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Here’s How You Actually Rig an Election

Here’s How You Actually Rig an Election: Spencer Platt / Getty

Spencer Platt / Getty

The 2016 election is indeed “rigged,” but not in the way GOP nominee Donald Trump is claiming. For starters, Trump is a beneficiary of the institutional barriers inherent in our political system that benefit the two major parties and exclude others.

My Washington state ballot has seven presidential candidates on it and there is no exclusive section for any two parties. But the Democratic and Republican party have colluded to to keep candidates out of the premier events of the campaign season: the presidential debates. The GOP and Democratic party created the Commission on Presidential Debates in 1987 to regulate debates—and keep competition at bay. The debates legitimize candidates in the minds of many voters while maintaining an unrealistically high 15 percent average-in-polling threshold for candidates. Polls show that most voters wanted additional candidates to be in this year’s debates.

Before the debate commission was established, independent civic groups like the League of Women Voters hosted presidential debates. If we return to this system, major party candidates could always, on their own terms, refuse to debate third-party and independent candidates—but they would not have the convenient excuse of some commission’s rules. My point is that having the two major parties manage debate criteria is a conflict of interest, and a bad look for America. Nevertheless, Trump has benefitted and he still complains things are “rigged” against him.

To steal a presidential election, everything would have to come together perfectly.

Trump also should rest assured that voting procedures in the United States are mostly secure. With the decentralized nature of voting in the United States, a scheme to rig elections would be immensely hard to pull off. There is no single American election system. According to the ACE Electoral Knowledge Network, 13,000 independent local entities manage elections without uniform procedure. These are the local governments that usually fly under our radar, unless we need to get a marriage certificate or complain about our property tax assessment. Every one of these voting jurisdictions does things differently.

I am not worried about the integrity of my county’s elections. We use paper ballots upon which voters mark their choices with a pen, making each ballot a written record.

To steal a presidential election in the United States, everything would have to come together perfectly. Conspirators would need to identify counties with vulnerable systems in a state where the election would be close. And this state would have to be the one to determine the winner of the electoral college majority. The whole election would have to hinge on a single state, and any plotter would have to determine what state this would be months in advance.

Of course, we got to witness something similar in 2000. But Miami-Dade County, Florida, was hardly a plot to steal the election; in fact, it was a perfect storm of screw-ups and unethical election administrators. The county used a so-called butterfly ballot, which seemed to confuse people who ended up voting for candidates they did not want elected. The system also used punch-cards, and some voters did not press firmly enough. (Who could forget the “hanging chad”?)

More important, Katherine Harris was the state’s top election official—and a member of G.W. Bush’s campaign committee. She didn’t recuse herself from her duties, and she could hardly wait to certify the election in her candidate’s favor. Other partisan shenanigans are well-documented. There is no secret conspiracy here; the tipping of the scales is plain as day. But let’s be clear: Harris did not rig the election system. She and other unethical actors tainted the recount process.

I can only imagine how crazy the crisis would have been if the tables were turned, where Bush won the popular vote, partisan hacks presided over elections and Gore was installed as president by the Supreme Court. I believe we would have seen the GOP burn the house down. Instead, the winner of the popular vote—Al Gore—accepted the judgment. He had to, because crying about it would have cast an even more embarrassing pall on our democratic institutions. Gore took it on the chin for the sake of the country.

Trump, on the other hand, could care less—even after he has benefitted from many advantages that only go to major party candidates. He’s a whiner who should not be the winner.


Best known as the bassist of Nirvana, Krist Novoselic chairs the electoral-reform group FairVote and is a longtime advocate for freedom of expression and association. He lives in Washington state.

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