Donald Trump is right. American elections are rigged. But he's wrong about the rigging, the riggers, and the victims.
Trump says that the media, the Republican Party, and unnamed groups are conspiring to somehow predetermine the results of the presidential vote on Nov. 8.
He means to suggest more than just that illegitimate votes will be counted, or that nefarious community organizers in inner cities will try to somehow... he really doesn't actually specify a predicate, but that's probably because he has no idea how elections really work.
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The truth is much messier. Let's leave aside, for now, the efforts by Russia to sway the election in favor of Trump. That target is too easy, and it doesn't take Trump's arguments seriously.
A full and fair election means one where voting standards are uniform, where every person who wants to vote can do so easily, where all votes are counted equally, where mistakes made by voters and election officials are adjudicated properly.
Article II of the Constitution ensures that such an election is impossible.
It grants to the states the right to choose the "times, places, and manner of holding elections for senators and representatives," and gives to Congress and the executive branch a limited menu of powers to regulate the actual balloting that takes place in presidential elections. Each state (plus Washington, D.C.) decides what type of ballot it wants to use. States determine when voters can register, where they can register, and how they can register. They determine, with some oversight from courts enforcing federal civil rights laws, whether certain classes of people can vote more easily than others.
Elections, as a consequence, are very messy. The uncertainties introduced by the 51 different sets of election codes are one reason why. One example: In some states, signatures on mail-in ballots must match signatures kept on file by states. In other states, they don't. Disparities create noise; noise creates uncertainty; uncertainty creates the impression of different standards; different standards create the perception of imbalance.
Another reason is that Republicans have taken the initiative to make it harder for black people to vote. This statement might seem like it would require a whole paragraph's worth of evidence. Fortunately, the unanimous ruling by the Fourth Circuit overturning the North Carolina state legislature's effort to limit voter identification is sadly sufficient.
A third reason is that voter fraud does exist, albeit at miniscule levels. Trump's admonitions to supporters assume that such fraud consists of people impersonating others in person. For some reason, they assume that minorities are willing to perpetrate this fraud at the instigation of the Democratic Party. But Trump's just wrong. In-person voter fraud is among the rarest of rare birds. Absentee voter shenanigans are far more common, although they are not common enough, or frequently committed enough, to sway elections on scales exceeding those of a small town or precinct. Wars between Republican governors and their allies in state legislatures, on the one hand, and an increasingly agitated federal judiciary, on the other, have kept election statues in flux during the past a decade.
Democrats might genuinely conspire to make it easier for people to vote, for them to register to vote, and for their votes to count if they are not properly cast. I don't really see that as a problem; it is not the party's fault that their voters have been the victims of deliberate disenfranchisement in the past.
Indeed, it's the voters, not Donald Trump, who are the victims of our election.
About half of eligible American voters do not actually vote. Many still find it hard to discover where their polling places are. Others are influenced by the perception that their votes won't count. Often, as was the case in the presidential primaries, their votes didn't — provisional balloting is in a state of chaos, too.
When Donald Trump implies to his voters that their votes won't count because the game is rigged against them, he is, in fact, creating a new link in that chain. He is self-iterating the rigging. The only real way to rig an election is to deny the obvious result and try to change it by means that transcend the election. Delegitimizing the process is a great way to do that.
Congratulations, Mr. Trump. You are rigging the American election.
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