Could the Presidential Election Be Rigged?

Donald Trump, the Republican nominee for the Presidency of the United States, has been laying the groundwork of excuse for his imminent, likely defeat on the 8th of November.  Given that the New York Times reports just this morning that he is “driven by a fear of losing status”, accepting responsibility for his own electoral defeat is inconsistent with his psyche. Suggesting to his legions of supporters that the election is rigged affords him, at once, an explanation that absolves him of personal responsibility, and yet further evidence to his electoral base that the deck is stacked against them. Furthermore, this is a (perhaps accidental) appropriation of a recently well-established trope of the American right wing. In the last four years, Republican governors and state legislatures have relied on the fear of elections stolen on the base of fraudulent votes to introduce restrictive voter-ID laws in the states that they control. However, when the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals (the 12 appellate circuits occupy the tier of the federal judiciary immediately below the Supreme Court of the United States) struck down North Carolina’s voter-ID law, they did so because in their findings, the law did not exist to combat possible voter fraud, but instead to burden that state’s African-American community (who overwhelmingly vote Democratic) with additional barriers to participation.

According to the Washington Post’s coverage of this story: “In particular, the court found that North Carolina lawmakers requested data on racial differences in voting behaviors in the state. “This data showed that African Americans disproportionately lacked the most common kind of photo ID, those issued by the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV),” the judges wrote. So the legislators made it so that the only acceptable forms of voter identification were the ones disproportionately used by white people. “With race data in hand, the legislature amended the bill to exclude many of the alternative photo IDs used by African Americans,” the judges wrote. “The bill retained only the kinds of IDs that white North Carolinians were more likely to possess.” In economic terms, the state was increasing the costs to voting (if not in money, in time and patience).”

This has not deterred the Trump campaign and its surrogates from claiming that the election will be rigged, with one going so far as to claim that busloads of voters will be convoyed into Pennsylvania in order to help secure this crucial swing state in the Democratic column.  Overlooking, for a moment, the minor detail where Pennsylvania last voted for a Republican nominee in 1988, when George H.W. Bush defeated Michael Dukakis, rigging a US presidential election requires significant hurdles in both institutional arrangements and individual calculous be overcome.

Institutionally, the United States, as a country, does not administer elections.  This is devolved to the state (and lower) level in the American federal system.  Meaning, there are 51 different sets of electoral administrators.  Typically, the head of any given state’s electoral apparatus is the secretary of state for each state (itself an elected position). The problem facing any nefarious conspiracy led by the Democratic Party to rig the 2016 Presidential election is that this position is held by Democrats in only 17 states.  30 are held by Republicans, and four states have bi-partisan administration of their elections. In other words, if Democrats are going to rig this election, they have to begin by turning Republican officials in Michigan, Ohio, Florida, Colorado, New Mexico, North Carolina, and Iowa, amongst others.

Busloads of fraudulent voters is a recurring theme. During the 2012 Wisconsin gubernatorial recall election, Republicans were then openly fretting about the election being stolen from them (in the end, they had nothing to worry about, with Republican Governor Scott Walker winning 53.1% of the vote). What is never asked, however, is just why somebody would fraudulently vote.  As a student of voter behaviour in general with a sub speciality in turnout, I can list at length how the costs associated with voting far outweigh whatever tangible benefits one might accrue.  One has to navigate registration, polling locations, the hours the poling location is open, let alone being in possession of both the internal and external efficacy such that you’re confident in your decision, and that decision will make one iota of difference in terms of the outputs of government.  As one who studies and teaches this, it’s amazing to me that so many do vote to begin with.

Why bother to do it twice?  If one is unemployed and has nothing to do with their day, perhaps $20, $50, $100 will get me onto a bus from Chicago to cross state lines for a day out up to Wisconsin.  Then you have to ask, for whom is it worth to spend that much money.  The sheer number of fraudulent votes necessary to tip an election such as the Wisconsin recall is not one here, another there, a busload up yonder.  It would have taken 171,106 votes added to the Democratic tally to swing it — but only to a recount.  Best add another 50,000 to ensure a recount doesn’t happen, as we wouldn’t want this fraud coming to light.  That’s 220,000 voters.  At $20 per fraudulent voter, “labour” costs alone are $4,400,000.  If it costs $100 for a person to give up their day, break the law, and experience both Wisconsin and the interstates, a cool $22,000,000 is required to replace a Republican with a Democrat in Wisconsin.

Then there’s transport.  It would require 2,445 sorties of a Blue Bird All American school bus to transport our wave of nefarious democracy from Chicago to Wisconsin, if packed to their capacity of 90.  I have no idea what it costs to rent, fuel, and provide a driver for one of these, but this cost is not insubstantial.  And don’t forget lunch; in the classic tradition of GOTV, we should feed our anti-democratic legions.

Let’s review.  We need a population of 220,000 people willing to give up their day, knowingly commit a crime, for some modest financial remuneration.  We require the infrastructure to transport them.  And food.

Basically, we need a lot of money to pull this off.  The entire recall itself, both sides, raised $63 million.  Our project would add a significant pile of cash to this total.

The activists monitoring against voter-fraud believe that both the fraudulent voters and those organising (and financing) them exist.  But those overseeing the project to halt voter fraud at local and state levels really know what they’re doing.  It’s more pernicious than preventing granny from voting because she lacks state photo ID.  They’re specifically targeting minority precincts or any other conveniently concentrated demographic that tends to vote Democrat, acting as election “observers”:

In Houston, the group targeted the Congressional district represented by Sheila Jackson Lee, a Democrat who is black. Ms. Engelbrecht said the group settled on Ms. Lee’s district because thousands of addresses there housed six or more registered voters, which it took as an indication of inaccurate registrations. The methodology, which the group still uses, could disproportionately affect lower income families.

“The first day of early voting, at many of the 37 locations, primarily in minority neighborhoods, dozens of poll watchers showed up sent by King Street Patriots,”

It must frighten these people that six or ten adults live at the same address, let alone that they’re registered to vote at the same address.  This is an economic reality that is incomprehensible to many.  Yet, here’s the reality:

“They had one particular case I remember very well,” said Douglas Ray, the Harris County assistant attorney who represents the election registrar. “They had identified an address where eight or 10 people were registered to vote. There was no building there.” Mr. Ray found out that the building had been torn down and that the people simply moved.

And then there are college students:

On Election Day, poll watchers appeared to have slowed voting to a crawl at Lawrence University in Appleton, where some students were attempting to register and vote on the same day.

Charlene Peterson, the city clerk in Appleton, said three election observers, including one from True the Vote, were so disruptive that she gave them two warnings.

“They were making challenges of certain kinds and just kind of in physical contact with some of the poll workers, leaning over them, checking and looking,” said John Lepinski, a poll watcher and former Democratic Party chairman for Outagamie County.

He said that as a result of the scrutiny, the line to register moved slowly. Finally, he said, some students gave up and left.

This transcends lofty concerns about good government.  This is blatant, targeted voter harassment.

And it will have an effect.  In stark terms, this is nothing more than an additional cost that must be incurred to vote.  I can readily understand how it dissuades people from voting to have an election observer, already distrusting your right to vote because you’re the other, breathing down your neck and that of the polling place workers.  Whereas we can roughly measure the effect that a lack of photo ID might have in terms of a reduction of the potential electorate, and we can infer from demographics the asymmetric impact that this has on the two parties, the sort of intimidation discussed in the NYT article linked above will be extremely difficult to account for from a social science perspective.

No, this election neither will be rigged, nor is it possible to create a conspiracy so vast to, in fact, rig it. However, the measures adopted by those who express concern about voter fraud will have an effect. But, only at the margins. Given Hillary Clinton’s large, and stable, lead in the polls, and the sheer number of “extra” states that she leads in virtually guaranteeing a victory in the Electoral College (according to projections on fivethirtyeight.com at the time of this post’s publication, Clinton could end up losing Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Iowa, and Arizona, yet still win the election) the reaction against the non-existent malady of voter fraud likewise will not effect the outcome.

[Portions of the discussion of the costs and benefits of voter fraud appeared previously by this author in Lawyers, Guns & Money]

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