What happens when a dangerous and serial liar like Donald Trump blunders onto an inconvenient and disruptive truth?
The truth Trump is inadvertently pointing to is not that elections in the United States are rigged, but that our privatized, electronic vote counting system is unobservable and incapable of proving that it is not rigged. This is a true crisis for American democracy. Yet, it would be hard to imagine a more unsuitable and uninformed standard-bearer for electoral integrity than Mr. Trump. His glib debate-night plan to hold America “in suspense” about whether he would accept electoral defeat was coupled with some racially-tinged nonsense about “voter fraud” in the millions, and the nonsensical proposition that Hillary Clinton should not be allowed to run for office because of her email-related issues and other supposed disqualifiers.
Predictably, Trump’s message about “rigged” elections immediately resonated with his faithful (a significant bump in his poll numbers was detected). At the same time, it predictably provoked a rousing chorus of official denial, proclaiming the virtues of American democracy and the unquestionable security of our elections. These ringing assurances have come from all quarters of the political and media establishment, from president to pundit.
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Lost, though, in the bipartisan condemnation of Trump and passionate renditions of America the Beautiful is an undeniable reality. Our computerized, unobservable vote counting system actually cannot prove or demonstrate that it is fraud-free. It simply cannot answer a challenge to its fidelity from Trump or anyone else, whether the challenge is justified or baseless, sincere or cynical.
I speak for numerous election defense advocates who have been sounding alarm bells for decades, warning that our voting system can be infiltrated and undermined in various ways. None of our work was meant to be used — or abused — by a demagogue-in-training like Donald Trump, who is in danger of losing the presidential race not due to a conspiracy, but because his own deeply flawed character has been exposed to a largely disgusted public. Yet it was only a matter of time before someone, whether from a place of fairness or from one of self-interest, called into question a vote counting system that literally cannot be seen.
That someone has, sadly, turned out to be Trump; a broken clock that happens to be telling the correct time. It is true that our electronic voting machines are vulnerable to both hacking by outsiders and rigging by insiders. And it is not true that the experts have proclaimed our voting system “sound.” In fact, the experts — from Princeton to NYU’s Brennan Center to the US Government Accountability Office — have concluded that vote counting computers in wide use across the US can easily and undetectably be programmed to miscount votes and swing elections.
I doubt Donald Trump has read any expert studies, and I doubt Donald Trump is even aware of the vital difference between individual “voter fraud” and systemic electoral fraud, or between outsider hacking and insider rigging. Such distinctions are trivial to a demagogue bent on inciting turmoil, but they are crucial to understanding how to restore public trust in our elections.
Sold on speed and convenience as our democratic priority rather than integrity, our nation has privatized, outsourced and computerized our vote counting process. It should be rather obvious that the unidentified insiders charged with the programming, and anyone working through them, enjoy an even greater level of access to the counting process than do foreign hackers targeting our systems from the outside. While it is largely in the eye of the partisan beholder whether such operatives would be rigging right or rigging left on Tuesday, if this election follows “red-shift” forensic pattern characteristic of the computerized vote counting era, there would be at least as much reason to be on the watch for signs of manipulations in favor of Trump (and Republican candidates in down-ballot races) as for Clinton and the Democrats — in fact, much greater reason. But whomever one believes could be up to no good, it should be obvious that this is a colossally stupid risk for our nation to take. And it should be obvious that there is something wake-up-and-smell-the-coffee wrong when those upon whom the public relies for information refuse to seriously address and come clean about that risk.
American elections are in crisis not because Trump says so in a 3 a.m. Twitter rant, but because we have collectively, unthinkingly, and complacently placed our trust in a dangerously vulnerable system for translating public will into leadership, policy, and direction. We have played fast and loose with the bedrock protocol of our democracy and put our public sovereignty at risk.
With Trump as the despicable but inevitable catalyst, we have an opportunity to address the crisis of confidence in our electoral process. Faced with similar challenges, other advanced democracies — such as Germany, Ireland, and the Netherlands — have responded by promptly and vigorously increasing the transparency and verifiability of their own electoral processes, including a return to hand-counting paper ballots observably in public. It is in our national interest to take steps as strong or stronger to restore the trust that is now evaporating.
We hope that the self-serving and dangerous demagoguery of a Donald Trump (who has let it be known that his interest in electoral integrity lapses “if I win”) will not be permitted to undermine a long labor and set back the cause of electoral integrity by triggering an equally dangerous whitewash, a backlash of concerted denial. Instead of chanting mantras about the security and fidelity of our elections, we need to respond to the truth that has been revealed by fast-tracking transparency reforms embodied in such proposed legislation as the Electoral Integrity Act, which now has more than 29 sponsors in Congress.
If vote counting continues to be unobservable, with the process outsourced to a few corporations, mere assurances will not be enough to restore trust in our elections. Only a public, observable counting process (i.e., hand-counted paper ballots or uniform public audits with gleaming teeth) can rebuild our shattered faith in the fidelity of our electoral process.