Will this year’s presidential election be rigged, as Donald Trump has predicted? It’s highly unlikely, and that’s true whether we’re talking about scary new threats, like cyber-hacking by the Russians, or old-fashioned ballot-box stuffing of the sort that ostensibly has led Trump to recruit his own poll watchers. We’re much more likely to see the kind of unintentional ineptitude that plagued the 2000 presidential race. As an old adage, often invoked by election scholars, goes: “Never attribute to malevolence what is explicable by incompetence.” But this is not to say that American democracy is immune to allegations of ill-willed vote rigging. Even if Trump said in Monday’s debate that he would support Hillary Clinton “if she wins,” he and his supporters could very well be convinced in their own minds that she did not. Then what happens? Consider Pennsylvania, a crucial swing state and the one I worry most about this year, since it uses electronic voting machines without paper backup. Suppose that on Election Night, Pennsylvania’s secretary of state announces that Clinton has won the state, and with it the presidency, but Trump says, “Prove it.” The secretary of state responds, “That’s what the machines tell us.” Trump responds, “Well, how do I know that the machines weren’t hacked?” What is the secretary of state supposed to say then?
“Trust me” won’t work. Pennsylvania’s secretary of state is a Democrat, appointed by the Democratic governor. We can’t expect any Republican candidate, not just Trump, to trust a Democrat to administer a state’s elections fairly. Remember Katherine Harris, Florida’s secretary of state in 2000? She was a Republican ally of Jeb and George W. Bush, and Democrats back then would not have trusted her to say what time the sun would rise. It would be the height of hypocrisy, with the shoe on the other foot, for Democrats now to claim that a partisan secretary of state was perfectly trustworthy.
In fact, America has run into this problem before—more than once—and we’ve actually been lucky to have avoided a serious breakdown in the constitutional order. The problem is that the U.S. government, for all of American history, has put partisans in charge of running elections—a system akin to picking as a Super Bowl ref the coach from just one of the two contending teams. As a result, the government’s capacity to dispel allegations of vote rigging has been a major blind spot throughout U.S. history, sowing confusion, conflict and even violence since the country’s founding—and potentially to this day.
That means that if Trump loses, and he and his followers genuinely dispute the election, there’s no guarantee we would have a path out. The first recourse is to partisan state appointees; the next is to courts that can be partisan themselves, and don’t always even have jurisdiction. We can’t even look back to what the Founding Fathers would have wanted: On this front, they actually knew they had failed.