When Donald Trump describes next Tuesday’s election as “rigged,” he conflates two things. The first is that “the establishment,” in whatever form, is powerfully arrayed against ordinary Americans and against Trump himself as their tribune. The second, darker and more dangerous, allegation is that the voting process itself cannot be trusted, that even if people come out and vote for him, “massive” voting fraud on Election Day and the manipulation of the count will steal the election from him.
The first, though Trump is hardly the best messenger for it, is at least an arguable proposition, and has some resonance in the progressive critique. Trump’s second charge, however, poses a serious threat to our democracy and is an essential tool of authoritarian-leaning demagogues.
Just as important: It really can’t happen here. We need to be clear about that, and we also need to be clear about what we do need to do to make our election system one we can be proud of.
Let’s begin by dispelling the myth that the election can be stolen.
First, fraud by voters is virtually nonexistent. Voter impersonation, in-person voter fraud, people voting twice, and large scale voting by ineligible people—all have repeatedly been proven to be virtually nonexistent. A multi-election study reviewing more than a billion ballots showed that only 31 ballots could conceivably have been cast fraudulently. The fact is, states already have laws on the books prohibiting this sort of behavior, with steep fines and imprisonment in place for violations—and these laws are enforced. People don’t commit this sort of crime because it endangers them with essentially no benefit. Nonetheless, the myth of voter fraud has been a conservative mantra since 2000, and it provides a pretext for legislators who seek to limit the franchise by enacting laws making it harder to vote.
Absentee ballot fraud, or fraud in mail-in voting, can and does occur slightly more frequently because voters cast their ballots outside the scrutiny of voting officials. But the amount of effort and coordination required to manipulate votes, on any significant scale, would be huge, and in most states the rules governing who can distribute absentee ballots and how they can be collected have been tightened significantly.
Second, Diebold was defeated. There is clearly reason (and we knew it long before the Russian/WikiLeaks intervention) to worry that computer systems can be hacked and the information that comes out of them can be changed. Fourteen years ago, when the Help America Vote Act spurred a major wave of modernization and new equipment, there was a quick rush to networked electronic voting. There is still some support for online voting, but it is waning. Activists—who were derided as “black box” conspiracy theorists—raised issues about machines that could be controlled by a proprietary code. Computer geeks showed they could indeed hack the systems, and change outcomes. Accordingly, enthusiasm for new shiny computerized machinery, such as that marketed by Diebold, waned. In lieu of networked electronic voting, we now have the voting machines that are part of a primitive and non-networked system. Most of those machines contain an auditable paper trail. As a result, hacking into voting machines is harder than getting control of the Pentagon’s website.
And third, voting in America is extremely decentralized—which is very much a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the fact that there are more than 13,000 different election jurisdictions, spread across 50 states and hundreds of counties, each with a substantial degree of independence, raises major issues of quality control, inadequate funding, and a lack of national standards. But on the other hand, it does mean that it is extremely hard—impossible, really—to “rig” the results in a centralized way.
So what should we worry about?
The fact that the Trumpian vision is simply not true does not mean that there aren’t real things to worry about on Election Day, and that there aren’t real things we need to work on afterwards. On Election Day, especially if the turnout is high, we may well see:
· Confusion over eligibility. There are always issues with the accuracy of the voting lists. But this year those issues will be compounded by great confusion over the status of voter identification laws, which have been passed and then challenged in state after state. In addition, in a number of states, voter purges have removed many eligible voters from the lists, which will add to the confusion at the polling places.
· Long lines, resulting from high turnout and undersupply of voting machines or consolidation of precincts by local election officials, either to save money or deliberately to discourage voting. In addition, machines will break down, paper ballots will run out, and polling place workers may be overwhelmed. And the haggles and hassles over eligibility will undoubtedly slow things down.
· Confrontations between voters and “watchers,” or among partisans at the end of a long and bitter campaign. The likelihood of such confrontations has been increased by the Supreme Court’s Shelby decision, which has blocked the Justice Department from having monitors at polling sites in places with a history of denying voting rights. The likelihood has also been increased by Trump’s exhortations to his followers to intimidate voters in communities of color.
The good news is that there are multiple efforts to mitigate these problems. Expansions of early voting and mail-in voting are taking some of the pressure off Election Day polling places in many states. The expansion of Same Day Registration will allow many people whose registration is in dispute to register and cast a ballot.
In addition, there are organizing efforts, both partisan and nonpartisan, that will help on Election Day itself. The Election Protection Coalition (phone number, 866-OUR-VOTE) is one. The Coalition will field nonpartisan poll monitors who will provide helpful information to voters about their rights and seek to quash any problems as they occur in real time. Some of those problems may require immediate litigation; candidates and parties know they need to be prepared and ready to go to court to keep polling places accessible to every eligible voter who wants to cast a ballot. In the course of this fall’s early balloting, voting protection workers haven’t seen the extent of voter intimidation and challenges that some had anticipated, particularly in light of Trump’s call to his supporters to go down to “certain areas” to watch people vote. But challenges have been made, voters have been intimidated, and confusion abounds, particularly in places where the laws have changed recently, even if for better.
There is also a major amount of work to be done after the election, beginning with fixes to administrative problems. There is a crying need for national standards, so that voter registration lists are properly maintained, election officials have clear guidelines for their work, and machines are up to date. The Election Assistance Commission needs to be strengthened so it can provide stronger guidance. And if it wasn’t clear before this year, it is completely clear now, that a new and modernized Voting Rights Act is simply essential.
Progressives must not be backed into a defensive mode, trying to reassure people that nothing is wrong with the system. There is plenty that needs to be improved in the way we run our elections and on the larger issues of how we make our democracy truly inclusive and equitable. That is the task ahead. But in the very shortest of terms, pushing back against the rantings of Donald Trump about the rigging of the vote is an essential task. The facts are with us.