Donald Trump has repeatedly said the presidential election is rigged, and the only way he will lose will be if it is stolen from him.
Trump is not known for his measured temperament, nor for rational thinking or behaviour. But is there any validity to his claim?
American presidential elections have arguably the most convoluted and confusing electoral process of any modern democracy. But despite what many people may think, the person who wins the most votes on election day is not necessarily the person who wins the presidency.
Just ask Al Gore, who, in 2000, won approximately half-a-million votes more than George W. Bush.
This is because the presidential election enlists an Electoral College, with 48 of the nation’s 50 states adopting a winner-take-all approach to election day. These states do not apportion their Electoral College votes, which means if Hillary Clinton wins California by a single vote, then she will win all of that state’s 55 Electoral College votes, and Trump will win none.
The two exceptions to this are Maine and Nebraska, which apportion votes on the basis of congressional district.
Although the presidential election and Electoral College are governed by the Federal Election Commission and ratified by the US Congress, power is granted to each state to determine how they will manage the election on election day.
This is where the major issues with American democracy lie.
In 38 states, the chief elections official is known as the state secretary of state (not to be confused with the federal cabinet position associated with foreign and international affairs). And in 35 of these states, this position is a partisan elected position. For the remaining 12 states, the secretary of state is either appointed by the governor, or elected by state legislatures.
You read that correct. In two-thirds of the country the person responsible for managing the integrity of elections and election processes is affiliated with a major political party, and elected through a partisan electoral process.
This naturally casts doubt over the adherence to democratic principles on election day. For example, a Democratic secretary of state would naturally be inclined to do whatever they could to assist candidates from their party to win.
This became a public issue in the 2000 contested presidential election in Florida, when the state’s then-secretary of state, Katherine Harris, who was also the chairperson of Bush’s election campaign in Florida, engineered a deregistration of otherwise eligible voters because they were viewed as being more likely to vote for Gore.
Harris did nothing illegal. And that is the problem.
This is not to suggest that secretaries of state destroy ballots or employ other such nefarious tactics, but there are other ways of affecting outcomes.
Imagine you’re a Republican secretary of state, and you want to help your party. You might authorise the opening of a very limited number of polling booths in a heavily Democratic district. This might result in long lines of people queuing to vote (wait times of up to nine hours were recorded in 2012). Many voters would be put off by this, and decide not to vote.
Conversely, you could authorise the opening of additional polling booths in Republican districts to make voting easier.
There are many options available. In short, expecting a partisan elected official to operate in a non-partisan manner is idealistically and democratically foolish.
Does Trump’s prediction about a stolen election hold any validity?
Let’s examine the five so-called “swing” states: Colorado, Florida, Nevada, New Mexico and Ohio. In each of these states, the secretary of state is an elected Republican.
Trump would have us believe that the only way he could lose these states is if these five elected Republican officials enact shenanigans to deny their fellow Republican victory. This seems highly unlikely, regardless of what they might personally think of him, because a Trump loss will undoubtedly hurt the party in down-ballot races. People may not be aware that there are actually other elections taking place that same day – a lot of elections in fact.
There are only a few states where the secretary of state is not of the party which is widely expected to win the state in the presidential election. For example, Trump would be expected to win Alaska, Kentucky and Montana, but these states all have Democratic secretaries of state.
A fourth state, Missouri, is a very interesting case, because the Democratic secretary of state is a candidate for a highly competitive race for the US Senate.
On the other side of the spectrum, Clinton would be expected to easily win Maryland, New Jersey and Washington, with each of these states having a Republican secretary of state.
If shenanigans were going to impact on the election outcome, then it would probably be from one of these states. This puts Clinton at a disadvantage because according to recent polling, she is competitive with Trump in Missouri and Alaska.
If there was a strong anti-Trump surge leading to a Clinton landslide, then it is conceivable that Alaska, Kentucky, Missouri and Montana may vote for Clinton, which would raise the spectre of a stolen election to Trump’s supporters.
There is no chance that Trump will win Maryland, New Jersey or Washington.
Election day promises to be unstable. Trump’s supporters have shown to believe whatever their candidate says, irrespective of whether it is factual. A (inevitable?) Trump loss may spark many of his supporters to assume the election was stolen from him, and some may even seek to take retribution.
Trump’s legacy will be determined by what happens the day after election day.
Will this election be stolen from Trump? No. But as any student of political science knows, facts and the truth are the very first casualty of any election campaign.