Note: This post has been updated since original publication.
Throughout the election campaign, President-elect Donald Trump—then candidate Trump—warned repeatedly that the election was rigged against him, implying that he’d only accept the final results “if I win.” In a twist of irony worthy of O. Henry, the post-election accusations of potentially rigged results are now being aimed squarely at the president-elect’s slim victories in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, where actual vote totals are at odds with pre-election polling data.
The disconnect in these three Midwestern swing states have led some computer scientists to voice concern that hackers may have somehow manipulated the computers that tally the votes. So far, this scenario is just speculation without any evidence. Nonetheless, it seems plausible to many supporters of Trump’s Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, given how her campaign was bedeviled by hacked leaks of internal emails.
The Green Party, led by their presidential candidate Jill Stein, has raised the money necessary to recount ballots in Wisconsin, and it intends to also seek recounts in Michigan and Pennsylvania. Reversals in all three states could throw the electoral college victory to Clinton, who, in fact, won the nationwide popular vote by more than 2 million ballots.
All of this begs the question: Could the election be rigged?
Fraud is local, not federal
Regardless of whether the election is “rigged,” there are some reasons to be concerned:
- Security experts have demonstrated the vulnerability of electronic voting machines.
- Russian hackers are suspected of hacking the Democratic National Committee.
- WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange had his internet access cutoff for leaking DNC emails and allegedly interfering with the U.S. election.
The Federal Election Commission, created by Congress in 1975, focuses on campaign finance, not voter fraud. The casting and tallying of votes in each state are conducted under state supervision. And while at first glance this may exacerbate fears of voter fraud, it actually makes a successful subversion of the vote less likely. If someone or a group attempted to hack a federal election, it would have to be done state by state, voting district by voting district.
Lots of claims, very little proof
As a Washington Post article explains, numerous inquiries have resulted in an overwhelming consensus that voter fraud is rare. The article cites several academic studies, including a Loyola Law School analysis of alleged voting fraud across the United States that concluded “only a tiny portion of the claimed illegality is substantiated,” and the remainder nothing more than speculation or “has been conclusively debunked.” And a New York Times investigation, which examined five years of Justice Department records, concluded “the Justice Department has turned up virtually no evidence of any organized effort to skew federal elections.”
Many Republicans (like Trump, who keeps trying to sue members of the media) and other observers have voiced a profound distrust of mainstream news outlets, and so might not buy anything the Post or the Times has to say. But their reports are thoroughly backed up elsewhere. A Columbia University study found that voter fraud most often was “limited to local races and individual acts,” while several other academic investigations found no evidence that dead people’s votes are counted. Extensive studies by state agencies in Iowa, Wisconsin, Kansas, and North Carolina found no evidence of significant voter fraud. The Kansas study examined 84 million votes cast in 22 states, finding evidence of duplicate voter registrants in only 0.00000017 percent of the votes cast.
The paper trail
So even if individual or administrative voter fraud is minimal to the extent of irrelevancy, what about those electronic voting machines?
A recent story in WIRED highlighted some problems resulting from replacing aging mechanical voting machines with electronic ones, namely that the new machines were not designed with today’s hackers in mind. Not only are some still running outdated software such as Windows XP, for which no security patches have been issued since April 2014, but many are susceptible to a distributed denial-of-service attack, like the one on October 21, 2016, that disrupted internet service across the U.S.
The good news, however, is this: a majority of states retain a paper trail of the cast ballots. “Three-quarters of the country will vote on a paper ballot this fall,” Verified Voting president Pamela Smith said in the WIRED story. Those paper forms include the popular fill-in-the-bubble ballots. These are optically scanned and tallied, but the paper ballots are retained in case of a recount.
And even many states that use electronic voting machines rely on paper-trail verification in case of a close election. In fact, post-election audits are conducted in more than half the states to ensure the vote totals match what was reported. Unfortunately, a few states—Kentucky and swing-state Pennsylvania among them—don’t use verifiable paper trails.
But who actually gets to vote?
How about the type of fraud that occurs before the election, such as purging eligible voters from voter rolls? A Reuters survey of Ohio’s voter list found that voters in Democratic-leaning neighborhoods were purged at twice the rate of those in Republican-leaning neighborhoods. But a federal district court found the purge illegal and ordered Ohio to allow the expunged voters to cast ballots in this year’s election. And while some states have implemented voter ID laws, court challenges have been successful in overturning those restrictions.
But even if the voter rolls are pristine, anxiety remains that the ballot results have been manipulated. Having promoted suspicion of a rigged election as a candidate, Trump now finds his victory in the crosshairs of that very charge. And America holds its collective breath as the recounts play out.
What can you do in the next election cycle to ensure you haven’t been illegally purged from the voting rolls and your right to vote has not been compromised? You can check your voting registration online at Vote.org, and, for overseas voters, at OverseasVoteFoundation.org. If you aren’t voting by absentee ballot or a mail-in ballot, you can find your local polling place at Headcount.org.
If you suspect you have been a victim of voter fraud or are denied the right to vote on Election Day, yes, there’s an app for that: VoteStand, free for Android and iOS. Alternatively you can report it to your state or local election office, the FBI, your local U.S. Attorney, or the Department of Justice’s Public Integrity Section.
Image courtesy of Huffington Post