The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump says he will only lose Pennsylvania if there’s widespread voter fraud. That’s very wrong.

Donald Trump (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Update: This article originally ran when Donald Trump made comments about voter fraud in Pennsylvania in August. On a Saturday night rally in the state, he repeated the claim, so we're republishing it with some updated numbers.

Donald Trump held a rally in Altoona, Pa., on Friday night, during which he told the audience that the only way Hillary Clinton could win the state was if "in certain sections of the state they cheat."

CBS's Sopan Deb transcribed Trump's comments.

We're gonna watch Pennsylvania. Go down to certain areas and watch and study and make sure other people don't come in and vote five times. ... The only way we can lose, in my opinion -- and I really mean this, Pennsylvania -- is if cheating goes on. I really believe it. Because I looked at Erie and it was the same thing as this. ...
[L]et me just tell you, I looked over Pennsylvania. And I'm studying it. And we have some great people here. Some great leaders here of the Republican Party, and they're very concerned about that. And that's the way we can lose the state. And we have to call up law enforcement. And we have to have the sheriffs and the police chiefs and everybody watching. Because if we get cheated out of this election, if we get cheated out of a win in Pennsylvania, which is such a vital state, especially when I know what's happening here, folks. I know. She can't beat what's happening here.
The only way they can beat it in my opinion -- and I mean this 100 percent -- if in certain sections of the state they cheat, OK? So I hope you people can sort of not just vote on the 8th, go around and look and watch other polling places and make sure that it's 100 percent fine, because without voter identification -- which is shocking, shocking that you don't have it.

There is almost no actual in-person voter fraud. In a survey of 1 billion ballots cast between 2000 and 2014, 241 possible -- possible! -- fraudulent ballots were found. Several of those ballots were cast in elections in Pennsylvania where a man named "Joseph Cheeseboro" and another named "Joseph J. Cheeseborough" each cast a ballot. That's all that was uncovered in Pennsylvania.

The "certain sections of the state" to which Trump is referring is almost certainly are a reference to a long-standing conspiracy theory involving the results in Philadelphia in 2012, where, in some places Mitt Romney got zero votes. Trump ally Sean Hannity raised it during a dispute with CNN's Brian Stelter.

The Philadelphia Inquirer wrote about the absence of Romney votes after the election, but included a key phrase: "The unanimous support for [President] Obama in these Philadelphia neighborhoods -- clustered in almost exclusively black sections of West and North Philadelphia -- fertilizes fears of fraud, despite little hard evidence." Little hard evidence -- and the voting was clustered in areas with a high percentage of black voters. Obama won 93 percent of the black vote in 2012.

But you don't have to take my word for it. An inspector of elections in Philadelphia, Ryan Godfrey, replied to Hannity on Twitter. Some excerpts:

Claim that 59 divisions in Philadelphia engaged in electoral fraud in 2012 because no votes for Romney is absurd & personally insulting. First, there's absolutely no way to erase votes from the machines we use in this city. ... Next, we get a paper tally at the end of the night that we match against physical count of voters who used machines (like an odometer). We match that against the count of the individual names of voters who have signed our rolls (and whose names we also recorded in books). ... So, # of votes corresponds with # of voters, & can't be tampered with after fact, but what about having machines change R votes to D? ... Why would they ever change *ALL* R votes to D votes, when anybody who voted R could easily refute the results just by saying they had?

He continues -- but that last point is key, and he reiterates it:

Let's move to the bigger picture. In July 2012, the state stipulated that there had been no in-person voter fraud in the state. There have been instances of other types of fraud, as Godfrey notes, including an incident in which election workers in Philadelphia tampered with voting machines to add six votes. There have also been many instances in which voter rolls in different counties had two people that appeared to be identical, like Mr. Cheeseboro -- but few instances in which both of those people have cast ballots and raised concerns. Usually, such dual ballots "melt down to one or two if any at all," a researcher from MIT told the Pittsburgh Tribune‑Review. Why? In part because they are usually data errors or people with similar names. But also because there are a lot of protections, as Godfrey outlines. (Those protections, in fact, made it hard for Trump to vote in 2004.)

What Donald Trump is doing on the campaign trail

MANCHESTER, NH - NOVEMBER 7: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign event at SNHU Arena in Manchester, NH on Monday November 07, 2016. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

What's above is a tally of rare incidents. In 2012, 5.5 million presidential ballots were cast in Pennsylvania. There's no evidence that thousands of fraudulent votes were cast -- or hundreds, or dozen, or even a handful.

Rigging an election is a lot harder than you might think

Perhaps more importantly, Trump is also already losing Pennsylvania. The RealClearPolitics polling average in the state shows Clinton with a lead of more than nine points. This, of course, doesn't include Trump's alleged, unproven voter fraud. It's an average of a number of polls in the state.

(Trump has claimed that polls under-represent his support; there's no evidence of that.)

Trump is convinced that he will win Pennsylvania, it seems, because of the support he sees in the state. Fair enough. But thousands of people at a rally doesn't compare to millions of voters. Why is Trump likely to lose Pennsylvania? Half the state thinks Obama is doing a good job. Thirteen percent of the electorate in 2012 was black; 93 percent of those voters supported Obama. In a new NBC/Marist poll, Clinton gets 94 percent of the black vote. Clinton and Trump are tied among white voters, thanks to Clinton winning women by 25 points. Obama won them in 2012 by 13.

Update: As the national race has tightened, so have polls in Pennsylvania. The most recent was conducted in late September, near the closest point of the Trump-Clinton race nationally. Clinton has a 2.4-point lead as it stands -- a figure that includes polls conducted after Trump's closing much of the national gap but before the first debate.

What's more disconcerting than Trump's baseless assertion that Clinton can only win by cheating is his suggestion that his supporters -- and law enforcement -- police the polls. Even the Inquirer, which raised the question in 2012, notes that voter ID laws wouldn't somehow erase votes for Romney. What Trump is encouraging is vigilante citizens harassing voters at polling places, asking that they prove they are who they say they are. He's asking for intimidation, explicitly: Challenge suspect voters. This is a recipe for tension, if not violence -- and the lack of voter fraud incidents reveals that there's no purpose to it.

Political campaigns often have staffers at polling places track who has voted for turnout efforts. Trump, ironically, has no real get-out-the-vote effort, which could help him police this imaginary threat. So he suggests he will turn to untrained supporters.

American politics succeeds because the transfer of power is gracious. Trump's comments once again seem to anticipate that his response to what increasingly looks like it will be a loss will not fall into that category.

GOP nominee Donald Trump tells supporters in Columbus, Ohio, that he worries the Nov. 8 election "is going to be rigged." (Video: The Washington Post)