Congress Blog

Talk of a rigged election could get awkward, fast

Donald Trump went in to the final debate trailing Hillary Clinton in most polls. By most accounts, Trump delivered his most solid performance against Clinton in their last debate. Yet, his unwillingness to step back comments of a potentially rigged election has dominated the airwaves since. Trump's claims of the election being taken away through voter fraud has not been well-received by those in the Clinton camp as well as those within his own party.

Confidence in the electoral system is undoubtedly shaken. Surveys find that 40% of Americans have little confidence in the political system. About 1 in 10 Americans believe the two-party system works for presidential elections. Add to this the concern voters have expressed about their choices in this election and it is no wonder that Trump has found an audience among those worried about the sanctity of the electoral process.

While Trump continues to rail against a rigged election and Clinton continues to warn about the dangers of such talk, the narrative of this particular story has the potential to get pretty awkward, pretty quickly--especially given Trump's most likely path to the presidency.

As noted, Trump has been trailing in the polls and it would appear he would need a miracle to pull off an upset Nov. 8. Recently, Nate Silver suggested the only way for Trump to win is with a narrow victory in the Electoral College. This outcome includes the possibility of Trump winning the Electoral College, while losing the popular vote (i.e., an Electoral College "misfire"). Silver has consistently put the odds of this happening between 4-10% and Trump winning the presidency at less than 20%. Given the national polls, this scenario is looking more and more plausible for Trump to pull off an upset on Election Day. If this were to happen, we can imagine arguments regarding a rigged election in 2016 would take on a very different shape.

The possibility of such a misfire is not without precedent and has happened with relatively surprising frequency. Most Americans recognize the popular-electoral vote split in the election of 2000, but the same thing has happened three other times in our presidential contests, (1824, 1876, and 1888).

In 1824, Andrew Jackson claimed the most popular and electoral votes, but failed to acquire a majority in the Electoral College. Jackson received 38,000 more popular votes than Adams, and bested him in the Electoral College, 99 to 84. Yet, when the race was thrown into the House of Representatives, John Quincy Adams came out victorious.

In 1876, Samuel Tilden received 250,000 more votes than Rutherford B. Hayes, but lost in the Electoral College by one vote. Likewise, in 1888, Benjamin Harrison claimed the Electoral College vote while Grover Cleveland received 90,000 more votes among the populace. And of course, in 2000, Gore received 500,000 more votes in the general election than George W. Bush, but lost the state of Florida by 537 votes, which also earned Bush 271 electoral votes and an Electoral College victory.

Nearly one in 10 presidential elections has ended in a misfire. The potential for such misfires has actually been more of a norm, than an exception. In almost half of all presidential contests, a shift in a relatively small number of votes scattered across one or a few states would have resulted in either a different winner, or a contingent election due to no candidate receiving a majority of the electoral vote. While rare, popular-electoral vote splits do happen, and have come close to occurring far more often than most recognize.

Another misfire in the Electoral College is among Donald Trump's most likely avenues to the White House. If this were to happen, it would give rise to concerns over the way we count votes for the presidency. That electoral votes and popular votes do not always align is peculiar to many Americans. Trump may do well to back off his talk of a rigged election as a different type of "rigging" would suddenly be under the spotlight. Given the low efficacy many already feel toward the electoral process, a popular-electoral vote would certainly put the Electoral College in the cross-hairs.

Robert Alexander is Professor of Political Science at Ohio Northern University and author of "Presidential Electors and the Electoral College: An Examination of Lobbying, Wavering Electors, and Campaigns for Faithless Votes."

The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.

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