For several weeks, Donald Trump has been spouting a lot about how, if he loses, it will because the election was “rigged.” As discussed further below, in the sense of fraud and phony votes, it is almost impossible to rig an election. However, as in the Republican primary, to the extent that the election is rigged in the sense of the rules favoring a certain candidate, the rules are almost certainly rigged in favor of Donald Trump.
The first and biggest way that the rules are rigged in favor of Donald Trump is the electoral college. As folks may remember from high school history or government class, a vote for a candidate for president is actually a vote for a slate of electors supporting the candidate. Those electors then vote in December for the candidate on whose slate they ran. A candidate needs to win 270 of the 538 electors to win. Each state has a number of electors equivalent to the state’s representation in Congress — it’s House seats plus its Senate seats. Because every state has two Senate seats, the electoral college is weighted in favor of small states. (If you have two House seats, you have twice as many electoral votes as House seats. If you have fifty House seats, you only have four percent more electoral votes than House seats.) Of the twenty-one smallest states (those with four or fewer House seats), Republicans have won twelve of the twenty-one states in the past four elections. Of the nine states that have gone Democratic in one or more of the last four elections, four are considered swing states.
On the other hand, the ten largest states actually have a majority of the U.S. population and House seats (236 House seats to 199 for the remaining 40 states). However, they only have 256 electoral votes. Of these ten states, the Democrats have won five (with 140 electoral votes) in the last four election cycles compared to two (with 54 electoral votes) for the Republicans. (The three swing states have 62 electoral votes). In short, the Democratic strength in the electoral college is primarily built by winning large states which are underrepresented in electoral votes while any Republican chance is based on winning the small states that are overrepresented in electoral votes.
The Republican allegations that elections are rigged begins with voter registration. The truth is that the voter registration system in this country is a disgrace that actually favors the Republicans. Despite Democratic efforts over the year to make it easier to register, the U.S. voluntary system of registration results in a lower percentage of voters being registered than most major democracies –most of which require registration. We require all eighteen year old males to register for a non-existent draft just in case, but we do not require to people to register to vote in elections that occur every year. The registration process mostly results in the under registration of the poor, minorities, and those who move frequently — groups that tend to vote Democratic when they do vote.
But Republicans do not focus on the part of the system that keeps registration totals low. Instead, they focus on a different part of the system. Because voter registration totals are low, many groups conduct voter registration drives. Some of these groups pay for people to work on these drives. (The same way that groups pay for people to collect signatures on petition drives.) Some of these groups that pay base the pay on the number of registrations collected. In what should shock nobody, some of the employees of this group pad their numbers by filling out phony registrations. However, because there are checks to weed out the phony registrations, the victims of this fraud is not the electoral authorities as Republicans suggest, it is the groups that run these registration drives (as these employees increase their paychecks while not producing valid registrations).
As an initial point, many states require any group that runs a voter registration drive to turn in all completed registration cards. There is a good reason for this requirement. Particularly in states that register voters by party, some groups (read Republican groups) have a tendency to not turn in voter registration cards if the new voter is registering as a member of another (i.e. Democratic) party. Thus, rather than having the group running the registration drive check on the validity of the registration, that responsibility falls on the election authority. The primary check on an invalid registration is the address on the registration. An attempt to register with a home address of 1313 Mockingbird Lane, Spotsylvania will get kicked when there is no such address in the county database (and thus no precinct for the voter). Even if the would-be phony voter gives a real address, the next check is that most states have the election authority send a voter registration card to the new voter (indicating that voter’s precinct). If the voter does not live at that address (or know the person who lives at that address), the card will never reach the voter and will be returned to the election authority, prompting a further investigation into the validity of the registration. In short, most fake registrations are weeded out by the election authority.
The Republicans also like to suggest some shenanigans in the election process. Contrary to Republican suggestions, most states have some ID requirement for in-person voting. While states do not necessarily require photographic ID, they do require some verification of person and address. Even if a person could get some fake ID (e.g. register under multiple names at their home address), most states require bipartisan election judges. So if a person tries to vote multiple times in the same precinct, it is a highly likely that the election judges would notice the same person showing up multiple times to vote.
Besides bipartisan election judges, there are other checks on the voting process to assure a mostly accurate count. Many states require a test before the election to assure that the counting machines are accurately counting the vote (using a test deck). In each precinct, there is a count on the voting roll of how many people showed up to vote, a count of any spoiled ballot, and a count on the number of ballots issued to verify the number of ballots that should have been cast. In other words, it would take a conspiracy of both parties to stuff the ballot box.
While not every state does all of the checks to assure the accuracy of the count, there are other checks available. First, and most importantly, there should be a paper form of every ballot cast. In other words, while touch screen devices are useful for some voters, there should be a paper printout of the ballot that the voter can verify before finalizing the vote. Second, there should be some local verification process of the election night count. In my state, each local election authority is required to do a hand count of randomly selected precincts and races. If the hand count shows a problem with the election night machine count, the sampling is expanded and a full hand recount might follow. (Note: No machine count is perfectly accurate because some voters do weird things or do not fill in the bubble for optic scan properly. On the other hand, a hand recount is subject to human error by the canvassing judges.) Third, there should be automatic hand recounts in close races.
One of the most important checks on a phony election count is the simple fact that, in every state, elections are run by local authorities. While it might be possible for the election authority in one locality to try to play tricks with the count, it would be difficult to alter the outcome in a state by merely changing one county or town. Even then, both sides have a realistic expectation of the normal result in a county. If one or two counties showed an unexpected deviation from the normal result, there would quickly be a close inspection of the vote in that county.
While there are always allegations that an election could be hacked, those allegations are based on a misunderstanding of the counting process. Most election machines are not connected to the internet. Each precinct requires separately programmed election machines for the races in that precinct. (Some rural counties may only require one counting program for the entire county if there are no local issues on the ballot and no races that only cover part of the county.) To hack the election, you would still need to know when the election software company that services that county would be working on that county’s machine. Even then, if the county has a partial hand recount canvassing process, any hack would be caught at the canvassing stage. While it is theoretically possible that the results could be hacked at the stage of reporting from the local election authority to state, that theory also fails a reality check. Almost every county issues a report by precinct and a total county summary with some AP stringer in attendance to get a copy. If the AP count from the county and the state election authority count disagreed by any significant margin, red flags would go up. More importantly, what counts is not the election night return, but the final post-canvass results. The final results gained by entering the data into the state’s computer and a hand calculator adding the local results better come up to the same answer.
Where there is room for rigging an election is the process of making it harder to vote — having fewer per capita machines in certain larger urban precincts, short voting hours, difficult ID requirements, limiting early voting. Fortunately, courts have been doing their best to toss out such clear vote suppression tactics. The other — unfortunate — place for shenanigans is with mail-in ballots. While there has been a lot of effort devoted to stopping non-existent in-person election fraud, there is very little attention paid to the possibility of manipulating mail-in (in most states, absentee) ballots. In my state, there was a close primary race in which the losing candidate won the in-person voting on election day, but his opponent got 80% of the absentee ballot. (The losing candidate is challenging this result; although there are some reasons why such a disparity is plausible in this race.) Of course, the best way to combat this fraud is to increase the opportunities for early voting — more convenient locations, weekend and evening hours — to reduce the number of mail-in ballots. (Yes, I know some states have gone to a primarily mail-in system. I am not familiar enough with the procedures in those states to prevent fraud on those ballots.)
In short, it is difficult to “steal” an election by fraud. It would take a significant number of persons in a significant number of locations to get more than a handful of fraudulent votes. The easiest way to steal an election is by voter intimidation and voter suppression of the type that we have seen from the Republican Party in recent years. Democrats win by getting voters out to vote, not by fake votes. Republicans win by keeping people from voting, not by fake votes. Trump will lose, not because Democrats stole the election, but because the majority of Americans do not want Trump in the White House and because we made sure that the majority voted.