of voters at polling places. The order bars the RNC “and its agents” from engaging in voter intimidation, especially in areas with large minority populations. The Trump campaign could plausibly be judged “an agent” of the RNC, says election law expert Rick Hasen of the University of California at Irvine, and thus the Trump observers’ activities could risk violating the order. And that, he says, could extend the order beyond its Dec. 1, 2017, expiration.
Will fraud charges hurt Trump?
Trump’s warnings of a rigged election could have another offshoot: suppressing his own vote. One recent poll shows a decline in the likelihood that Trump supporters will turn out, a trend that election data guru Nate Silver suggests may be linked to Trump’s message about fraud.
In addition, a recent experiment by two academics suggested that the message of a “rigged election” was less effective at mobilizing voters than a more positive message, “registering is quick, easy, and free.”
Trump voters already appear primed to believe that if he loses in November, it will be because the election was rigged. A Bloomberg poll released last week found that 34 percent of all voters, and 56 percent of Trump voters, believe the election results will be rigged.
In a poll of North Carolina voters last week by the Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling, fully 69 percent of Trump supporters said they believed that if Clinton wins the election, it will be because the election was rigged.
Of course, American history is replete with examples of election hanky-panky over the years, including ballots being cast by dead people.
The contested presidential election of 2000, which boiled down to a 537-vote margin in Florida and ultimately a ruling by the Supreme Court, remains a hotly debated episode. In 2004, some Democrats were convinced that their nominee, John Kerry, was the victim of voter fraud in Ohio – a state that, had he won, would have handed him the election.
What’s different now is that Trump’s charges are being leveled well before Election Day. And he’s not even focused on what could pose a real threat to the integrity of American elections: hackers.
“There’s vital interest in our election process,” Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said at a Monitor breakfast Aug. 3. "We’re actively thinking about the election and cybersecurity right now."
In a phone call Monday, Secretary Johnson offered federal assistance to state officials in managing the risk to voting systems.
For Trump, the claim that fraud could swing the election is losing its salience, as his poll numbers head south. Irregularities matter only in a close election, and as of now, it’s not looking close. But no one is calling the election over, and the “rigged election” argument isn't going away.