Those of us looking forward to November 9th — the day after election day in the United States — may be disappointed to find the depressing spectacle we’ve called a presidential election drag on for weeks or months if Donald Trump contests the results, assuming he loses on November 8th (as polls suggest, but we’ll just have to wait and see). Trump claims that the election is “rigged” due to an ever-expanding list of culprits, including the media, the political establishment, and voter fraud at the polls.
Some prominent Republicans have challenged Trump’s assertion that the election is “rigged” — in many states, they oversee the elections and are unlikely to “rig” it in favor of Hillary Clinton — but Trump’s argument about a “rigged system” stems from mainstream Republican talking points.
As Ari Berman explains in Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America — an account of the tumultuous history of our fragile right to vote — the Republican Party has used unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud to limit access to voting. The book contains examples of Republicans who refused to participate in these efforts, but voter suppression has been a common tactic of the party. Republican-backed measures like purging voter rolls, requiring government-issued IDs to vote, and limiting early voting have disproportionately disenfranchised racial minorities, women, and other groups unlikely to support Republicans in elections (and groups that haven’t been supporting Trump, according to the polls). Voter suppression efforts have intensified since a conservative majority of the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated a significant part of the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder in 2013.
Thus, if the election is rigged, it’s rigged in favor of Republican candidates like Donald Trump in states that have passed these types of restrictive voting laws. Why does Trump feel like it’s the other way around?
There is no evidence to support Trump’s assertion of widespread voter fraud in our electoral system, whether it’s voter impersonation, “dead” voters, noncitizen voters, or other forms of fraud. In Give Us the Ballot, Berman notes that when the Bush Administration made voter fraud the focus of a Justice Department initiative, the probe “resulted in only eighty-six convictions out of three hundred million votes cast” between 2002 and 2007.
It doesn’t surprise me that there are so few examples of voter fraud. At my voting precinct, where I’ve been the Judge of Elections since 2008, both major political parties are represented among the poll workers, and both parties would have to be involved in the fraud for it to work in any meaningful way. There are many checks and balances in addition to having both parties represented, including requiring voter signatures and maintaining a separate numbered list of voters to compare to the signature list.
Importantly, everyone working at the poll is a member of the community we serve on election day. We know each other — the day consists of a series of mini-reunions between old friends, neighbors, classmates, and family members — making it less likely an impersonator would succeed if they tried to vote under someone else’s name. I understand that other precincts aren’t as close-knit as mine, but it’s undeniable that voter fraud remains rare. It’s telling that there is no significant evidence of it happening despite how hard people have been looking for it.
As a Republican U.S. Attorney fired by the Bush Administration for refusing to pursue voter fraud prosecutions said (as quoted in Give Us the Ballot), “It’s like the boogeyman parents use to scare their children… It’s very frightening, and it doesn’t exist. U.S. Attorneys have better things to do with their time than chasing voter-fraud phantoms.”
Nevertheless, Donald Trump has taken his party’s “boogeyman” and run with it, embellishing the cry of “voter fraud” into a much larger conspiracy that implicates his party. He can’t possibly believe it’s true, but it’s a narrative that excuses his loss (if, in fact, he loses). It undermines the legitimacy of both parties and, if Hillary wins, her presidency. What will he encourage his supporters to do about it after election day? Considering Trump’s incendiary rhetoric and appeals to violence in the past, that’s the part that concerns me.
Let’s hope this election ends peacefully and as close to November 8th as possible.
*See also, Ari Berman, This Election is Being Rigged, The Nation.
*If you’re interested in a wonderful children’s book related to voting rights, see A Children’s Book I Can’t Read Without Crying.