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Rigged?: Trump’s Claims of Voter Fraud in the 2016 Election

A Q&A with Mary Frances Berry

Donald Trump
Photo credit: Gage Skidmore

“November 8, we’d better be careful, because that election is going to be rigged.” That’s what presidential candidate Donald Trump said August 1 at a rally in Columbus, Ohio. During this campaign, Trump has alleged that the electoral system is rigged against him, that he will lose because of voter fraud. Additionally, he has claimed that undocumented immigrants will cast their votes, as well as people who died ten years ago. To prevent this act of voter fraud, Trump has encouraged his supporters to act as poll watchers. But is this kind of voter fraud really playing out at the polls as he claims? Beacon Broadside editor Christian Coleman caught up with Dr. Mary Frances Berry, historian and author of Five Dollars and a Pork Chop Sandwich: Vote Buying and the Corruption of Democracy, to ask her about Trump’s notion of a rigged election and what’s currently at stake for voters.

Why do you think Donald Trump is putting so much emphasis on losing to voter fraud?

Donald Trump is emphasizing the possibility of voter fraud because if he loses he may want to challenge the election. The most obvious way to do that is to charge fraud. The conventional wisdom that there is little or no voter fraud is not quite accurate. While there is little in-person fraud that can be prevented with ID laws, the more pervasive fraud involves misuse of ballots and other kinds of vote-buying. This is what I call suppression of voter choice on the cheap. Studies and news accounts usually examine only the lack of a large number of prosecutions. The problem is that in most cases of vote buying, local prosecutors refuse to prosecute mainly, I believe, because buying votes is common, and indeed, they themselves—as well as local judges—may have bought votes to get elected. In a close count of electoral votes, this type of fraud in one state could make a difference.

Cheap suppression of voter choice is done most often by campaign ground game operatives who use “street money” or “walk-around-money.” They say they want to increase turnout from the poor, the elderly, nursing home residents and other vulnerable populations, but the operators are in collusion with corrupt voting officials. They use absentee ballots and then pay them a small amount or hand-out fried chicken boxes and beverages for voting the right way. In Louisiana, such voters may get a pork chop sandwich and $5.00 and a cold drink. Before you believe that can’t happen, think about the clerk in Broward County just recently who was opening ballots and counting them in her office, or the Jefferson Parish official in Louisiana who had a private machine in his office for particular people to vote which he personally kept track of without observation.

Are Trump’s claims of a rigged election unique to this season? Have there been other presidential candidates before him who have made the same claim?

There are nineteenth-century examples of corruption claims. However, the charges that John F. Kennedy stole the election from Richard Nixon in 1960 stand out as a twentieth-century example. The most recent case is the Bush vs. Gore 2000 election and the controversy over votes in Florida that led to a Supreme Court decision electing George W. Bush president. Broward County was, during that cycle, one of the places where vote-counting problems occurred.

Early voting is underway and a Black voter like Grace Bell Hardison was nearly denied her right to vote at the polls in North Carolina. Why is voter intimidation and voter suppression still rampant? 

Voter intimidation and suppression still occur because campaigns want to keep anyone who they think might vote against them from voting, while increasing turnout of their own voters. Candidates know turnout is a problem because many people don’t believe voting improves their lives or don’t care for either candidate. Since Grace Bell Hardison apparently was already on the rolls, there was no reason except how she might vote to prevent her from voting since North Carolina’s photo voter ID law had been struck down by the courts.

Ms. Hardison’s situation recalls that of a clergyman in Tallahassee during the 2000 presidential election  who had voted repeatedly but was denied the right to vote at the polls because he had been purged from the registration list as a convicted felon when the only time he had ever been in a courthouse was to testify in a case. He said he was embarrassed by the experience and felt he had been “sling-shotted back to slavery.”

Trump has encouraged his supporters to act as unofficial poll watchers. What can voters do to make sure their voting experience is safe?

The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law is leading civil rights groups in organizing lawyers and other volunteers to monitor the polls on Election Day for evidence of voter intimidation. They advise voters that if there are no monitors outside their polling place, and they are stopped and questioned by someone before they enter, they should not answer but call the Election Protection hotline: 866-OUR-VOTE (866-687-8683). They should go inside, vote, and notify poll workers of the intimidation.


About the Author 

Mary Frances BerryMary Frances Berry is the Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought and professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania, and the author of nine books. The recipient of thirty-three honorary degrees, she has been chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, is a regular contributor to Politico, and has appeared onReal Time with Bill Maher, Anderson Cooper 360, The Daily Show, Tavis Smiley, and PBS's NewsHour. Follow her on Twitter at @DrMFBerry.