How to Rig an Election

Glen Newey

Three weeks out from polling day, Donald Trump has called the election for Hillary Clinton by alleging widespread voter fraud before most people have cast their ballots. At last night's debate Trump refused to say he would accept the election result, having earlier this week conjured the bogey of a zombie army of dead voters rising from its necropolis to spook his chances. Wisely, he's discounted the possibility that his impending defeat has anything to do with having alienated most US voters by his mendacity, bigotry, sexual predation, misogyny, racism, xenophobia, manifest unfitness for public office and encyclopedic ignorance of public policy. Maybe he should call in Russian election monitors to ensure fair play. Responders have noted that verified cases of voter fraud are rare in US elections; their tendency is to infer that all's well with US democracy. This is a non-sequitur.

Take the judicial coup d'état that handed the 2000 election to George W. Bush, with consequences that continue to be felt in, say, Mosul. Then there's the 2010 Citizens United ruling that paved the way for political action committees, often bankrolled by billionaires, to buy influence in elections. It's still unclear whether Trump's candidacy, which takes the process to its natural next step, owes more to business calculation or megalomania: it's a form of vertical integration, where the middleman is bypassed by conflating the buyer and seller of political influence. At congressional level, Republican state majorities' gerrymandering of electoral districts, masterminded by Bush's crony Karl Rove as part of the REDMAP project, is well known. 'He who controls redistricting can control Congress,' Rove wrote in 2010. The result has been districts that would have flummoxed Hermann Rorschach, as with the egregious IL-4 in Illinois.

Under the 1965 Voting Rights Act, areas of the country with particularly virulent records of voter exclusion should be subject to 'preclearance' (a form of judicial review before legislation was enacted) in order to gauge whether a proposed local change to voting rules would disadvantage African American voters. In Shelby County v. Holder (2013), the Roberts Supreme Court ruled that 'coverage' (the stipulation in the VRA and its updates of where the preclearance requirement was to apply) was outdated; the day after the Shelby decision, North Carolina announced that it would move ahead with legislation requiring that voters show photo identification, a measure that disproportionately affects African Americans. Another well-worked ploy is to impose laborious verification procedures on polling day, forcing people to queue for hours and, with luck, give up and go home. About Shelby, Justice Roberts commented: 'Things have changed in the south.'

He's not kidding. As Lyndon Johnson said after signing the Civil Rights Act into law in 1964, 'we [i.e. Democrats] have lost the South for a generation.' That now looks seriously optimistic. In the following decades, Southern white allegiance shifted from the Democrats to the GOP, to the point where the party of Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant now relies heavily on good old boys tattooed with the Rebel flag. The GOP now entrenches its power by similar psephological chicanery to that practised for years by Democrats in the postbellum South. During the Jim Crow era, white supremacists, notably Democrats, devised myriad ways of keeping blacks off the electoral roll. A further irony of recent Republican gerrymandering is that it has exploited the VRA to concentrate the black vote in certain districts while creating borderline Republican majority districts elsewhere in the state: in the 2014 mid-terms, North Carolina Democrats won 44 per cent of the vote but only 23 per cent of the seats. As a ruse, it recalls the disingenuousness that led Southern slaveowners at the constitutional convention after independence to argue that black slaves were persons purely for the purpose of boosting their states' representation in Congress.

Now there's the further irony of the Republican nominee's claims of imminent electoral fraud. If lost on Trump and his clowder, it's unlikely to bypass African American voters. Pre-VRA white supremacist disenfranchisers expressed ideological racism as much as a wish for partisan electoral advantage. US democracy has made great strides since then. Now, rather than Democrats keeping blacks off the ballot for racial advantage, Republicans are keeping blacks off the ballot for political advantage.


  • 20 October 2016 at 1:37pm
    semitone says:
    One frustration with following the current election is the paucity of polling on Congressional seats. The presidency is surely all but in the bag; the Senate race is looking close but promising for a Democrat majority. But what of the House?

    It would be great to see some analysis of the likely outcomes, or even some suggestions of what if anything Democrats might plan to do to address the Republican gerrymander should they sneak a majority.

    Anyone out there with a link to useful sites on this?

    • 20 October 2016 at 9:56pm
      thebears says: @ semitone
      Can't comment on accuracy, but this certainly aspires to tell you how the Congressional races are looking:

      It's hard to see what else can go wrong for the Republicans between now and election day, so not looking so promising for the Democrats in the House.

    • 21 October 2016 at 6:46pm
      semitone says: @ thebears
      Thank you! Plenty there to fuel either pessimism or optimism, according to preference or level of inebriation. Can't help thinking the US would benefit from a non-partisan electoral commission.

  • 20 October 2016 at 2:49pm
    Jeremy Bernstein says:
    As a physicist who has followed closely nuclear arms proliferation I have noted and commented on in print on Trump's willful ignorance of the subject. In last night's debate there was yet another example. He said he wanted to re-negotiate what he referred to as the "Start Up" treaty. He seems to have no idea that START is an acronym for Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.I am relieved that the polls show that he has virtually no chance of carrying out such a negotiation.

  • 20 October 2016 at 8:54pm
    Timothy Rogers says:
    Imagine Trump winning and his election being challenged by the Democratic Party and/or Clinton on the grounds that the results were achieved through fraud at various polling places. We would all be entertained by his fabulous contortions of "reasoning" and his selective memory-loss ("I never said that," etc.) Let's hope it's not so. As unsatisfactory and unrepresentative as our political life is, the issue of voter fraud has been investigated by numerous commissions and study groups, and the actual number of phony votes cast in recent elections is minuscule.

    As Jeremy Bernstein notes, Trump's ignorance of any and all matters concerning nuclear weaponry is egregious and deplorable (indicating that he has probably not read any section of any newspaper for the last 50 years, with the exception of Murdoch's Page Six and the legion of real-estate columns that report on his escapades). Pick a topic that is, or should be, of concern to the public, and Trump will demonstrate that his ignorance is catholic.

  • 21 October 2016 at 4:25am
    Joe Morison says:
    One of the things I took away from the debates is that really does have small hands.

  • 22 October 2016 at 4:42pm
    Harry Travis says:
    Mr. Newey's comment is exceptional, noting the non sequitur nature outrage by the US Establishment and especially the liberal US press. Trump, with his typically loose language has made two claims; the universal response in the US has failed or refused to distinguish them.
    Trump's first, racist, claim is that there is widespread voter fraud on election day, and exclusively by Democrats. (As Mr. Newey notes, this claim has been exhaustively researched and debunked as rare minor.)
    Second, Trump recycled one of the very first claims of his campaign, asserting about governance ills what his antithetical politician of the Democratic left, Senator Elizabeth Warren, has repeated for several years about economic ills. "The System is rigged." To this slogan, there has been near-universal silence.

    Why have pundits and writers of all stripes filtered from their response to Trump the history of selective and systemic disenfranchisement of classes of voters-- baked and baked again using new or rediscovered heritage recipes,
    -- into US democracy? It cannot be an accident that the editor of the most recent NY Times article challenging Trump's claim of voter fraud buried to much later paragraphs all references to the social and legal issues attendant to the Shelby vs. Holder Supreme Court case Mr. Newey neatly summarizes. This is puzzling, as the same newspapers carry stories of ongoing legal challenges to systemic limitations to registration and voting in one State after another. It is as though Trump, the putative disrupter, had been put up by conservatives to eliciting the strongest unqualified support from the Democratic party for the old status quo.

  • 22 October 2016 at 11:03pm
    jayavarman says:
    Before US election day 2000, Jeb Bush's Florida government disenfranchised a large number of voters in primarily Democratic districts, though it still took a judicial coup flouting the supposed commitment to "original intent" to put George W. Bush in the White House.

    The rigging of targeting black voters for removal from voting lists and by adding ID requirements is, indeed, the "rigging" this time out, not expedited processing of citizenship applications (after the registration deadlines of most states).

  • 23 October 2016 at 6:28am
    Dominic Rice says:
    Spot on, how short memories are. Incidentally, so much is currently being written about what Trump’s popularity says of today’s US. But what did the candidacy of Jeb Bush say? Before the Republican nomination race this year, the only thing the rest of the world knew about Jeb’s political career was that, as governor of Florida, he was highly instrumental in subverting the 2000 presidential election on behalf of his brother. In most other western democracies, those antics would have resulted in serious jail time, and certainly would have permanently ended his career in public life. But in The world's greatest democracy™ mainstream Establishment opinion identified Jeb as an utterly conventional, uncontroversial candidate to be next president of the United States. Now what does THAT say about today's America?

    • 24 October 2016 at 8:48pm
      Jeremy Bernstein says: @ Dominic Rice
      Trump is hopping around Florida like a cat on a hot tin roof. He is now talking about rigged polls. Under many circumstances I would be very pleased about this. But I worry it may release the last elements of restraint. The racist anti-Semitic elements of his campaign he has kept just under control using code language. I think the language is going to lose some of its constraints and we may have some serious violence.

    • 25 October 2016 at 2:28pm
      Timothy Rogers says: @ Jeremy Bernstein
      Once again, I find myself in agreement with Mr. Bernstein. Regardless of how structurally "rigged" (both economically and politically) our American "system" is, the main thing is to prevent a Trump presidency, and then, both systematically and on a case-by-case base, to deal with the aftermath (e.g., his bogus claims about electoral fraud, media bias, etc., and the far trickier problems stemming from "right wing populism", whose advocates have some legitimate grievances). The "left wing populists" -- the mainstay of the Bernie Sanders movement -- are far less menacing, and their grievances have to be addressed too. Stop Trump is the watchword of the day.

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