'No evidence of it happening': Experts scrutinize Trump's claims of election rigging

Despite the ruminations of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, experts say it's highly improbable the outcome of the U.S. election will be rigged.

On Monday, Trump said the 2016 election will 'be rigged'

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump says the 2016 election is 'going to be rigged' and that Republicans need to be careful and watch closely, otherwise the election is 'going to be taken away from us.' (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

Despite the ruminations of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, experts say it's highly improbable the outcome of the U.S. election will be rigged.

"You'd have to do a lot of shenanigans in lots of different states to tip things," said Hans Noel, an associate professor of political science at Georgetown University. "Because running up the score in one state isn't enough and that would make rigging an election really complicated and therefore unlikely."

Trump made the "rigged" claims on Monday, first at a rally in Columbus, Ohio, and later in an interview with Fox News host Sean Hannity. Trump told Hannity the election is "going to be rigged" and that Republicans need to be careful and watch closely, otherwise the election is "going to be taken away from us."

He was short on specifics and evidence, briefly referring to the 2012 election and some precincts where "practically nobody [was] voting for the Republicans."

"And I think that's wrong, I think that was unfair," he said.

What states, what precincts, Trump never specified, but it was an extraordinary claim for a presidential candidate to make because those types of accusations of irregularities and voter fraud are often left for partisans, Noel said.

'Really unusual'

"To hear a presidential candidate suggest that, especially in this way, that there will be fraud in this election and that may be why I lose, is really unusual," Noel said.

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While it's certainly the case in American history that party machines have been able to influence elections in ways that would now be considered inappropriate, those days are largely gone, he said. 

"Systematic voter fraud is actually really difficult to do and there's no evidence of it happening," he said.

Trump could be right that there were some districts in 2012 that saw very few Republican votes cast. But to attribute that to some kind of voting manipulation, one would, at the very least, have to first look at the voting trends of past general elections and determine whether there was a monumental shift in voting patterns in the districts.

Even then, that wouldn't necessarily offer proof of voter fraud, Noel said.

"There are places where there are very few votes for Democrats and very few voting for Republicans." 

Trump didn't mention the location of the suspect precincts of 2012, but to make any kind of impact, voting irregularities would have to occur in one of the battleground states. Any kind of voting manipulation in a handful of precincts in places like New York or California or Mississippi — states that reliably vote Republican or Democrat — would hardly turn the election, said Robert Shapiro, a political science professor at Columbia University.

"It just goes to show you this is the depth of [Trump's] thought that goes into these things," Shapiro said.

Groundwork to claim unfairness

Republicans often claim that voter identification laws need to be tightened because of rampant voter fraud. Trump could try to use that argument to buttress his claims of possible rigging, Shapiro said. In fact, some recent rulings that quashed such laws might have even provided him an opening. While Trump hasn't cited those rulings specifically to make his case, he did talk about his concerns regarding voter identification laws in an interview with the Washington Post.

"The voter ID situation has turned out to be a very unfair development," he said. "We may have people vote 10 times. It's inconceivable that you don't have to show identification in order to vote or that that the identification doesn't have to be somewhat foolproof."

Richard L. Hasen, a political science and law professor at the University of California at Irvine, said while there are incidents of voter fraud in the United States, they are quite rare. Most occur at the local level and involve absentee ballots. That's not the kind of fraud that a voter ID law would prevent, he said.

Hasen said Trump's allegations might just be part of a strategy of laying the groundwork for claiming unfairness if he loses the election — a claim that, Hasen said, would be irresponsible to make.

"I think it's a dangerous game to play to make those kind of unfounded accusations," he said. "Democracy depends on people's belief that elections fairly reflect the voters' will."

To support his theory, Trump suggested that in the 2012 election, there were some suspicious precincts where 'practically nobody' voted for Republicans. (Charlie Neibergall/ Associated Press)

Yet there is an "underlying reality" to what Trump said, according to Michael Cornfield, an associate professor at George Washington University's Graduate School of Political Management and Research. The U.S. electoral system is vulnerable.

Election 'could be hacked'

"I don't think the election is going to be rigged," Cornfield said. "I do think it's possible it could be hacked."

Much like the recent hacking of the Democratic National Committee emails, districts that use a personal computer to tabulate ballots could be vulnerable to malware, Cornfield said.

Elections have been hacked in the past, and it's possible for those hackers to change some votes, he said. Not enough to manipulate the outcome, but enough to sow doubt about the results for a significant number of Americans. 

"If there are problems, then rhetoric like [Trump's] has more believability and that is a big problem. Because if people don't believe the election results, then what happens?" Cornfield said.

"I think it would continue and maybe worsen this chronic problem we have of low trust in our governing institutions and that spells out problems on everything the government touches."


Mark Gollom

Senior Reporter

Mark Gollom is a Toronto-based reporter with CBC News. He covers Canadian and U.S. politics and current affairs.