The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Donald Trump says the election is ‘rigged.’ Here’s what his supporters think that means.

Supporters of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump weighed in on recent accusations of voter fraud hampering Election Day results. (Video: Zoeann Murphy/The Washington Post)

GREEN BAY, Wis. — For months, Donald Trump has insisted that the electoral system is rigged against him and that he could lose because of voter fraud. But how exactly would that happen?

At a campaign rally here  Monday evening, Dave Radtke, 66, said he expects Democrats will load people on buses in Chicago and bring them to Wisconsin to vote, where legal residents are allowed to register on Election Day. Josh Eilers, 22, said he expects Democrats will go to Chicago and pay homeless people to vote for Hillary Clinton, something that he says happens “way too much.”

Sue Rosenthal, 74, said “something seems off” with early voting programs in large cities that she says allow a stream of people to have access to voting machines ahead of Election Day. Gene A. Wheaton, 68, said the Democrats will use “any means necessary” to win, so he worries about “the stealth thing that they can do electronically or some other way to really either erase somebody's valid vote or get a bunch of people in secretly voting to load it up for the other side.”

Trump supporters were insistent that such  fraud is rampant and that major media outlets are conspiring  to hide the issue. While many said they are glad that Wisconsin now requires an identification to vote, they said polls need more security measures.

Election officials brace for fallout from Trump's 'rigged' claims

Tammy Petras, 57, said that she thinks some of the voting machines might be “skewed” after undergoing routine maintenance and that some absentee ballots are intercepted and destroyed. Petras has worked at the polls in previous elections, and she admits that she has never witnessed anything fraudulent.

“I think it more so would happen in the larger cities, in your Madisons and Milwaukees,” said Petras, a mother of three who lives in Green Bay and works for an international manufacturing company. “It's easier to keep control over things in a smaller town than it is when you get into the larger ones.”

Trump added to the list during the rally, claiming that “people that died 10 years ago” and undocumented immigrants are casting votes in elections, even though local jurisdictions are supposed to regularly update their voter rolls and only U.S. citizens can register to vote in presidential elections. At other rallies, Trump has told his supporters to go to polling locations on Election Day and watch for fraud, which some voting rights advocates worry could lead to voter intimidation, especially in states that allow the open carry of firearms.

Members of Trump's  party and his own staff have pushed back against his claims that election results cannot be trusted, however, with Trump's running mate saying over the weekend that the campaign “will absolutely accept the result of the election.”

Talk of voter fraud is nearly always coupled with attacks on the media, which Trump and his supporters have accused of coordinating with Clinton's campaign, refusing to investigate scandals involving her and fabricating news about Trump's treatment of women over the years. As Trump's standing in the polls has diminished, the ire directed at reporters who cover Trump has exponentially increased. While the most popular chants at Trump's political rallies used to be “Lock her up” and “Build that wall,” on Monday night it was this: “CNN sucks!” The crowd also repeatedly chanted, “Tell the truth!”

Trump's truest believers start to worry he will lose the election

This anger was stoked by several speakers before Trump took the stage. Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke criticized the “lame-stream media” for reporting on a tweet that he sent last week encouraging Trump supporters to pick up pitchforks and torches to fight for their causes, but not reporting enough on hacked emails involving Clinton that were released by WikiLeaks. He twice told the crowd: “It is pitchfork-and-torches time in America!” Both times, the crowd began to chant: “USA! USA! USA!”

Retired Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, once the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency and now one of Trump's most prominent surrogates, described reporters in the room that night as an enemy army.

“There is an assault, there is a barrage attack going on right now by the media against Donald Trump. It's unbelievable,” Flynn said, as the crowd booed reporters. “The folks that are here, you know, they're here like a soldier. They're not in charge.”

Here's why Trump's "rigged" claims just don't hold up (Video: Peter Stevenson/The Washington Post)

Those in the audience said they get their information from a variety of sources, but the most commonly named outlets were Fox News, the Drudge Report and Rush Limbaugh's radio show. Many said they read much of their news online, following links posted by friends on Facebook or forwarded in emails. They criticized the rest of the media for writing or airing far more negative stories about Trump than Clinton. They frequently accused CNN of being pro-Democrat, even though the news network frequently features panels of Republicans and Democrats and currently employs Trump's former campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski.

“I will not watch CNN in my house. I just believe that they are a sole Democratic station,” said Eric Wendt, 39, a Trump-supporting construction worker who watches Fox News, reads USA Today and gets the bulk of his news online. “A lot of my friends put stuff on Facebook, and I go on and read that stuff. ... The media should just leave everything alone. Republicans pretty much state the truth. I mean, Democrats with this stuff with Donald Trump and these women — this couldn't come up 20 years ago? He's a billionaire. And all of a sudden, four weeks before the election, all of this comes out?”

Eilers, who works for a fast-food restaurant, said he gets his news from flipping from station to station and searching on the Internet. He was surprised that coverage of a Republican campaign office in North Carolina being firebombed and defaced over the weekend quickly turned into a story about how Trump tweeted that “animals representing Hillary Clinton and Dems” were to blame.

“Trump got bombed essentially in Carolina, and they swayed it towards being his fault,” Eilers said. “Obviously you could see it wasn't his fault.”

Rosenthal, who lives in Navarino, said she mostly gets her news from Fox News, talk radio and some local newspapers. She doesn't think fact-checks are fair, and she's frustrated that local newspapers will put a headline about Trump's controversies on the front page, then bury articles about Clinton inside the section. Sometimes she will switch over to CNN or MSNBC “just to keep my eye on what the other side is doing.”

“CNN is the worst, okay?” said Rosenthal, who came to the rally with her son. “Don Lemon and Anderson and Wolf Blitzer and the girls. ... They skip what's going on for Hillary. They will have nine things that Trump has done or said wrong, and they have all of this stuff that's coming over that they won't report or they devote such a little bit of time to it.”

Inside Donald Trump's echo chamber of conspiracies, grievances and vitriol

Janet Angus, 56, said media bias came up as she hosted a party at her home during the Packers game this weekend.

“I had 10 CEOs of companies at my house in the kitchen. They're all voting for Trump, and they were all like: 'We need Sean Hannity to actually do the debate. Hillary has had her people already. We need Sean Hannity to be the moderator,' " said Angus, referring to the Fox News personality who does not consider himself a journalist and has been a cheerleader for Trump's candidacy. “You just want fair. You want fair and impartial. ... You want someone who is actually going to be a moderator.”

Angus said she barely knows about Trump and Clinton's policies because debates have been so focused on petty controversies like comments that Trump made about women years ago. She hopes that this will change at the final debate in Las Vegas on Wednesday, which will be moderated by Fox News's Chris Wallace.

Before the rally began, Steve Pope walked up to a Washington Post reporter who was interviewing Trump supporters and yelled: “You have to tell the truth! You're always negative about Donald Trump!”

Pope, who is in his 60s and lives in Appleton, said the media has fixated on things that Trump did decades ago while ignoring things that former president Bill Clinton did. He said that the media should write more about Trump's plans for the country and his rally speeches.

“It is no longer fair. You are no longer being the fifth estate,” said Pope, seeming to refer to the media, usually considered the fourth estate. “You are no longer holding them accountable.”

Pope said he gets his news online from websites such as the Drudge Report and the Free Republic, along with the Wall Street Journal.

“Theirs is fair. It's fair, they're telling both sides and letting you make the decision,” Pope said of the media outlets he reads. “We are being manipulated. We are being, you know, led down a certain path, and we ain't going there any more.”