Over the weekend and through Monday, as a succession of polls failed to offer the tiniest crumb of hope to his beleaguered campaign, Republican nominee Donald Trump repeated his belief that this whole election was rigged. Widespread voter fraud, he said, was already under way. "The election is absolutely being rigged by the dishonest and distorted media pushing Crooked Hillary – but also at many polling places – SAD," Trump tweeted on Saturday.
Surrogates placed around the country advanced that message. Congressman Jeff Sessions told a crowd in New Hampshire on Saturday, "They are attempting to rig this election." Milwaukee Sheriff David Clarke called for armed rebellion. "It's incredible that our institutions of gov, WH, Congress, DOJ, and big media are corrupt & all we do is bitch. Pitchforks and torches time," Clark tweeted.
Even as some Republicans tried to temper Trump's words — Paul Ryan said he was "fully confident" in the electoral process; Mike Pence promised, "We will absolutely accept the results of the election" — it was clear his message was percolating in the places Trump wanted it to. By Monday, Drudge was pushing up a story about a postal worker who confessed to destroying absentee ballots in Ohio (it was actually a Twitter joke); Rush Limbaugh devoted a chunk of his radio show to the story, too. Online, conservative characters Michelle Malkin and James O'Keefe were tweeting their own proof the election was #rigged.
Voter fraud, a boogeyman invoked by Republican-held legislatures to suppress groups that tend to vote for the other party, is actually incredibly rare, explains Rick Hasen, a professor at the UC Irvine School of Law and the author of The Voting Wars. It's been used to justify a spate of laws around the country — including a particularly egregious one targeting black voters that was recently struck down in North Carolina — but very few examples exist.
One of the only recent examples was actually committed by a supporter of Wisconsin Governor — and voter ID crusader — Scott Walker. Robert Monroe voted 13 times over three elections for the Republican. "He was an ardent Scott Walker supporter and later his lawyer literally pled insanity to this," Hasen says. "But the cases are notable because they are so rare and so ridiculous because it is just an exceedingly dumb way to try and steal an election."
That's the kind of voter fraud Trump warned against on Twitter Saturday — and it's the kind Hasen says would be impossible to execute on a large enough scale to impact a presidential election.
"He's talking about voter impersonation fraud — people going and voting five or 10 or 15 times — and if you've ever been to a polling place, and I believe Donald Trump has been, you know it's impossible to vote five or ten or fifteen times. Once you sign in, that's it," Hasen explains. "You'd have to vote pretending you’re someone else, or you'd have to register under false names and to do this on a large-enough scale to affect a presidential election, you're talking about tens of thousands of people affecting, potentially, hundreds of thousands of votes. We've just never seen in modern American elections anything along that scale."
A much easier way to perpetrate voter fraud, Hasen says, would be by manipulating the absentee system — the kind of fraud Drudge and Limbaugh were quick to jump on. "If you want to steal an election, you should do it with absentee ballots that can be bought and sold. And we do occasionally see that on a smaller scale, in local elections where 10 or 100 ballots could really make a difference in the outcome," Hasen says.
He hastens to add that there are systems in place that cross-check voter rolls in different states and purge voters that are registered in both. (As Rolling Stone reported earlier this year, Republicans have attempted to suppress the vote through overly aggressive purging of voter rolls.)
On Monday, the Clinton campaign was pushing back against Trump's "rigged" characterization. Campaign manager Robby Mook said on a phone with reporters that Trump "knows he's losing and is trying to blame that on the system. This is what losers do." Mook added, "This is probably going to be the easiest, most accessible election in our history. There are more voting locations, people can vote earlier, more people can vote by mail than ever before. We think the system is working incredibly well."
Acting DNC chair Donna Brazile sounded the same not over the weekend, and Hasen thinks that's by design. "Democrats have been complaining about voter suppression for years, for the good reason that Republican legislatures have passed laws that have made it harder to vote — not just voter ID laws, but changes in voter registration rules, changes in how ballots are counted and all of these things," he says. "But now that we're getting close to the election, I think Democrats want to slightly tweak the message to: Voting is easy, please go out and do it because, you know, you don't want people who would be your supporters to be worried that they're going to be hassled at the polling place or something like that."
They have reason to be concerned, too: Trump's message is resonating. A new Politico/Morning Consult poll out this morning found that 41 percent of voters — 73 percent of Republicans polled and 17 percent of Democrats — thought the election could be "stolen" from the Republican nominee.