There’s Plenty Wrong with Our Political System, but the Election’s Not “Rigged”

If Trump loses, he has only himself to blame.
October 22, 2016 • Commentary
This article appeared on Forbes​.com on October 22, 2016

By now everyone’s heard Donald Trump’s position that he won’t necessarily accept the result of the November 8 presidential election. “I’ll keep you in suspense,” he said at the last debate. “I will totally accept the result … if I win,” he later said at a campaign rally.

Why is he being coy about whether he’ll follow the tradition of the losing candidate’s gracefully conceding and congratulating the winning candidate, to help unify the nation after an often bruising and bitter campaign? Well, he’s articulated it in various ways, in his particular indomitable style, but it comes down to the idea that the election is “rigged” against him.

How is it rigged? In true conspiratorial style, there’s no clean bill of indictment, but the charges include:

  • Massive voter‐​registration fraud involving felons, foreigners, and the dead;
  • Massive voting fraud, including busing in Mexicans to vote;
  • The media being “in the tank” for Hillary Clinton;
  • Clinton being allowed to run despite her email‐​related national‐​security violations.

I’m sure I’m missing something, but you get the idea. But even if there’s truth to some of these line‐​items, that doesn’t necessarily add up to a fraudulent election and an “illegitimate” president.

For example, no election is perfect and there are surely people on the registration rolls who shouldn’t be there—some because of officials’ incompetence, some because of lawsuits that have slowed the periodic purging of the rolls, and some because people who aren’t eligible to vote (or not in that particular location) have nevertheless registered. But nobody has been able to show that these improper voters provide the margin in a close election—at least not since the presidential election of 1960, when Illinois and Texas provided President Kennedy’s winning electoral votes under dubious circumstances (and Richard Nixon conceded nonetheless).

More broadly, allegations of voter fraud have increased in parallel with our country’s political polarization during the three presidencies. There have even been prosecutions in a number of states, typically relating to local elections. (Perhaps the most serious national‐​level allegations in recent years involved Al Franken’s razor‐​thin victory over Norm Coleman in the 2008 Minnesota Senate race.) This has led most prominently to a spate of voter‐​ID laws—which have the salutary effect of increasing people’s confidence in election integrity, but don’t eliminate what fraud there is because most of it isn’t done through in‐​person voting.

But in any case, 28 secretaries of state—the chief election official in each state—are Republicans, including in swing states such as Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, and Ohio. Many of them bear scars from legal battles with Democrat‐​aligned activist groups over various areas of election administration and can hardly be complicit in some sort of anti‐​Trump conspiracy.

Media bias is unfortunately baked into our political culture; Fox News is the (rather large) exception to the rule that journalists overwhelmingly prefer Democratic candidates. The same of course is true of Hollywood, higher education, and most other “influencers.” Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert alone significantly shaped the views of Millennials the last few election cycles. But this phenomenon has long been true and, regardless whether it’s a good or bad thing, it hardly makes an election illegitimate when voters have freely chosen a candidate based on media that they have voluntarily consumed.

And let’s not forget that Trump would never have gotten this far in the first place if not for his starring role on the network‐​TV hit “The Apprentice” and the disproportionate coverage his campaign got during the Republican primaries. Perhaps the GOP has a valid beef that CNN (and Fox News) unduly boosted Trump, but The Donald himself can now hardly complain about all the attention he’s been getting.

Finally, the point about Clinton’s eligibility given the Justice Department’s decision not to indict—better framed as viability, because someone could theoretically run even from prison—has some merit, but not with respect to “rigging” the election. I have serious concerns about FBI Director James Comey’s non‐​prosecution recommendation given the evidence of wrongdoing he himself detailed, as well as that which has come out since his July announcement. Like Chief Justice John Roberts’s extra‐​legal ruling in the first Obamacare case, Comey’s attempt to extricate himself from the election ironically undermined the idea that there’s a difference between law and politics and that institutions exist to check the excesses of government officials.

Yet even as Clinton’s non‐​prosecution increased cynicism and frustration—boosting burn‐​it‐​all‐​down Trumpism—it hardly constitutes a fraudulent scheme.

Of course, some Trump apologists maintain that Trump’s posture simply allows himself the same wiggle room that Al Gore exercised in 2000—when he famously withdrew his concession and litigated the votes of four Florida counties all the way to the Supreme Court. I think that’s being too generous, even if, as Salena Zito wryly observed in The Atlantic, “the press takes him literally, but not seriously [while] his supporters take him seriously, but not literally.”

There’s a difference between preserving the right to contest discrete irregularities—as what happened in Bush v. Gore—and questioning the legitimacy of our electoral system altogether. Regardless of the problems that emerge every cycle, alleging that the whole process is “rigged” is irresponsible and only serves to further poison our political culture.

If Trump loses, he has only himself to blame.

About the Author
Ilya Shapiro

Director, Robert A. Levy Center for Constitutional Studies, Cato Institute