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Voter Fraud Is Very Rare In American Elections

As Donald Trump has slumped in the polls, he has started to suggest that the election could be “rigged.” The FiveThirtyEight Elections podcast looks at how common voter fraud is in the United States and talks about the implications of Trump’s claims. The team also assesses what, if any, damage might come from WikiLeaks’ releases of Hillary Clinton campaign emails.

The podcast’s final live show before the election is on Oct. 24 in New York City.

Here is a portion of our conversation about Trump’s suggestion of election rigging. It begins at the 8-minute mark and has been lightly edited for clarity:

Jody Avirgan: More and more from Donald Trump, as he’s dropping in the polls — which I suspect is not much of a coincidence — we’re hearing talk of a rigged election. Trump has suggested that the election will be rigged. He’s urged his supporters to monitor polling sites; he’s suggested even that the polls are rigged. This morning, Monday morning, he tweeted, “Of course there is widespread voter fraud happening on and before election day.” There’s a lot to tease out here about the specific charges and about the long-term corrosive effect of sowing distrust in our electoral system. And I’ve got some data and some facts that will hopefully give us some context, but I also want to start with a basic question of definitions because I think there are some different definitions floating around of what the word rigged means. So, Clare, I wonder if you can start there. When Trump says that word — “rigged” — and he says this race is rigged, what do you think he means?

Clare Malone: I think he is mostly talking about voter fraud. Now, I think we should say that this has been a line that Republicans have used for a long time. They’ve talked a lot about voter fraud in elections, which we should state up front is very rare in the United States.

Jody: There’s this adage that more people are struck by lightning each year than commit in-person voter fraud. About 300 people are struck by lightning, and the voter fraud cases are much less than that each year.

Clare: But voter fraud is a powerful argument if you’re a Republican — one, because no one, Democrat or Republican, obviously wants elections corrupted. But two, Democrats in United States history have political machines in their past — right, Tammany Hall. You can think about the Chicago political system. There are lots of Democratic historic voting blocs that were rightly called corrupt, and so I think it’s been a line that Republicans have been able to go to to talk about that.

I think [something] we should note here while we’re talking about voter fraud [is] voter ID, which obviously in the past couple of elections has been a huge thing about whether or not you should have to have a driver’s license to vote in certain states. In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down part of the Voting Rights Act, the part of the Voting Rights Act that had to do with states and municipalities that had racial problems with voting. John Roberts said our country has changed and that we have to revise how we think about where racial discrimination is a problem. Now, maybe this election brings it up again …

Jody: Forty-one percent of voters say that this election could be rigged. That’s in a poll that was conducted just a couple weeks ago by Politico/Morning Consult. Only 30 percent of Republicans say that they feel this election is working as it should, which is down from about 50 percent… There is a media element here too — right, Harry? — in this rigged talk. That word rigged plays a lot of roles. So it goes to voter fraud, as Clare pointed out, but also this notion that the media is in the tank for Hillary Clinton or in the tank against Donald Trump.

Harry Enten: Sure, it’s both. And Trump and his surrogates would certainly like to claim it’s more the media than the actual voting mechanisms themselves. I’m not sure I necessarily buy that when you’re talking about poll-watchers going into the inner-cities to watch people vote… But I want to just re-emphasize what Clare said — which is that there is no proof at all that this election, at least in terms of the voting mechanisms, is rigged at all. It is impossible, pretty much, to rig an election in the United States because you have 50 states that govern their own … elections. And then within those states, there are separate county boards and in some cases separate city boards. It’s just impossible. It’s just impossible, and the idea that this is somehow rigged is absolutely ludicrous. And the only reason he’s claiming as such is the same reason that he claimed the process was rigged during the primary, [it] was when it became clear that he might possibly lose. That’s why he’s doing it. He sees the polls. He understands the polls, and this is a man who has gone throughout his entire life “winning,” so the idea that he could possibly not win, well, then it just can’t possibly be a fair process.

Nate Silver: It makes me think that Donald Trump is one of the most dangerous men for our democracy to come along in many decades. I don’t feel this obligation to go and be all fact-check-y and say, “Oh, well, you know, there’s not voter fraud.” It is important to acknowledge that one benefit of the Electoral College system is that you have decentralized elections that are run by the states. That’s one reason why people would defend the Electoral College. But there was a wave of stuff in the spring when Trump talked about rigged elections and when you saw violence occurring at his rallies — remember that Chicago rally was canceled, for example — and I thought then people didn’t do enough of a job to single these types of things out: rhetoric that implies violence or rhetoric that implies a corrupt election system. You can say the media is biased, but to say the election system itself is biased is very dangerous. To encourage voter intimidation is very dangerous and crosses a threshold that even for Trump is an important threshold.

Jody: I actually think, you know, when I see or hear him do this “it’s rigged” thing, I actually think of those moments when he was running around saying, “Obama is the founder of ISIS.” And then people would come to him and be like, “you know that word has a very specific meaning.” And he’s like, “no, no, no, I meant, he’s the founder of ISIS.” And I just feel like he throws that word “rigged” around and he uses words in a way that I don’t think a lot of people do.

Clare: I don’t. I think he has a very black-and-white view of the world, and I think that black-and-white view is very much, it’s the winning and losing thing, and “rigged” is very clearly attached to saving face in the eventuality of him losing. And so I think he knows what he’s doing with that word, and just to add to what Nate said, this is like, I mean, it’s a foundation of democracy, right? It only works if people believe in the elections and they feel like this is a valid exercise, and the fact that someone who is running for this highest office, the fact that he is sowing seeds of distrust is incredibly damaging and a thing that you can’t — there’s no take-backs. The stain may fade a bit, but it’s always there.

Harry: I just think that this is another example of … we’re used to elections being fought on a liberal/conservative spectrum. And I think it’s one thing to claim that the media is biased against more conservative candidates, but Trump is taking this from an ideological spectrum that we’re used to, the left/right, to some new, authoritarian or insider/outsider. I just find the whole thing … it’s disgusting, it’s wrong, and that’s all I really have to say.

Jody: And I think I’ve said this before, but Clare, to your point, more and more, this campaign feels like it is a particular part of the internet that’s kind of on display — Breitbart News, just encapsulated in a living person who gets a lot of attention.

Clare: It makes me think of — I went a few years ago to Russia and had a friend who is a journalist who used to live there who set me and my traveling companion up with people who were journalists and activists in this period right before Putin really cracked down and invaded Ukraine. He was cracking down on journalists in Moscow — things like that — and this one woman who was an activist, who was under house arrest and wasn’t allowed out, she said: “You know, in your political system, I would probably be on the more conservative edge of things. But you guys all see me as a liberal because I’m fighting for foundational governmental principles. I’m fighting for something systemically that I think is right, i.e. a more democratic, more free society.” And to me, what this election has turned into, the things that we talk about on this podcast, are things that are fundamental to our democracy. So the things that we’re having parsing discussions about should be second nature to America in 2016. So that’s the thing that’s so galling about this election and why I keep thinking back to that person who was living in what she considered and what we consider an authoritarian country. I kind of feel like I’m having those conversations with people now.

You can listen to the episode by clicking the “play” button above or by downloading it in Apple Podcasts, the ESPN App or your favorite podcast platform. If you are new to podcasts, learn how to listen.

The FiveThirtyEight Elections podcast publishes Monday evenings, with occasional special episodes throughout the week. Help new listeners discover the show by leaving us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts. Have a comment, question or suggestion for “good polling vs. bad polling”? Get in touch by email, on Twitter or in the comments.

Jody Avirgan hosts and produces podcasts for FiveThirtyEight.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

Clare Malone is a former senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Harry Enten was a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.