Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump is losing ground.
After months bucking political norms and still maintaining voter support, the off-the-cuff billionaire is finally feeling a pinch at the polls. Trump continues to trail Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton by eight points nationally, while polling in major battleground states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, North Carolina and Virginia are leaning toward Clinton, according to NBC poll estimates.
The fallout has compelled Trump to make a hard-pressed acknowledgment of his possible defeat this November, and at the same time, quietly fire his former Campaign Manager Paul Manafort.
Even with the concession, the reality TV star is already hinting at his alibi should he fall short of the White House. At a campaign rally in Altoona, Pa., on Aug. 12 he alleged that a poor showing could only mean one thing: "The only way we can lose, in my opinion — I really mean this, Pennsylvania — is if cheating goes on. I really believe it.” Trump said, alluding to political subterfuge from the Clinton campaign.
Since that rally, Trump has held to these assertions of foul play while his critics have cast them as highly dangerous for the democratic process. However, for those close to the matter — voting officials and voters' rights groups — the conspiracy theory is a bit bewildering.
Pamela Smith, the president of VerifiedVoting.org, is among these. Her organization — a nonpartisan voting advocacy, accountability and research group — has gained notoriety since it was founded in 2003 for its work tracking election tech, legislation and voting procedures. In this time, Smith said incidents of voter fraud and rigged elections have been nearly nonexistent.
“It's frustrating because I think a lot of people may get the mistaken impression that there are some major areas of vulnerability,“ Smith said. “But they may not be aware of things election officials do already, or the true scope of the issue.”
A look at current and historical data, said Smith, indicates that the potential for cheating is uniquely limited. Voter ID fraud is nearly nonexistent; purchasing votes is too tricky to cover up, at least at a national or county level; and hacking voting machines and software is ineffectual since usage of the systems is low and controlled.
“Because our elections are really decentralized, it's also not like there's a single point of vulnerability out of 9,000 jurisdictions we have in the U.S.,” Smith said.
To illustrate this point, and other insights, VerifiedVoting.org has an interactive map that monitors voting technology. The civic tech tool enables users to drill down state by state, and county by county, to see how voters are using technology.
“As you look at it, you can see that there are a lot of paper ballots, there are a lot of recountable, auditable voting systems across the country,” Smith said. “In fact, there's really only a handful of states now that are exclusively using electronic voting machines.
These she said are Delaware, Georgia, New Jersey, Louisiana and South Carolina — only two of which, Georgia and South Carolina, are battleground states.
Yet even for these states, the voting machines at polling stations are disconnected from the Internet as a safeguard, and instead, mark the ballot selections directly into memory cards. Other electronic voting systems, like optical scanners, still require voters to use paper ballots that can be audited, and used for tallies in case of a recount. The latest trend in voting, Smith said, is tech that leverages both digital and paper forms. Voters note choices digitally while paper receipts are print out as fail safes for what officials have dubbed a “voter-verifiable paper audit trail” (VVPAT).
“Really more than probably 75 percent of voters will vote on a machine or on a physical ballot, or on a physical machine that has a paper trail printout they get to look at and check,” Smith said.
In Pennsylvania, as is the case with states across the country, the voting machines are undergoing systematic inspections. In an article by the Tribune-Review, Allegheny County Elections Division Manager Mark Wolosik and Dave Ridilla, head of Westmoreland County's computer information department, said they were confident in the procedures, with tests both before and after voting to ensure proper vote counts.
“In my experience," Ridilla said, "there is no way to compromise these election systems.”
But this hasn’t deterred the Trump campaign from expressing its doubts and even petitioning its supporters to act as “Trump Election Observers” in key swing states. Trump is encouraging these volunteers to organize Election Day surveillance efforts at polling stations, a measure to prevent voter fraud.
“Help me stop crooked Hillary from rigging this election!” Trump writes on the signup page.
Though duties for such a charge are unclear, it remains to be seen how beneficial these meet-ups will be. In many states, voter intimidation laws make it illegal to conduct political campaigning at polling sites. Further, as U.S. history attests, the nation has had political policing before and it has not ended well.
In a recent op-ed in The New York Times, Jon Grinspan, a curator of political history at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History and author of The Virgin Vote: How Young Americans Made Democracy Social, Politics Personal, and Voting Popular in the Nineteenth Century, underscored the plethora of pitfalls that have resulted from such a practice.
From the 1800s onward, Grinspan said, vote monitoring has often resulted in violence, bullying and racial discrimination. In the early days, there were fights and assaults between differing political factions; later, the policing tactics were used to enforce Jim Crow laws, which kept African-American citizens from voting — something that prompted the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
If the contentious — and at times violent — altercations at Trump rallies are any indication, the Trump election observers may resurrect past problems. What’s more, its likelier that the added zealotry is completely unnecessary.
A report from the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan law and policy institute at New York University, indicates that most allegations of voter fraud are baseless and the few that remain can be attributed to election irregularities and clerical error. Further, the claim of an epidemic of double-votes is equally rare.
“There are a handful of known cases in which admissions, poll book entries, absentee ballots, provisional ballot stubs, or other documentation indicate that one individual has actually voted twice,” the Brennan Center wrote, speaking to the scarcity of incidents.
Yet Smith also noted that just because voter fraud and hacking don’t happen regularly doesn't give regulators a free pass on security. In certain cases, such as those living overseas, for military personnel and residents of Alaska who are all allowed to vote online, there are real vulnerabilities. There have also been vulnerabilities found in voting equipment, and while no major problem has occurred yet, this isn’t to say that states shouldn’t implement added protections.
It’s for this reason that on Aug. 15, Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson, in a call with election officials and members of the National Association of Secretaries of State (NASS), discussed the possibility of defining voting technology, and the cybersecurity built into it, as critical infrastructure.
“While DHS is not aware of any specific or credible cybersecurity threats relating to the upcoming general election systems, Secretary Johnson reiterated that DHS, the Election Assistance Commission, National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the Justice Department are available to offer support and assistance in protecting against cyber attacks,” a DHS release observed this month.
Smith said the real issue the nation should prioritize isn’t voter hacking or voter fraud, but the voluntary choice citizens make each election cycle not to vote. In the 2012 presidential election, the U.S. Census Bureau reported voter turnout at only 61.8 percent, a figure down from 63.6 percent in 2008. This roughly 40 percent could make a sizable difference in outcomes, especially when considering that since 1988, winning margins in presidential elections have fell under 10 percent.
“I think that’s the big thing,” said Smith. “Even if you are completely uninterested in the presidential contest, a lot of people may not know we vote on many other issues, things that affect on our lives in very real ways.”