Election officials scoff at Trump's claim of 'rigged' vote
© Getty

Elections officials and experts say Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpDems win from coast to coast Falwell after Gillespie loss: 'DC should annex' Northern Virginia Dems see gains in Virginia's House of Delegates MORE’s claims of a “rigged” presidential election are ludicrously off base, given the use of a decentralized system in which ballots are counted by thousands of Democratic and Republican officials across the country.

That decentralized system, which is often criticized for holding voters in different states to different standards, has acted as a barrier to widespread fraud in more than two centuries of American elections.

ADVERTISEMENT
Trailing badly in state and national polls, Trump has began to argue forcefully that his opponent, Democrat Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonGOP rushes to cut ties to Moore Papadopoulos was in regular contact with Stephen Miller, helped edit Trump speech: report Bannon jokes Clinton got her ‘ass kicked’ in 2016 election MORE, is part of a conspiracy aimed at stealing the election.

“The election is absolutely being rigged by the dishonest and distorted media pushing Crooked Hillary — but also at many polling places,” Trump tweeted on Sunday, hours after his running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PenceSean Spicer: After Trump's year 1, GOP poised to dominate again in 2018 Cornyn: Senate GOP tax plan to be released Thursday Pence to visit site of Texas church shooting on Wednesday MORE, said the Republican ticket would accept the election’s outcome. 

The Constitution gives states the power to conduct their own elections. States, in turn, give power to municipal and county officials to administer polling sites, manage their own machines and count ballots.

“We are not conducting one election, or even 51 elections, but something like 14,000 elections because we have all these electoral jurisdictions,” said Rick Hasen, a law professor and elections expert at the University of California, Irvine.  

State and local jurisdictions take pains to demonstrate transparency and accuracy, even before the polls open.

Most states require jurisdictions to conduct both pre- and post-election checks of voting machines, in front of the public and observers from both political parties. Most states allow observers to keep tabs on poll workers, who themselves represent both major political parties, while the polls are open and after they close. 

Every vote cast in almost every state — with the exception of certain parts of Pennsylvania — will be backed up by a paper receipt.

Once the polls close, local elections boards are typically given about a week to certify their results, a lag that allows final absentee ballots to come in and voters who cast provisional ballots to prove their identity or residency. Those boards then send their results to their state election administrator, who rechecks the numbers before issuing a final report, usually in late November or early December. In most states, the governor signs off on the final election results. 

“Each state certifies its election results and all elections in the United States, including federal elections, are administered by each of the individual states and their local jurisdictions according to state law,” said Bryan Whitener, communications director at the U.S. Election Assistance Commission in Silver Spring, Md. 

In the presidential election, the states notify the slate of electors representing the winning party. This year, those electors will meet in state capitols across the country on Dec. 19 to formally cast their ballots. States forward those ballots to Congress, which reads them aloud in a joint session — the first time any federal body gets involved in the electoral process.

Each step along the way, from local vote counting to Congress’s involvement, is open to members of the public and representatives of both political parties. 

In practice, that means there is no centralized set of election administrators who could rig results in favor of or against any particular candidate.  

“It’s all based at the local, county and state level,” said Michael Haas, who runs election administration at the Wisconsin Elections and Ethics Commission. 

Any effort to rig election results would require either tens of thousands of people working to commit voter fraud multiple times each, without being caught, or the complicity of thousands of poll workers, local and state election officials from both parties, as well as members of the media and government watchdog groups. 

The Department of Justice and even the United Nations observe American elections, though neither is responsible for or able to alter vote tabulations at any stage of the process. 

In Wisconsin alone, 1,854 municipal clerks are responsible for administering local elections. Seventy-two county clerks then oversee those municipal clerks, before Haas’s team at the Elections and Ethics Commission collects the final results. 

Even before polls open, voting machines are kept under tight scrutiny. In Colorado, machines are stored behind locked doors, monitored by video surveillance and equipped with tamper-evident mechanisms.

“If you’re Tom Cruise in Ghost Protocol, I’m not saying [the machines] can’t be gotten into, but they are secure from intrusion in the very best way we know of to secure them,” Colorado Secretary of State Wayne Williams, a Republican, told The Hill in September.  

Social media has added an extra layer of scrutiny in recent years, capable of catching mistakes made by administrators across the country. In some cases, early returns will show an incorrect number of voters in a given precinct, thanks to a typo or other human error.

Eagle-eyed election analysts watching the votes roll in have spotted those anomalies in recent years, helping local election boards find and fix them — all long before counts are made official a week later. 

“I can guarantee you that there will be errors made on Election Day. There are errors made on every Election Day,” Hasen, of the University of California, Irvine, said. 

But studies have repeatedly found no evidence of widespread voter fraud, and little evidence at all of even small-scale fraud. Justin Levitt, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles who studies fraud allegations, found 31 incidents of voter fraud across the nation since 2000, out of more than 1 billion ballots cast.