Rigged Election?

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has been asserting that the presidential election will be rigged. He seems to have three main assertions regarding the rigging. The first is that the election is being rigged by “the dishonest media” who support “crooked Hillary.” The second is that the polling places are rigged. The third is that there will be widespread voter fraud.

Despite Trump’s assertions about a rigged election, Trump’s vice presidential pick Mike Pence has tried to assure the public that he and Trump will honor the results. Other Republicans have been critical of Trump’s remarks about the election being rigged and there is concern that such remarks are damaging to the American democratic process. There is, of course, a certain irony in the Republican reaction to Trump. This is because Trump is using hyperbolic versions of established Republican tactics.

The idea that the media has a liberal bias which puts conservatives at a disadvantage in the polls dates back to at least the time of Nixon. However, more traditional Republicans have not gone as far as Trump in their attacks on the media. He is thus not breaking new ground, but going to new distances on that ground. Trump does, however, differ in that he seems to merge the alleged media bias in with the rigging of elections. These are, obviously enough, two distinct matters. While the media presumably influences people, this is different from rigging an election. Such rigging involves improper tampering with the actual voting process and not influencing voters.

It is also somewhat ironic that Trump is pre-blaming the media for his possible defeat, given that he is partially a creation of that same media. While estimates do vary, it is believed that Trump received $2-3 billion in free media coverage. While it could be argued that Trump would have become the Republican nominee without this media support, it certainly seems reasonable to consider this a significant factor in his success. This past largesse from the media does not, of course, prove that the media is not biased against him now.

The question of whether the media is biased against Trump is somewhat problematic. On the one hand, most people in the media (liberal and conservative) seem to dislike Trump considerably. This is certainly worth taking into account when critically assessing media coverage of Trump. On the other hand, the majority of the negative coverage is negative because of what Trump does and says and not because the media is twisting the stories. This matter can be settled with considerable effort by having objective experts review all the news coverage of Trump for factual accuracy and the presence of negative bias against him. However, if the results of such an analysis revealed that the coverage was generally accurate, Trump would presumably dismiss the expert analysis as biased and the experts as stupid losers.

Trump’s claim that the electoral process itself will be rigged is one that is quite unusual—Democrats and Republicans generally do not question the integrity of the general process. While rare and isolated incidents are not unknown, the integrity of the system itself seems solid. As others have claimed, this unwarranted attack is potentially dangerous to the American political process and could have harmful consequences. Trump’s use of this tactic would thus seem to indicate either his ignorance or his lack of ethics. Or possibly both.

While Trump’s broad attack on the presidential election is unfounded, his attack does borrow some credibility from legitimate concerns. One is the revelation that the Democratic Party seemed to be stacking the deck for Hillary Clinton against Bernie Sanders. This does raise concerns about the fairness of the party—but it would be something of a leap to take this as evidence that the general election will be rigged against Trump.

Another concern arises from all the various tricks, such as gerrymandering, that are used to modify local elections in favor of certain candidates. While methods are a problem, these tactics would generally not work on a national level. For example, gerrymandering is out. Also, rigging the election in enough states to cost Trump the election would be rather difficult and all but impossible to hide. This is not to say that there are not people who would like to rig it against Trump (or Hillary), just that there are massive logistic and secrecy challenges that they could almost certainly not overcome. In light of this, it seems certain that the election process itself is not rigged against Trump. This is something Paul Ryan and I agree on.

While Republicans are broadly opposing Trump’s assertion about a rigged election, his assertion about voter fraud is a page from the established Republican playbook. While Pence has not backed Trump on the idea that the election is rigged, Pence does support voter ID laws. These ID laws and other methods (such as reducing early voting opportunities) are defended by arguing that voter fraud presents a threat to the integrity of elections. While it is true that voter fraud is not non-existent, all the evidence shows that it almost never occurs. Given that the fraud is almost entirely mythical and the methods proposed by Republicans to combat it disproportionally impact groups more likely to vote for Democrats than Republicans, the logical inference is that these methods are aimed at “rigging” elections in favor of Republicans. As such, Trump is right to be worried that there is something going on aimed at unfairly influencing the election. Ironically, these attempts would seem to be in his favor and not to his disadvantage.

Trump has thus created yet another problem for Republicans. The traditional Republicans generally do not want voters to doubt the legitimacy of elections, but they do want voters to believe that voter fraud exists and must be countered by the means they propose. However, to the degree they succeed in raising fears about voter fraud, they serve to undermine confidence in elections and thus they feed Trump. Trump’s gift to the Republicans has been connecting their notion of voter fraud with his notion that the election will be rigged. This is not a gift they want.

To combat this alleged fraud, Trump has urged his followers to go to polling stations to keep an eye out for it. While voters do have the right to a fair election process, Trump seems to be implying that his followers should engage in voter intimidation—a tactic often used against minority voters in the past. Trump, of course, does not directly say this and his wording, as it so often does, allows him to deny that he is directly urging his followers to do such a thing—even though the message seems to have been received by some.

In addition to being illegal, such intimidation is fundamentally immoral in a democracy. It would also be a form of election rigging, something Trump professes to hate. At least when the rigging is supposed to be against him.


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