The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Once again, Donald Trump embraces conspiracy theories to undercut the results of the election

Donald Trump holds an event at the Eisenhower Hotel and Conference Center Oct. 22, 2016, in Gettysburg, Pa. (Mark Makela/Getty Images)

The way psychics and con artists work is they use small things to build into a bigger picture. They let you believe something little and then leverage that little thing to reinforce the broader narrative they're hoping to trick you into. Wait, how could the fortune teller know that you had an uncle whose name started with J? He must be communing with the dead. Wait, tracking the ball under that shell is easy. I've got this.

So it is with voter fraud.

This week, a video has been passed around social media showing someone tapping an electronic voting machine and seeing the vote cast for the Democrat instead of the Republican.

At least one person on Twitter claimed that the video was recorded in Texas, perhaps thinking it was an example of a problem reported in that state. Several voters had gone to vote, picked the straight-ticket option — but then noticed that the box for Hillary Clinton was also checked.

Wait, how could that be? Fraud! Donald Trump is on the case.

Trump doesn't say "fraud," because he doesn't need to.

The incidents in Texas are no more examples of a rigged election or voter fraud than your having an Uncle John is proof of the spirit world. The video is not from Texas; it's from a 2014 election in Virginia. How do I know? Because Ed Gillespie and Mark Warner are not on the Senate ballot in Texas this year.

Nor is it an example of attempted vote-rigging. Do you think that there's a nefarious effort to undercut the vote by reprogramming voting machines — a scheme meant to disrupt the core of the American democratic experiment — which can't figure out how to display to the voter that they made the choice they thought they made? Like they hired secret coders who could go in and switch votes over randomly, but somehow they couldn't figure out how to make the display show that the other box was checked? Have you ever used an ATM and noticed that you had to tap a little above or next to the box you intended in order to get the cash amount you sought? Technology is imperfect. That video shows imperfect technology.

As for the straight-ticket question in Texas, the state identified a glitch in the software and one county briefly switched to paper ballots to avoid the confusion. The glitch was detected because voters were given the option to review their votes. That's a feature, not a bug, as state officials point out. If you want to rig the results, you do it so that no one can see.

Also: This is Texas. Gregg County, where one report came in, backed Mitt Romney by 40 points in 2012. The idea is that the Republican leadership in the state or in that county is rigging the vote on behalf of Hillary Clinton? Is that it? For a county where 41,000 votes were cast in 2012? The idea breaks down on the slightest examination.

This interactive uses researched examples of vote fraud to show how often a ballot was cast from 2000 to 2014 that was fraudulent. It will find one ballot every 29 hours, on average.

But the purported threat of fraud — which might, at a generous estimate, affect a few hundred of the 120-million-plus votes cast in the election this year — is enough to spur Trump to tweet and Trump supporters to feel urgency about "protecting the vote."

There was the clumsy effort from longtime Trump ally Roger Stone to produce "Vote Protectors" who would approach people at polling places to try to interrogate them about their vote. There was an option to download credentials to lend an air of authority. It's not clear if the program will continue.

The Oathkeepers is an organization of "current and formerly serving military, police and first responders" who "pledge to fulfill the oath all military and police take to 'defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic.'" Members pledge, essentially, not to help the government enact a police state, implying that efforts to collect firearms, blockade cities and allow foreign troops to come keep the peace are imminent.

After walking through examples of the rampant in-person voter fraud it insists exists — did you see that James O'Keefe video? Do you remember the "New Black Panthers"? — the group explains how its members can and should similarly go watch the polls.

Therefore, we call on you to form up incognito intelligence gathering and crime spotting teams and go out into public on election day, dressed to blend in with the public, without any Oath Keepers hat or T shirt on, and with video, still camera, and notepad in hand, to look for and document suspected criminal vote fraud or intimidation activities, by any individuals, groups, or parties, and then report those incidents to your local police.

(How do you go incognito? "Blend in. Dress to blend with the crowd. That may mean wearing a Bob Marley, pot leaf, tie-die peace symbol, or 'Che' Guevara T-Shirt, etc. (we have plenty of long-haired, former 'Hippy' Vietnam Veterans, for example...")

In other words, the Oathkeepers will be looking for examples of fraud like that video above — or, more likely, will be looking for people who look like they might be about to commit fraud.

"Carol Loulis of Reston didn’t hesitate when asked her biggest concern," a report from the Wall Street Journal relays. "'Illegals voting,' she said, adding that she saw people voting in 2012 who didn’t appear to speak English. 'I definitely should have called the attention of the election officials, but I think I let it go.'"

Loulis was attending a voter-watch training organized by the county Republican Party. She's not an Oathkeeper or a Roger Stone acolyte. She's a Virginia Republican, worried about if non-English speakers should be allowed to vote.

Anyone who "intimidates, threatens, coerces, or attempts to intimidate, threaten, or coerce, any other person for the purpose of interfering with the right of such other person to vote or to vote as he may choose" is committing a federal crime. Most of these poll-watchers will insist that's not their aim, certainly, but the effect is the same.

That the party is preparing people to go keep tabs on the polls is particularly tricky. Since 1982, the GOP has operated under a consent decree barring it from "undertaking any ballot security activities in polling places or election districts where the racial or ethnic composition of such districts is a factor in the decision to conduct, or the actual conduct of, such activities there." Stone's gang planned to focus on minority precincts in urban areas of swing states. Where Loulis and her fellow poll-watchers are dispatched could be problematic for the party.

All of this is Crucible-esque: For all intents and purposes, there are no witches, and there is no need for regular citizens to hunt for them. The effect, which Trump is bolstering, is to suppress his opponent's turnout — a specific aim of his campaign, we'll note — and to have an excuse in the likely event that he loses. But it all undercuts confidence in the system, without cause, and undercuts confidence in the outcome.

Trump-as-psychic has thousands of people on the hook, convinced that he has communed with the other side.