US Elections 2016

Trumping up charges of vote rigging as Clinton stays ahead

Scare tactic could net some votes but experts worry it may shake faith in democratic process

Protesters chant near Donald Trump pinatas as they encourage Latinos to register to vote against the US Republican Presidential nominee in Norwalk, California, USA on Aug 31, 2016.
Protesters chant near Donald Trump pinatas as they encourage Latinos to register to vote against the US Republican Presidential nominee in Norwalk, California, USA on Aug 31, 2016.PHOTO: EPA

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has been stoking fears of voter fraud and a "rigged" election, trying to invigorate his base at a time when polling numbers seem to favour his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton.

In particular, the real estate billionaire has expressed concern about voters heading to the poll to vote "15 times" for Mrs Clinton.

While experts say such occurrences are rare, this has not stopped Mr Trump's assertions.

"I'm telling you, November 8th, we'd better be careful because that election is going to be rigged," he said in an interview on Fox News last month. "And I hope the Republicans are watching closely, or it's going to be taken away from us."

Adding to the climate of uncertainty were reports last week that two state election databases had been breached by foreign hackers. The Federal Bureau of Investigation has also warned states of potential hacks on their election systems.

This news led to some concern that the results in November could be tampered with, but state and law enforcement officials in Arizona and Illinois have said that while it is a serious matter because voter information could have been stolen, they are not concerned about the integrity of voting systems, which are mainly kept offline.

Instead of assuaging fears, Mr Trump's running mate Mike Pence told his audience at a town hall in Georgia their scepticism about a rigged election was "well-founded".

Such comments from the Trump campaign are consistent with their tactics of tapping into the fears of Americans who feel they are being short-changed by institutions such as Wall Street, the media and, most of all, Washington.

Experts say that Mr Trump is also tapping into something of a time-honoured tradition in American politics - upping the perceived stakes to get out the vote.

"Such rhetoric clearly has the goal of increasing turnout among certain segments of the electorate while lowering expectations and providing a useful narrative for why their side's candidate has lost the race in the event of an electoral defeat," said Assistant Professor Jacob Neiheisel, who teaches political science at the University at Buffalo.

Experts have also expressed concern that attempts to delegitimise the election in this manner could diminish public trust in the democratic process.

Professor James Gardner from the University at Buffalo School of Law, an expert in election law, said: "The problem with this kind of talk is that it primes people to look past the most obvious cause of a lost election - that more people just preferred the other candidate."

Election law experts also said Mr Trump's warnings of voter fraud today are largely unfounded.

"There certainly have been instances of election fraud in American history, including examples where the fraud affected the outcomes of the election," said Dr Edward Foley, the director of the Election Law@Moritz programme at Ohio State University.

But Dr Foley, who wrote Ballot Battles: The History Of Disputed Elections In The United States, noted that the frequency of this type of fraud has diminished over time.

The margin of victory will also make a large difference to the effect that Mr Trump's assertions have in the end, said experts.

"It is possible that a large portion of the public, based on common sense, will discount this kind of statement, especially if Clinton's victory is large and doesn't depend on just one state or a few swing states," said Dr Foley, adding that the country has seen disputed elections in the past and, if history is any guide, "the US can survive an episode where the losing side doesn't think the winner won fairly".

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 05, 2016, with the headline 'Trumping up charges of vote rigging as Clinton stays ahead'. Subscribe