Sandwiched between attacks on "Lyin' Hillary Clinton" and his other enemies of the moment, it is by now a familiar element of Donald Trump's stump speeches: He may well lose in November because the election is rigged. Trump, of course, probably will lose in a landslide of historic proportions and very much of his own making, but the allegation of a Big Fix needs to be taken seriously not because it's true, but because so many people believe it's true.
Trump repeated the allegation on Friday night in a speech with strong racial overtones during which he asked supporters at a rally at the steamy Blair County Convention Center in Altoona to help him police the polls in order to root out voter fraud.
"I hope you people can sort of not just vote on the 8th -- go around and look and watch other polling places and make sure it's 100 percent fine," Trump said. "The only way we can lose, in my opinion, I really mean this, Pennsylvania, is if cheating goes on."
And who would deprive him a victory in the Keystone State? By his less than subtle inference, blacks and other minorities in a certain Gomorrah to the southeast.
"Go down to certain areas and watch and study make sure other people don't come in and vote five times. The people in western and central Pennsylvania have to overcome what goes on down in Philadelphia," he added in calling for additional police to patrol polling places, which is reminiscent of the voter intimidation tactics of the Jim Crow era.
Meanwhile, on Saturday morning Trump's official campaign website featured a new page, "Help Me Stop Crooked Hillary From Rigging This Election!" which solicited supporters' contact information before asking for donations.
After signing up, supporters are to receive an email promising that a campaign staffer will contact them about becoming a "Trump Election Observer."
The confirmation email reads: "We are going to do everything we are legally allowed to do to stop crooked Hillary from rigging this election."
Trump, of course, never had a realistic chance of winning Pennsylvania and has frittered away his already long odds over weeks of outrageous statements and outright lunacy that have moved one so-called battleground state after another into Clinton's column. Most polls have her leading Trump by an increasingly comfortable margin -- some by double digits -- in the Keystone State despite its large blue-collar demographic.
Meanwhile, study after study after study confirms that voter fraud simply is not a problem.
In a widely-cited 2014 study, a Loyola Law School prof found just 31 incidents of voter impersonation out of more than 1 billion ballots case in a 14-year period, but this has not prevented typically Republican-leaning states to enact draconian voter ID laws whose soul purpose is to try to depress voter turnout by minorities, who reliably vote Democratic.
Trumps remarks in Altoona came two weeks after a federal appeals court struck down a voter ID law in North Carolina, another presidential battleground state. A court there found that the law targeted African Americans "with almost surgical precision" in an effort to suppress the black vote. A week earlier, another federal appeals court ruled that a Texas voter ID law violated the Voting Rights Act because it threatened to depress turnout of black and Latino voters, while laws in Michigan, North Dakota, Kansas and Wisconsin also were struck down in whole or part.
Pennsylvania's voter ID law, enacted by a Republican legislature and signed by a Republican governor, was ruled unconstitutional in 2014.
"The voter-ID situation has turned out to be a very unfair development," Trump says. "We may have people vote 10 times. . . . Why not? If you don't have voter ID, you can just keep voting and voting and voting."
Trump's new so-called voter integrity effort is reminiscent of an effort by the Republican National Committee in New Jersey in 1981 to create a voter challenge list in precincts with high numbers of black and ethnic minority voters. The RNC enlisted the help of off-duty sheriffs and police officers to intimidate voters in those precincts. They wore "National Ballot Security Task Force" armbands, and some carried firearms.
The Democratic Party sued and a consent order was issued under which the RNC agreed to refrain from the more egregious tactics. The consent order remains in effect, Trump's efforts to enlist so-called election observers could be a violation of it, and Democrats may have grounds to sue on the basis of contempt of court.
The logistics of rigging a presidential election -- whether on an urban, state or national scale -- make it all but impossible although a substantial number of people, and not just Trump supporters, don't see it that way in an era in which there seems to be a conspiracy lurking around every corner.
The most common ways to steal elections involve vote buying, using absentee ballots that are cast without the supervision of poll workers, and "insider" schemes.
The last such documented instance of consequence was in rural Dodge County, Georgia during a 1996 primary election in rural which rival candidates in the sheriff and county commissioner races set up vote-buying tables at opposite ends of the county courthouse, offering voters $20 to $60 per ballot. County officials nonchalantly likened it to "an auction" or "a flea market." The feds intervened and a new election was held.
Voter impersonation fraud is not only exceedingly rare, it's the most inefficient way to steal an election, which of course is utterly lost on Trump.
Every state requires some proof of identity at the polls, whether it's providing your name and address at the correct precinct, signing a matching signature, or showing a form of ID such as a voter registration card, utility bill or driver's license. If Trump, say, wanted to vote 10 times in New York -- a state that requires voters to sign their names at the polls rather than show a photo ID -- he'd have to vote in 10 different places, know the names and addresses of nine other registered voters in nine other precincts, be able to forge their exact signatures, and know that they hadn’t voted yet. And each fraudulent vote would carry a penalty of five years in jail and a $10,000 fine.
What is a real menace is hacking an election.
The most direct way would be to disable or otherwise tamper with direct recording electronic systems that use touch-screen voting machines without a verifiable paper trail, which has added urgency to growing calls to return to a paper-based, auditable voting system in jurisdictions that use electronic-only, unverifiable machines.
Slow and cumbersome, yes. Immune from rigging or hacking, yes.
"There is another upside to relying on paper," writes University of North Carolina information systems specialist Zynep Tufecki in The New York Times. "Audits of such systems can require something else that, at first glance, seems like a hindrance: People need to show up . . . However, in a healthy democracy, requiring people to show up is a good thing."
Campaigns spend a great deal of effort to get people to vote, she notes. It makes sense to do more to make sure that nobody can cast doubt that everyone's vote is counted.
POLITIX UPDATE IS WRITTEN BY SHAUN MULLEN, A VETERAN JOURNALIST AND BLOGGER FOR WHOM THE 2016 PRESIDENTIAL CAMPAIGN IS HIS 12th SINCE 1968. CLICK HERE FOR AN INDEX OF PREVIOUS COLUMNS.
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