Patt Morrison Asks: Elections expert Andrew Gumbel on Donald Trump, Edgar Allan Poe and rigging the vote

Sorry to disappoint the conspiracy theorists, but when it comes to sinister suspicions about election fraud, the best test is a piece of computer programmers’ lingo that comes down to: Don’t look for evil plots to explain an anomaly when simple incompetence is probably the cause.

Donald J. Trump, the Republicans’ presidential candidate, has been dropping large, dark hints that the only way he can lose is if someone does him wrong. American history is marbled with incidents of both election fraud and ineptness, but Andrew Gumbel says things are different now — more or less. He writes for the Guardian and other publications about politics and crime here, and his latest book is “Down for the Count: Dirty Elections and the Rotten History of Democracy in America.”

The English-born Gumbel is now a U.S. citizen and might agree with his countryman, the half-American Winston Churchill, who opined that “it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

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Donald Trump says that the system is rigged, the election system is rigged, which essentially means if Donald Trump doesn’t win, it’s rigged. What do you make of that?

I think it’s richly ironic that a man who managed to stage a hostile takeover of one of the two American major parties should think that somehow the system is rigged against him. I think he’s done extraordinarily well by the system in this electoral cycle.

The second thing to point out is, I think this is a typical piece of Trump positioning to get his supporters riled up. He’s also been saying in the last few days that he accepts that he may lose. I think it’s worth pointing out that there are ways in what he’s saying is utterly unprecedented as well.

I can’t think of an example of anybody running for any election who says three months out that the outcome has been rigged already.

So I think he understands that the election is one thing, and what you tell your supporters is another. And what he’s really saying is that there’s a crisis of representation in politics in this country, that neither major party represents the interests of the people voting for them in an adequate fashion. And there, I think, he has a point.

It’s very important, when you’re looking at allegations of mischief with voting in the United States, to look at how the system actually works and where the possible weak points are.

If you can demonstrate in a close race with high stakes with one party in charge, that’s in a position to manipulate the results in a very concrete way, then I think you’re on to something. If you’re looking at a state with a large number of counties, each of which run their own election, many of which have different voting systems, and the allegiance of the county officials is to different parties, different situations in each place -- the idea that you can have a coordinated conspiracy to change the outcome statewide doesn’t really pass the smell test.

There’s the underlying danger of suggesting that the entire system is crooked — one of his favorite words again.

I think the comeback to that that we heard from President Obama is correct in that first of all, it’s not one election, it’s 51 elections – all 50 states plus the District of Columbia. Every state has a different electoral system; there is actually no way of manipulating the outcome on a national level.

And that’s true. There are, however, a number of problems.

Where you have states that don’t have reliable voting machines,  you have frustrating or inadequate systems in places, not have enough voting machines in places for voters, so you see extraordinarily long lines, you have unequal distribution of resources for elections, so in affluent areas people have relatively few problems voting, in less affluent areas you have people having many more problems, and you also have the politicization of the voting process that’s gone on in a number of states, especially in the last few years.

To say that the system is perfect is wrong. To say that you can rig an election three months out on a national scale is also wrong.

You looked at, historically, how elections had been handled fraudulently in this country almost since there was a country.

Presidential elections have been rigged in this country, no doubt about it, rigged in different ways. Very early on, in 1800 and 1824, they were essentially rigged by the House of Representatives.

It’s still true to this day that if there’s a dispute about the outcome, then the election gets thrown to the House of Representatives to decide what happens. And both those years, very early on in the republic, before voting had really become established as the way of electing presidents, the House decided to go with whoever was politically meet to go with, as opposed to the person who was perceived to have had the greatest support.

We have seen how elections or at least the outcome has been determined not by who came out ahead in the popular vote, but by the Supreme Court.

In 1876, it was a single Supreme Court justice who was charged by the House of Representatives to be the swing vote there who found in favor of the candidate who did not win the greater number of votes either state by state or overall. That was Rutherford B. Hayes over Samuel Tilden.

And then again, of course, within living memory the Supreme Court ended the election in Florida in 2000, again without regard to how the voter outcome might have determined the race.

I think a lot of what we’ve seen in the last 16 years, in terms of the politicization of the voting process — attempts by one party or the other, mostly the Republicans in the last 16 years to skew the process in their favor through administrative means, through interruption of the rules and laws – all of that comes out of the very angry, conflicted feelings that came out of the end of the 2000 presidential election.

Elections only become suspect when they’re very close and, I would also say, when the stakes are considered to be very high.

Donald Trump said, what’s to stop people going 10 times to the voting booth? When we hear about voter fraud laws, it may be a solution in search of a problem.

What Donald Trump is alluding to is a widespread suspicion among Republicans, both officials and rank-and-file voters, that somehow it’s possible for individual voters to fraudulently present themselves at the polls more than once to vote — multiple times, as he alludes.

I think what is happening is a couple of things, both of which are wrong. One is the sense that if more people register and participate in elections, it’s inherently suspect. And number two, specifically that somehow this is connected to immigrants, new voters, people with different color skin, different national origin.

And it plays to a certain kind of dog-whistle racism that has existed in American politics for a very long time.

Now, is any of this justified by reality? The answer to that in very stark terms is no.

Where there has been fraud in American elections in the recent past it has almost never been on the level of the individual voter fraudulently presenting him or herself more than once, or on the basis of ineligibility.

It just does not happen. A number of studies have said it’s rarer than being struck by lightning. To raise it as an issue, as you say, is to propose a solution in search of a problem.

There were incidents in the early 19th century, a couple of hundred years ago — there was a practice called cooping. It essentially meant getting a voter drunk, taking him to a poll, then changing his clothes, walking him to another poll, getting him to vote again. The theory is that’s what happened to Edgar Allan Poe.

He was known to be roaring drunk when he was found in a back alley near a tavern that was being used as a polling station. And it happened to be elect day in Baltimore, where he was, and his friend subsequently concluded that he had been literally cooped to death.

It’s not something that’s ever been 100% confirmed, but it seems quite likely.

So voting fraud may have killed Edgar Allan Poe?

It seems so, yes.

Every new kind of voting technique brings new questions about accuracy and vulnerability.

Election machines in the country have never been properly overseen. There have never been proper standards, and you have a kind of Wild West system going back decades, where counties and sometimes states will make purchases of machines that are improperly programmed or improperly constructed and easily manipulable in ways that can be undetectable.

This has gone back since the first voting machine came in the 1890s, the first lever machine — people found ways to manipulate them, people found ways to manipulate punch-card machines.

The first experiments with punch-card machines, in California in the late ‘60s, also were dramatic failures. 1968, the California primary, which was completely overshadowed by the assassination of Bobby Kennedy — that was the first time that punch-card machines were used in California. They were a catastrophic failure, but no one remembers that, because of the Kennedy assassination.

Then there’s the suspicion of machines being manipulated, and there have been a number of times where technicians have demonstrated publicly how to manipulate the machines.

And then there are the more abstract warnings, which have been true especially of the electronic voting machines, where computer scientists have said it’s highly possible to hack into these machines, alter the outcome remotely in a way that no one would necessarily notice.

So the security and the confidence in voting systems in an election — does it repose in paper ballots?

Well, the system that is generally regarded as the most efficient and the most reliable, and the safest at the moment is the optical scan ballot. It is paper, you fill in the little bubble with a pencil, and then those get counted by a machine, so if there’s any question about the outcome, you’ve got a paper backup.

You do need some degree of mechanization, I think, in American elections because you have so many races. In Britain, where I’m from, generally speaking you vote for your member of Parliament and that’s pretty much it. It’s a single-race ballot.  

Here, you can have dozens of races in a single election, and the idea that you would have armies of bureaucrats counting those laboriously by hand is not a practical solution.

And, of course, we live in a country where people want their results instantly. The polls close at 8 o’clock; people want to know at 8:05 who won the election.

So some degree of mechanization is necessary, but the optical scan ballot seems to work very well.

When people around the world are given the opportunity to vote for the first time, we see long lines of people waiting to cast ballots. And yet our voted turnout is deplorable.

If the system was more transparent and inspired more confidence in terms of how well it works, I think that would certainly be a helpful step.

But I think the bigger issue in U.S. politics is that the two parties, over a long time, have discouraged voters, who they don’t think can be counted on to vote for their party.  

And you have a system now that, because of the money involved and a number of other factors, is not adequately representative of voters’ interests.

So somehow, the whole culture has to change to give people a sense they have a stake in political outcomes and an interest in participating.

And we’ve seen that to some degree in this election cycle. I think one of the benefits of the Trump candidacy and certainly of the Bernie Sanders candidacy is the idea that people who have been turned off politics can find a reason to get back in, and to have a sense that there is a way of having their issues heard.

Can it fairly be said that the Founding Fathers didn’t really trust voters? They put the electoral college between us and the presidency.  We’ve seen two presidential elections, at least, where the winner of the popular vote did not win the White House.

The Founding Fathers lived in an age when democracy was considered a dangerous, a novel idea, and no one knew if it would work. There were various assumptions that it would make individual voters susceptible to bribery, [and] a number of other reasons for many of the Founding Fathers to come out vehemently against the concept of popular voting for political offices.

There have obviously been many hiccups along the way, but fundamentally, the United States became the first country in what is now recognized as the democratic world to establish the concept of voting, and I think this country has been a pioneer in both in a good way and also suffered by being out in front.

Something that I think makes the United States really unique among Western democracies, that there’s been no adult in the room who says, we need a system that works for everybody, transparent voting rules and a system that everybody has a general degree of confidence in -- that’s never really occurred.

I’m fortunate to live in a place where the voting system works relatively well. California has a long history of problems with its voting system. My sense is that in the last 10 years, where things have been going in the wrong direction in many states, things have been emphatically in the right direction here in California.

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