There’s been a lot of talk of late of a “rigged” election, a presidential vote stolen by dark and malevolent forces.
After more than a quarter century covering elections, including both statewide and presidential races, I can say this is pretty much impossible, but not for the reason you think.
A national election is impossible to steal not because the system is so good, but because it is so bad.
It seems to come as a surprise for most Americans that our presidential election is not a straight-ahead mathematical matchup: Candidate A gets more votes than Candidate B and therefore Candidate A gets to be President A.
Every four years, Americans wake up to rediscover something called the Electoral College, which is a clunky way of electing presidents by state rather than by popular vote. Each state gets votes in the Electoral College equivalent to the size of its congressional delegation. There are lots of problems with this system, not least of which is it tends to give greater weight to voters in smaller states, but it does work after a fashion, even if sometimes the person with fewer popular votes gets more electoral votes and becomes president.
But that’s not what I am talking about. While Americans seem at least dimly aware of the Electoral College, I doubt many understand the deeper structure of our system. The secret of our system is that elections are run not at the national or even state level, but rather at the county and city level.
That means that instead of having one single presidential election on Nov. 8, or even 50 elections, we will have about 5,000 separate elections simultaneously, with a wide range of rules, regulations, equipment, and procedures for collecting and counting votes. Even in states that tend to standardize the rules and equipment for local elections offices (and many don’t), there is wide variation in how the elections are conducted, counted and verified.
Our presidential elections are, therefore, sort of like Impressionist paintings – thousands of tiny dots that only add up to a coherent picture when you step back and stop looking too closely at the details.
Because it’s so decentralized “there is not one central point of failure” where a hacker or crooked politician could decide the election, said U.C. Berkeley statistics Professor Philip B. Stark, who has made a study of how we collect and verify ballots in the U.S. Unfortunately, that same decentralized structure leaves a lot of rough edges in a lot of places cause “there is not one single standard of excellence.”
Generally the system works because voting irregularities in a few places – whether by accident or fraud – tend to wash out in the aggregate at the state and national level. The system only breaks down in very close contests, such as in 2000, when the entire future of the republic hinged on sloppy election procedure and confused voters in a few southern Florida counties because the Electoral College vote from other states was tied, leaving Florida as the final arbiter of the presidency.
This shows it is theoretically possible that someone could compromise a few key election offices in a few swing states and make a big difference in a close election, said Douglas W. Jones, a computer science professors at the University of Iowa and an author of several books and studies on the accuracy of voting systems and threats to their security.
“On the other hand, searching through the county election offices in a swing state for an office with the right combination of equipment, vulnerabilities, and lax procedural controls won’t be an easy job,” he told me in an email.
And orchestrating such a rigging operation would require a conspiracy of vast size and sophistication. Political machines capable of organizing such a scheme are largely a thing of the past, said Zack Stalberg, an observer of Philadelphia’s notoriously messy election system for decades, first as editor of the Daily News and later as head of the Committee of 70, a watchdog organization that specialized in monitoring the city’s chaotic polls on Election Day.
“When ‘rigging’ apparently did take place, it was orchestrated by powerful local ‘bosses,’ usually in the biggest cities: Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, New York,” Stalberg said. “These types don’t really exist anymore. And the big towns are overwhelmingly Democratic now anyway.”
And the rise of social media has essentially made every voter a poll watcher.
“Social media — in which everyone is capable of reporting what they see — is one more reason that attempts to influence the voting process are getting more and more unlikely,” he said.
But that doesn’t mean that there are no threats to our election system. Stark said he is concerned that someone – whether a foreign government or a malevolent hacker – could try to disrupt an election by, for example, damaging or disabling state voter registration systems on Election Day, making it more difficult for some voters to cast their ballots. It is even possible that hackers could target the computers where the final counts are housed in each state, though he said it would be much easier for some miscreant to simply spread havoc on Election Day as a way of discrediting the result, rather than trying to manipulate the vote totals outright.
But Jones does see one clear threat to our electoral system, one that has nothing to do with hackers, dead voters or ballot-box-stuffers.
“The threat of carefully crafted disinformation released through the blogosphere,” he said, “combined with candidates waving red flags about a rigged election could delegitimize the actual fair winner even if there’s no fraud at all.”
Note: If you want to check the status of your mail-in ballot in Napa County, visit https://secure.countyofnapa.org/VoterInfo/ and enter your name and birthday. It will verify that your ballot was issued, when it was received by the registrar’s office, and whether there were any problems with your ballot. The site will also show you where the nearest voting place or voter assistance center is and how to get more information if you have a problem or question.