Trump’s claim that polling places are ‘rigged’ is unsubstantiated and dangerous

“The election is absolutely being rigged… at many polling places.”

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump arrives to speak at a campaign rally in Bangor, Maine on Saturday, Oct. 15, 2016. CREDIT: AP Photo/ Evan Vucci
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump arrives to speak at a campaign rally in Bangor, Maine on Saturday, Oct. 15, 2016. CREDIT: AP Photo/ Evan Vucci

He’s hinted at it before, but on Sunday afternoon, Donald Trump came right out and said it — he thinks polling places are “rigged.”

While state election systems are vulnerable to hacking, there’s no evidence there’s anything “rigged” happening at polling places. A law professor who spent years researching voter fraud found only 31 instances out of more than a billion votes cast. Iowa’s Republican Secretary of State uncovered zero cases of voter impersonation at the polls during a two-year investigation.

On Saturday, Ashby Law — an elections law firm that works with many Republican- and Republican-leaning clients — posted a tweetstorm aimed at dismissing concern about rigging at polling places.

Nonetheless, Trump told attendees at a rally Saturday in New Hampshire, “We’re going to beat the rigged system; we’re going to beat the rigged election.”

Trump’s new strategy: suppress the vote

Voter ID laws are a common way Republican try to suppress the vote. Trump’s “rigged” rhetoric is another means toward that same end.

Days ago, the Wall Street Journal reported that as his standing in the polls erodes, Trump has decided to try and win by depressing turnout for Hillary Clinton. In particular, Trump and his surrogates have urged supporters to “make sure other people don’t come in and vote five times” in urban areas like Philadelphia that are strongly Democratic.

“And you got to watch your polling booths, because I hear too many stories about Pennsylvania,” Trump said at a rally in Manheim, Pennsylvania earlier this month. “Certain areas. I hear too many bad stories, and we can’t lose an election because of you know what I’m talking about.”

Trump’s unsubstantiated concerns about rigging at polling places aren’t shared by his running mate. Appearing on Face the Nation just hours before Trump posted his “rigged” tweet, Pence said, “We’ll respect the outcome of this election.” And on Saturday, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) said, through a spokesperson, that he “is fully confident the states will carry out this election with integrity.”

‘Pitchforks and torches time’

Trump’s attempt to delegitimize elections is dangerous. Rice University presidential historian Douglas Brinkley told the New York Times that Americans “haven’t seen it since 1860, this threat of delegitimizing the federal government, and Trump is trying to say our entire government is corrupt and the whole system is rigged.”

“That’s a secessionist, revolutionary motif,” he added. “That’s someone trying to topple the apple cart entirely.”

On Saturday, Trump surrogate and Milwaukee Sheriff David A. Clarke tweeted that since American institutions are “corrupt,” he thinks it’s “pitchforks and torches time.” During a town hall event in Iowa earlier this month, a Trump supporter told Pence she’s “scared” about voter fraud, adding:

“Our lives depend on this election. Our kids’ futures depends on this election. I will tell you, just for me ― and I don’t want this to happen ― but I will tell you for me personally, if Hillary Clinton gets in, I myself, I’m ready for a revolution, because we can’t have her in.”

A Boston Globe report published yesterday indicates how Trump’s “rigged” rhetoric could cause problems on November 8 and beyond. One Trump supporter the Globe spoke with, a 61-year-old carpenter named Steve Webb, said he planned to heed Trump’s call to monitor polling places on election day.

“I’ll look for… well, it’s called racial profiling. Mexicans. Syrians. People who can’t speak American,” he said. “I’m going to go right up behind them. I’ll do everything legally. I want to see if they are accountable. I’m not going to do anything illegal. I’m going to make them a little bit nervous.”

If Trump doesn’t accept the result of the election on November 8, it wouldn’t be the first time. Following Mitt Romney’s loss to Barack Obama four years ago, Trump went on a Twitter rant that included a call to his supporters to “march on Washington.”

CREDIT: Business Insider
CREDIT: Business Insider

Even if the election passes without confrontations between voters and Trump supporters and Trump accepts the result, Julian Zelizer, a Princeton University presidential scholar, said Trump’s rhetoric will create problems for Clinton.

“If Clinton is elected, as it looks like she will be, they will be convinced she should not be president because the Republican nominee has confirmed their own fears, anxieties, and conspiratorial outlook,” Zelizer told the Globe. “It will make governing more difficult.”