Perhaps it began when Richard J. Daley’s Chicago political machine, um, swung the 1960 election for JFK.
Except … John F. Kennedy would have won the Electoral College even without Illinois.
Dick Simpson, a one-time anti-Daley alderman who’s now a political science professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago, said Republicans stole votes in suburban DuPage County that year, just perhaps not as brazenly as the Democratic mayor’s folks did in Chicago.
Historians still debate whether cheating by the Daley crowd actually decided the statewide outcome.
Today, Simpson worries far less about the fix being in. It’s simply too hard, he said. Voter rolls are regularly purged of the dead and fictitious. States share lists with one another so voters can’t maintain multiple registrations. Judges from both parties man polling places and audit the various machines and ballot boxes.
“We have checks and balances in place,” Simpson said. “Any actual voter fraud is much less than it was in the past.”
Donald Trump isn’t buying it. At the third and final presidential debate Wednesday night, he repeated his suggestions that the election is rigged. Pressed by moderator Chris Wallace about whether he’d accept the outcome of next month’s voting, the Republican nominee said, “I’ll keep you in suspense.” Hillary Clinton called that position “horrifying.”
At times, Trump uses the notion of “rigged” rather loosely — suggesting that unflattering stories about him reveal a bias in the media he perceives as equal parts in the bag for liberals and establishment elites.
Other times, his talk turns to Philadelphia precincts where every last vote went to Barack Obama in 2012 and suggests that his supporters keep an eye on “other communities” for cheating.
Election officials spending these last weeks before Nov. 8 recruiting poll workers and testing ballot scanners insist your vote will get counted. That’s not true, they say, for frauds.
Republicans and Democrats look over each others’ shoulders nearly every step of the way. Systems in place from your local precinct to the county clerk to the elected secretaries of state keep people from voting multiple times. Voting machines don’t plug into the internet. Most voting systems — they vary from one county to the next, and from one precinct to another — dovetail into fastidious record keeping designed to keep the count honest.
“There is virtually no evidence of fraud at the polling places. It’s all myth,” said Kenneth Mayer, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “Impersonation of voters, dead people voting, that stuff is outrageously false.”
With two other researchers, Mayer studied the 2012 election in search of voting cheats. Where the scent of fraud existed, they found innocent explanations. Votes from dead people actually turned out to be from those who cast absentee ballots and then died before Election Day. Other reports of folks voting from the grave stemmed from clerical errors, or mismatched death records. Instances of double voting often turned out to instead be people with similar names voting, or grown children with the same names as their parents.
“Virtually every scholar who has studied voter impersonation fraud has concluded that it is vanishingly rare,” Mayer and the others wrote.
Wendy Flanigan, the Republican election board director in Platte County, is busy making sure she has 300-some workers for 27 voting places. After doing the work for 24 years, she’s not worried about the integrity of the results.
“We test our equipment before and after the election,” she said. Then the election board goes to two precincts, picked randomly, and hand counts the ballots to checks the results. “It always comes out perfect,” she said.
She’s confident only eligible voters can cast ballots. And she can’t recall any instance of someone being intimidated at the polls.
Still, belief in voting fraud is highly politicized across the country, partly because of debate over laws requiring photo identification at polling places. Such laws tend to improve election prospects for Republicans — who say it prevents fraud. Democrats generally fare better without voter ID requirements — and argue that such laws shut out the poor and elderly who might not have easy access to a driver’s license.
There may be no politician whose career has been built on the issue as much as Kris Kobach, the Republican Kansas secretary of state.
He’s confident the count in Kansas will be fair, but only because of the voter ID law he pressed for and the power given to his office to prosecute voter fraud. Since he gained that authority last year, he’s pursued five cases and obtained guilty pleas in four of them.
“It is a valid worry,” he said.
Is the system rigged?
“It depends on what you mean by ‘rigged,’ ” Kobach said. “If you mean that county and state officials are attempting to do an inside job, then no.”
But he contends noncitizens have been recruited to vote in some elections and that people often register, and vote, in more than one jurisdiction.
Broad-based studies have found that voter fraud is far too rare to turn all but the closest of elections.
“Existing scholarship has failed to produce conclusive evidence concerning the existence or frequency of electoral fraud, especially the type of fraud that would be prevented by photo identification laws and signature verification protocols for voting by mail,” concluded a 2014 paper published by American Politics Research.
A 2012 paper published in Social Science Quarterly found “no evidence” that any of the 2.1 million votes cast in the 2006 general election in Georgia were made on behalf of dead people.
A study done in part by professors at the University of Missouri-St. Louis found that “despite minimal evidence of fraud cases and nonexistent effects on election outcomes, Americans continue to believe voter fraud is rampant.” That paper concluded media coverage of debate over voter ID laws created the impression that voter fraud is far more common than it really is.
Yet enough anecdotes exist to keep fear of vote cheating alive.
John Joseph Rizzo won the Democratic primary for a Missouri House seat in 2010 by a single vote. In 2013, his aunt and uncle pleaded guilty to voter fraud in the race after falsely claiming residence in Kansas City.
The Justice Department, in the final months of the George W. Bush administration, issued a civil complaint accusing the New Black Panther Party and three of its members of voter intimidation. Two members of the group were captured on video standing outside a Philadelphia polling place, one of them holding what appeared to be a nightstick. Ultimately, Justice officials prohibited one of the men from displaying a weapon within 100 feet of a polling place.
The outcomes of a race for Democratic committeeman and a primary for the Missouri House were wiped out this year by judicial rulings after questions were raised about unusual numbers of absentee ballots in those two St. Louis contests.
Homeland Security officials have said in recent weeks that computer hackers targeted voter registration systems in more than 20 states in recent months. And while they penetrated a few state election systems, Homeland Security said it has not found any evidence that voting information was manipulated.
In the 2012 election, 59 voting divisions recorded no votes for Mitt Romney. To some, that seems a statistical impossibility. But the vote came in heavily Democratic, predominantly African-American neighborhoods where experts said a unanimous vote for Obama was not particularly surprising.
Some election board members in Missouri have complained about voter registration done using a website set up in 2013 by Secretary of State Jason Kander’s office. (Kander, a Democrat, is running for the U.S. Senate.) People using a mobile device can sign the registration form using their finger or a stylus. State officials then print it out and mail it to the proper local election officials. (Prospective voters working off a laptop are steered to printing out the forms and mailing those documents themselves.)
But city and county election officials say the state website appeared to draw many people who were already registered. That created work for local officials faced with duplications, although they say it did not give people a chance to vote twice.
And they complain that the online forms for phones and tablets produced particularly sloppy signatures. Tammy Brown, the Republican election board director for Jackson County, said those signatures likely won’t match the pen-and-paper signatures that show up in requests for absentee ballots or on petitions — potentially taking away a voter’s right to participate.
“It’s a mess,” she said.
A spokeswoman for the secretary of state said in an email that Missouri statutes make clear “that an electronic signature satisfies the law. The public can pay taxes, renew license plates and utilize countless other government services over the internet. This system provides the same convenience. Local election authorities carry out their normal processing procedures, reviewing each registration form for completeness and validity before notifying the applicants of their registration status.”
The online registration forms, said Republican Kansas City Elections Board director Shawn Kieffer, have drawn more absentee balloting from members of the military.
“You see those numbers going up,” Kieffer said.
Ronnie Metsker, the Johnson County election commissioner, has been overseeing training of 2,500 poll workers and the various auditing procedures intended to make vote totals honest and accurate. It’s painstaking work, with details that never seem to end.
And, he said, it works.
“The public can wholly depend on the integrity of the election,” Metsker said. “I’m very confident in the system. It’s worked well for decades.”