The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Rigged’ election talk didn’t start with Trump

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). (Susan Walsh/AP)

According to the Republican nominee for president, his opponents were “on the verge of maybe perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history.” In an ad, his campaign warned of “nationwide voter fraud” that could swing the election. His running mate worried, in a fundraising letter, that “leftist groups” were trying to “steal the election.”

The candidate was not Donald Trump. It was Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who in the final weeks of the 2008 presidential election embraced the theory that ACORN, a community organizing group previously embraced by Democrats and Republicans, was helping to rig the election for Barack Obama by filing fake voter registration forms.

In modern times, no candidate for president has questioned the election's integrity more consistently and flagrantly than Trump. According to a new Politico/Morning Consult poll, conducted among 1,999 registered voters in the week after the second presidential debate, 73 percent of Republican voters now worry that their votes will not be counted.

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That's not all due to Trump. The idea that Democrats and their allies are rigging elections, either through control of machines in Democratic cities or through mass voter impersonation, is a mainstay of conservative politics — one that has powered legislation that is making it harder for some voters in Republican-controlled states such as Wisconsin to register this year. (ACORN ceased to exist after a conservative video sting recorded some of its staffers entertaining questions on how to get tax credits for prostitution, and a Democratic-controlled Congress ended its federal funding.)

Trump's role in furthering the doubts has drawn condemnation from the media, and calls for Republicans to stand up to him. “Conservative journalists have to play a role here, and conservative commentators, too,” said CNN's Brian Stelter in a monologue Monday morning.

But some of the most wild charges thrown at Democrats by Trump surrogates have been made for years. “Dead people generally vote for Democrats rather than Republicans,” former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani said on CNN's “State of the Union” Sunday. “You want me to [say] that I think the election in Philadelphia and Chicago is going to be fair? I would have to be a moron to say that.”

That was not much different from what Giuliani claimed in the days before the 2004 election, telling Newsmax that his experience in the 1989 mayoral election, which he narrowly lost to Democrat David Dinkins, showed that voter fraud could swing elections.

“There were machines that already had hundreds of votes on them,” Giuliani said. “When they open that machine — if you don't have your poll watcher there to look at the back of it, you could start off the election in that district down 100 votes, down 200 votes, down 300 votes.”

Giuliani was not telling the truth, then or now. The reason that voters hear perennial reports of “vote-switching” and machines loaded with Democratic votes is that volunteer election workers from both parties staff most polling places. There is, in Philadelphia, an ongoing investigation into an incident where four poll workers added six votes to “balance” the totals from their precincts; investigators found out about it because a poll watcher reported it.

The infamous 2008 reporters of ACORN “voter fraud” came to light in a similar way. At the time, ACORN ran a mass voter registration program, paying volunteers as they handed in new forms. Thousands of forms were faked, with the names (and sometimes signatures) of dead people boosting the volunteers' numbers.

Those registrations did not turn into votes. Often, bipartisan election boards blew the whistle about the fake registrations; sometimes, ACORN itself did. In eight years, there has been no evidence of voter impersonation and fake ballots in the 2008 election.

That did nothing to stop the momentum of voter ID laws in Republican states, or even to challenge theories that illegal votes had swung key races. Since the 2000 election, in which a badly designed Palm Beach County ballot and a pre-election purge of voters raised long-term concerns that the election system was unfair, overall voter confidence has decreased. In 2004, according to the Pew Research Center, just 54 percent of Democrats were confident that their votes had been counted. That year, 83 percent of Republicans said the same. By 2012, after two elections in which Republican nominees or party officials questioned the integrity of the vote, just 64 percent of Republicans expressed that confidence.

In a few swing states, even where polls show Trump badly trailing Clinton, Democrats are girding for a surge of Trump-inspired poll watchers to slow down the vote by challenging voters. In many states they are currently limited in where they can go; Pennsylvania's Democratic governor is holding back a Republican-backed bill that would let Trump voters travel to any precinct in the state to challenge votes.

“We've been around a long time; these guys who want to come in are rookies,” said Rep. Robert A. Brady (D-Pa.), who represents much of Philadelphia. “We're going to do everything right. These guys better not do anything to hinder the election, because it'd backfire completely on them. We'd put it out on the street, that they're challenging black votes, and people will come out in droves. I hope they try to challenge everybody, because we'll have lines and lines and lines.”