Can A U.S. Presidential Election Actually Be ‘Rigged’?

Senior Contributor
08.11.16 13 Comments

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Every four years, people fume that clearly their candidate only lost because the whole thing was rigged. In fact, recently even prominent candidates have taken to insisting this. But how true is it? How possible is it to rig an election? It turns out our voting system is more secure than you think.

Let’s start with the fantasy scenario, which is that somehow, some way, a shadowy conspiracy manages to literally change votes or manipulate the system somehow to elect the candidate of this conspiracy’s choosing. It makes for great TV, but it makes no sense.

First, Presidential elections involve millions of people and are likely the most closely monitored and analyzed by private individuals and companies on the planet. In a discussion of the 2012 Iranian elections, which serve as an overview of election fraud, New Yorker journalist Laura Secor notes there’s no effective way to poll Iranians and get a true sense of the sentiment of the people, and there’s excellent reason for that.

To rig an election in this sense, you wouldn’t just need to steal votes on Election Day; you’d have to make sure to rig every poll in every state to show your result was legitimate, too. And not only would you have to do this, you’d have to do it in a way that passes mathematical sniff tests. For example, a study claiming that people were more friendly towards the concept of gay marriage when a gay person went door to door to talk about it was quickly taken apart by two grad students who tugged at one thread in the data and watched the whole thing unravel. In fact, even when we know an election is illegitimate, it’s pretty easy to sort out an election that was rigged from an election that was just deliberately poorly run.

So for this scenario to work, every poll, from the ones conducted by universities to the ones run by news networks, would have to be in on the scam. Secondly, federal elections are handled on a state by state basis, that’s another layer to what’s already the grandest conspiracy in human history. Don’t forget, to be effective you’ll also need Congress and the Senate behind you, so you’ve got to fake those polls and rig those votes too. And if our theoretical supervillain got all these resources … why even bother in the first place? Why not just be the silent partner of somebody more likely to win legitimately? Hell, why would this person want a job with an eight-year time limit, when they’re already this powerful?

This isn’t to say that you can’t rig an election. You can, and in fact, America has a long, ugly history of doing just that. But it’s not the way that “rigged elections” are often presented.

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