Donald Trump and a fervent section of his supporters have made a fair bit of noise this US election cycle by claiming that the US voting system is rigged, although presumably this accusation only stands if Hillary Clinton wins.
The million dollar question, then, is whether or not a large scale election rig is actually possible. Trump might not care about the truth, but you should, so here’s a handy breakdown of the issue.
Electronic vote hacking
It’s been reported that some US polling stations are still using badly designed computers. This is unfortunate, as it gives ammunition to those wanting to claim that it’s possible to sway the vote through a large scale computer hack. However, it’s also been acknowledged that to hack these machines would be extremely difficult at best as they are not connected to the internet, or each other.
Even if a hacker did manage to penetrate one of these machines, he or she would have to individually hack potentially hundreds of machines to sway the vote. “Nobody is going to be able to change the outcome of the presidential vote by hacking voting machines. The system is too distributed, too decentralised, too many implementations for any individual actor or group to make substantial change,” said Nicholas Weaver, a computer scientist and cyber-security expert at the International Computer Science Institute at the University of California, Berkeley.
It’s worth noting that these computers are only used in a minority of polling stations across the US. Most polling stations use the old fashioned pen ’n paper ballot box method. So let’s look at the vulnerabilities of this a bit more.
When electronic voting was just a twinkle in Bill Gates’ eye, accusations of vote rigging centred around the possibility of the fraudulent voting of dead people, people voting more than once or corrupt election officials placing fake ballot papers/destroying legitimate ones. Here are some of the checks and balances that have been put in place to ensure a fair vote.
The United States has a very fragmented voting system
The US has a very fragmented voting system. Every state is divided into counties (over 3,000 altogether) and each of these is divided into separate voter jurisdictions. It’s at this level that electoral registration is managed. Polling stations are run by election officials, ordinary citizens of varying political allegiances, not government officials. American elections are held in public places in plain sight and, on top of this, the law permits parties and candidates to send ‘poll-watchers’ to watch over election officials and monitor them as they work.
When voting is complete, election officials count votes and tally results. Candidate and party representatives (from both parties) observe this process, too. If a private citizen did attempt to manipulate the relatively small number of votes they come into contact with, which objectively could happen, it’s highly unlikely that one or even a few rogue individuals could significantly influence the vote and get away with it.
So what about compromised electoral rolls?
Donald Trump has claimed that “people who died 10 years ago are still voting”. Believe it or not, he is not the first candidate throughout history to make this claim in order to deny the legitimacy of his opponent, hence the complex voting system we have today.
Electoral rolls are managed at a local level, but collected at a state level. The scenarios for electoral roll hacking include deleting an opponent’s voters from the electoral roll or adding fake supporters. To turn these scenarios into a rigged election, a significant number of ‘boots on the ground’ citizens committed to manipulating the election results are required. Not just to actually turn up and vote under a fake name, but to deflect those voters whose names have been erased. All of this, without detection.
There are examples of individuals managing to register dead people on the electoral register
There are examples of individuals managing to register dead people on the electoral register, such as this University of Virginia student who managed to register 19 deceased people. However enrolling on the register does not amount to casting a vote, and unless the student had a large selection of disguises it’s unlikely he would have actually been able to vote on their behalf.
Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida has said “I promise you there is not a 67-county conspiracy to rig this election.” Republican Texas Secretary of State Carlos Cascos has said “Texas has 254 counties using a variety of voting methods. The decentralised system in addition to layers of checks and balances would make changing the outcome of a statewide election essentially impossible.”
In fact, many Republicans have tried to distance themselves from Trump’s ill founded claims that the election is rigged. Sadly, though, too many people continue to take him at face value.
So, is the election rigged?
This isn’t the first time Trump has made claims of election rigging, see these unhinged Tweets from 2012 in which he calls for a revolution.
Claiming that your opposition are rigging votes is convenient because it allows you to undermine the authority of your rival, whilst also giving you an ‘excuse’ if the vote doesn’t go in your favour. As his behaviour towards women has indicated, Donald Trump is used to taking what he wants and is inclined to throw his toys out the pram if he doesn’t get it.
Thankfully, latest polls show that he is set to lose the election on Nov 8th (touch wood).
Let’s hope he goes quietly and this whole embarrassing blip in the history of democracy can be forgotten.