Over the last few weeks, Donald Trump has been saying that the election is being “rigged” against him and is about to be stolen by the Democrats. He was asked about this during the last debate and indicated that he might not accept the election results. This had lead to two things: 1) the Democrats claiming his potential refusal to accept the result and claims of a rigged system are horrifying and dangerous; 2) Republicans citing examples of Democrats (notably Sanders and Warren) also claiming the system is rigged.
I wanted to unspool this a bit. Because a lot of words are being tossed around lightly that reference several inter-related issues that all fall the description of a “rigged” system.
The first way that the “system is rigged” is in the economic sense. This is certainly the sense that Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren mean when they say the system is rigged. And I, and I daresay most of you, would agree with that description.
How could we not when we see big tax breaks given to powerful interests while the myriad of lesser business have to pay up? How could we not when we see billion dollar subsidized stadiums given to wealthy sports teams? How could we not when see regulatory capture? When we see small businesses crippled by regulations big businesses can absorb or work around? When we see bailouts given to insolvent banks so they can buy up the solvent ones? When financial reform bills are written by men who are up their necks in big bank money? When the real danger of climate change is addressed by the phony solution of shoving subsidies at political allies? When eminent domain is used to force poor and middle class people to sell their property to rich people? When asset forfeiture laws can take someone’s property even if they haven’t committed a crime.
During the last recession, the only area of the country that wasn’t hurt was the area immediately surrounding Washington DC. That area is one of the wealthiest in the country. How can you look at that and not see a rigged economic system?
The irony here is that it is the very policies favored by the Democrats which rig the system. They favor regulations which cripple small businesses. They favor addressing climate change through subsidies and gifts to rich friends. They favored the bailouts. The wrote Dodd-Frank. They want a minimum wage that will gut entry-level jobs. Will Wilkinson wrote a great article for Vox on this subject:
Dentists rig the system against dental hygienists by working to make it illegal for hygienists to clean teeth without totally unnecessary supervision by dentists. Taxi medallion oligopolists rig the system against regular folks with cars who would like turn a buck giving people rides. Beauty school cosmetologists rig the system against hair braiders and sidewalk hair-clipper artistes. “Massage therapists” rig the system against anybody with strong hands who might want to give back rubs for cash.
But the rigging of the economy is not just the story of occupational licensing. It’s also the story of big-city gentrifiers who block construction projects that would reduce the cost of housing by expanding its supply, which has the effect of rigging the economy against workers who can no longer afford to live where the best jobs are.
It’s the story of petty restrictions on the freedom to buy and sell — to commit “capitalist acts between consenting adults,” as the philosopher Robert Nozick once put it — which deny dignity and safety to those who work on the margins of the economy. Think of Eric Garner selling untaxed cigarettes on a street corner.
So, yes the economy is rigged. But both Trump and Clinton (and Sanders and Warren) fail to understand how it is rigged. Or, more likely, they see the rigging as good. And until we start shrinking the power and scope of government, it will remain rigged.
The second way that people claim the system is “rigged” is through the media. The media, we are told, has a massive liberal bias that makes it impossible for conservatives to advance an agenda.
I only partially agree with this. The media clearly have a bias in the kind of stories they cover and the way they cover them. Somewhere over 90% of the press vote for Democrats. To put this in perspective, evangelicals only vote about 80% Republican. There is basically no group in this country that is more devoted to one party than the media are to the Democrats (only academia comes close, which plays into complaints about their bias).
However … I think this complaint is a bit overblown. Fox News is conservative and has, by far, the largest audience of any cable news network. The airwaves are dominated by conservative voices in Limbaugh and Hannity. And the internet has allowed people to go to sites of their choice to get their news and analysis. So the idea that the entire country is trapped in a liberal echo chamber is silly.
And frankly, Donald Trump is the last person on Earth who can complain about media bias. The media clearly favored Trump in the primary, giving him billions in free coverage and ignoring his multitudinous scandals. And while he complains that the media aren’t covering Clinton’s scandals, the media clearly are. There have been innumerable articles written about the Clinton Foundation, Benghazi, the e-mail scandal and the Podesta emails. Clinton was specifically asked about the e-mail and Foundation scandals during the debates. The mainstream media aren’t covering her scandals as gleefully as Trump’s, but they are covering them. And it’s all that gets talked about on Fox News and talk radio.
It’s this aspect of the “rigging” of the election that seems to be bothering Trump the most right now. He’s complaining that the NYT, the WaPo, ABC, NBC, the debate hosts, Saturday Night Live and basically the entire universe are piling on top of him. Now conservatives have complained about media bias for a long time — sometimes legitimately, sometimes not. But it’s part of the landscape and always has been. What’s disturbing here, as Ann Althouse points out, is that Trump is blurring a line, claiming that a media bias makes the election itself illegitimate:
Notice that Trump isn’t talking about fraud and miscounting of ballots there. He’s complaining that the voters made the wrong decision. We can’t be rejecting the outcome of an election on the ground that the voters thought about it the wrong way! Trump has many good complaints about the media, but if distorted media invalidate elections, we can’t have a democracy anymore. There will always be dishonesty and efforts to influence — poisoning — and if we can’t get on with it anyway, the whole project of democracy is a bust.
Complaining about election irregularities or voter registration or butterfly ballots or something about the mechanism of an election might be legit. But complaining that media accurately covering your scandals and misbehavior makes the election invalid? Those are not the words of someone concerned by election integrity; those are the words of petty thin-skinned tyrant.
That brings me to the third way in which the system might be rigged — the election itself. While I think there are problems and there is a critical need for reform … I don’t think the voting itself is rigged on the scale Trump is claiming. And the main reason I don’t think that is because I’ve been following a lot of election officials and volunteers on social media — from both parties — and they have been explaining, in incredible detail, just how hard it would be to rig a vote.
To rig an election, you would need 1) technological capabilities that exist only in Mission Impossible movies, plus 2) the cooperation of the Republicans and Democrats who are serving as the polling place’s election officials, plus 3) the blind eyes of the partisan pollwatchers who are standing over their shoulders, plus 4) the cooperation of another set of Republicans and Democrats — the officials at the post-elections canvass, plus 5) the blind eyes of the canvass watchers, too. Then you’d still have to jedi-mind trick lawyers, political operatives and state election administrators, all of whom scrub precinct-level returns for aberrant election results and scrutinize any polling place result that is not in line with what they would have expected based on current political dynamics and historical election results.
The hysteria over Trump’s remarks is a bit rich, of course. Many Democrats claimed the 2000 election was stolen (by, uh, Democratic canvassing boards). Many Democrats claimed the 2004 election was stolen (by, uh, Democratic operatives). Before the 2008 and 2012 election, there were many claims the Diebold machines would secretly switch votes to Republicans, an allegation that proved baseless.
The deeper you dig into the claims of a rigged election, though, the less you find. You find bogus claims about Ohio precincts. You find that the four million dead registered voters is mainly a paperwork issue. You find that ACORN and other organizations’ bogus voter registrations have more to do with their own internal labor abuses than faking the vote.
Does vote fraud occur? Well, the documented cases of it are very few. But, of course, that’s hard to measure when you’re not cracking down on fraud in the first place. But there simply isn’t a lot of evidence for vote fraud on the scale that would swing national elections. It’s mainly connect-the-dot conspiracy theories full of bogus and misleading information. Sure, I think vote fraud could swing a really close election. But hundreds of thousands of votes? Millions of votes? That would require an army of conspirators.
But … I do agree that it would be worthwhile to have state and national reforms to the voting system. Not because I think this would change anything but because I think it would build up confidence in the system. Because the critics of Trump do have a point. Democracy works when we think it works. The entire system is based on trust. And if people don’t trust the result, that undermines the system and damages the legitimacy of government. And if you think that’s a good thing in a “burn the system to the ground” sense, ask the Greeks how that’s working out for them.
So in that vein, I have a few ideas for how to make the election more secure:
- Voter ID with a massive push to provide ID to people who don’t have one. I don’t just mean “make it easy to get an ID”. I meant creating a task force to actively help people track down birth certificates and other records that are sometimes hard to find. I mean going door-to-door to help people get ID if they want it. Hell, even if this didn’t help with elections, simply getting ID for people would be beneficial in its own right.
- Take a page from the Iraqi system and mark everyone’s finger with ink after they’ve voted.
- Electronic machines should print out final ballots. The voter can check this and then put it into a lockbox. That way, physical ballots can be checked if there is reason to doubt the electronic ones.
- Create a national voter database that will prevent people from being registered in more than one state and cancel the registrations of dead people.
In exchange for these measures, Republicans could make concessions on things like more early voting. Basically offer the Democrats an exchange: we’ll make it easier for people to vote if you make it easier to crack down on fraud. And then see if their money is where their mouth is.
So do I think Donald Trump is a wreckless maniac for implying our election is rigged and undermining the foundations of democracy? Well, that’s a bit overblown, but yes, I would prefer candidates not engage in conspiracy mongering. I want a President not an Infowars talk show host. And I would prefer that they confine complaints about media bias to complaints about media bias, not try to blur the line between media bias and stolen elections. As usual, Trump is taking a legitimate issue and shitting all over it. But I do think there is room for improvement in the election system. And I wish Democrats would stop pretending that there isn’t.