Republican candidate Donald Trump has made the insistent claim that the US presidential elections are being “rigged,” but experts say massive voter fraud is highly unlikely in a system as decentralized as the United States.
“There are a lot of safeguards in place that would preclude that from happening, from federal laws to local and state laws as well,” said Jo-Renee Formicola, a political scientist at Seton Hall University.
The US election system is far from perfect, as illustrated by the imbroglio over the vote count in Florida during the 2000 presidential election between George W. Bush and Al Gore.
A conservative-majority Supreme Court finally ruled in favor of Bush, but the sense of a “stolen” election lingered on among some Democrats — who never fully accepted the Republican president as legitimate.
But 16 years later, the chances of mass fraud marring the contest between Trump and his Democrat rival Hillary Clinton are remote, experts say.
Even national elections like the one on November 8 are organized not by the federal government but by US states, and they tend to delegate the task to a welter of local authorities.
“The fact that every single voting district would be involved in a fraud is virtually impossible because there are so many different kinds of districts,” Formicola said.
A mosaic of voting systems — some using electronic voting machines, others paper ballots, and still others both — add a level of complexity that would tend to thwart any attempt at wholesale voter fraud, the experts say.
Besides, Republican election officials oversee the vote in most of the key battlegrounds of the 2016 presidential elections, states like Colorado, Iowa, Michigan and Arizona.
“In person voter fraud — that’s when someone shows up and pretends to be someone else — is incredibly rare, almost never happens and there is no evidence that it happens in numbers that are anywhere close to having an effect, even in a close election,” said Cornell Law School professor Zachary Clopton.
– Evidence lacking –
Trump’s charges of impending voter fraud have escalated as he has sunk below Hillary Clinton, his Democratic rival, in the polls.
While providing no evidence to back his claims, the New York billionaire has cast suspicion on voting in urban areas where Clinton enjoys strong backing from black and Hispanic voters.
“Mr Trump, for example, has called out Philadelphia as a place where he thinks there might be fraud,” said Clopton. “I think there is virtually no evidence of in-person voter fraud at all, but I guess the idea would be that it would happen in a few places.”
President Barack Obama on Tuesday derided Trump’s attacks.
“I have never seen in my lifetime or in modern political history any presidential candidate trying to discredit the elections and the election process before votes have even taken place. It’s unprecedented,” Obama said.
“If, whenever things are going badly for you and you lose, you start blaming somebody else? Then you don’t have what it takes to be in this job,” he said.
While the risk of in-person fraud is seen as minimal, there are more serious concerns that hackers could pose a threat on Election Day — fuelled by recent intrusions attributed to Russian hackers in voter registration databases in Illinois and Arizona.
Those incidents have spurred federal authorities to offer local authorities their expertise in protecting their systems against hackers.
Pamela Smith, president of Verified Voting, a civic group that advocates for clean elections, says safeguards against fraud are greater now than they were in 2012 and 2014.
– Weak link –
Still, electronic voting machines could be a weak link.
“That’s perhaps one area where we might be concerned about leaving these questions to little towns and cities that may not have the technical sophistications of the federal government, but it would then require hacking multiple places if you are trying to build up,” said Clopton.
Trump may be preparing the ground for a loss to Clinton by predicting that the election is rigged.
But experts worry he is undermining public confidence in a basic democratic institution.
“I can say it is highly unusual to claim ‘rigging’ in advance of polls even opening,” said Smith. “It would not appear to be based on specific evidence, or perhaps it is better to say we have seen no evidence brought forward in support of such a statement.
“It is of grave concern to the extent that it could generate doubt in our democratic system and peaceful transference of power that we exercise every four years,” she said.