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Elections are administered in thousands of local areas nationwide, each with safeguards, making any attempt to “rig” a national election highly improbable.
Trump also is wrong to declare the only way he could lose is if the outcome is rigged. He is an incumbent facing significant political challenges, most notably the coronavirus pandemic.
President Donald Trump has repeatedly accused the Democrats of using voting by mail as a way to "rig" the election.
Speaking in Scranton, Pa., hours before his rival Joe Biden formally accepted his nomination at the Democratic National Convention, Trump revived many of his attacks on mail-in voting.
At one point, Trump said, "So this is just a way they’re trying to steal the election and everybody knows that. Because the only way they’re going to win is by a rigged election," he said.
When we reached out to the White House, they pointed to mainstream media outlets that have reported that mail delays and late ballots were a problem in some primaries. Trump himself has often pointed to New York as an example.
But these do not constitute evidence that Democrats, or anyone, are rigging the outcome.
There are several other reasons that he could lose. For one, he faces the same challenges that any incumbent would face when running amid a pandemic that has killed more than 174,000 Americans and left millions unemployed. Here, we’ll look at more realistic scenarios that undermine Trump’s claim.
A big reason to doubt Trump’s assertion about a rigged presidential election is that the U.S. has a decentralized election system that is largely administered by county or city election officials.
States set laws about policies such as early voting hours or voter ID, but it’s local election officials who handle the day-to-day tasks of administering elections such as registering voters, sending ballots to voters’ homes, checking in voters at local precincts, and overseeing the machines at early voting and election day sites.
There are more than 3,000 counties and 10,000 local jurisdictions spread across 50 states and D.C., said Paul Gronke, director of the Early Voting Information Center at Reed College. Each county produces its own ballots, and even within counties there can be various ballot versions with unique lists of federal, state and local offices, depending upon where a voter lives. Any attempt to rig a national election would pose multiple hurdles.
Bar-coded envelopes for these ballots are "just the first set of hurdles in trying to ‘rig’ an election," Gronke said.
The next hurdle would be to fake each individual signature so well that it fools verification systems, and that voters don’t notice that someone else has cast their ballot before they did. Data scientists also track the returns closely and have sometimes been able to spot anomalies.
A third complication for prospective election riggers is to figure out where to target their rigging efforts. In order to build a sufficient margin in the electoral college, they would have to guess in advance which states could tip the election.
All of this would have to be done in a coordinated but secret way, with hundreds of people willing to risk felonies for the same goal.
While mailed ballots pose a slightly higher risk of voter fraud than voting in person, fraud remains statistically rare. In the five states that have previously used all-mail elections, there have been very low rates of fraud, said Rick Hasen, an election law expert at the University of California-Irvine. And most of the time, voting fraud cases tend to be one-off events in local elections, not conspiracies capable of swinging a national election.
But administrative problems have occurred not just with the voting by mail that Trump often derides but also with long lines at in-person precincts, and these have often been in jurisdictions that tend to vote Democratic.
Using the term election rigging "connotes some kind of fraud attempt to sabotage the casting of ballots," said Wendy Weiser, an elections expert at New York University’s liberal Brennan Center. "Administrative snafus are a completely different thing."
Fundamentally, the possibility of a Trump loss could stem from political realities, not vote-rigging.
"It will not take a rigged election for Trump to lose, just the ordinary workings of electoral accountability in a democracy," said Alan Abramowitz, an Emory University political scientist.
As of now, at least, Trump looks like an underdog for reelection, based on past history.
"When an incumbent president is running for a second term, the election is always largely a referendum on the president’s record during his first term," said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
Gallup has taken approval surveys for every president since World War II. Currently, Trump’s job approval of 42% is in the danger zone for an elected incumbent seeking a second term.
Six presidents since World War II have been reelected. In descending order of their Gallup approval rating, they were Dwight Eisenhower (68%), Bill Clinton (57%), Richard Nixon (56%), Ronald Reagan (54%), George W. Bush (51%), and Barack Obama (45%).
The two presidents who had the lowest approval ratings did not win reelection: George H.W. Bush (35%) and Jimmy Carter (32%).
Trump’s 42% puts him right in the middle of those two groups. Trump’s approval rating shows Trump’s level of public support has been relatively stable over time, despite the ebb and flow of positive and negative news events. At the same time, strengthened partisan polarization will likely make it hard for Trump to win the votes of people in the disapproving camp.
"Partisan polarization has drastically reduced the ability of incumbent office-holders at all levels to appeal to voters across party lines," Kondik said. "And unlike previous incumbents, Trump has made little effort to expand his base of support during his time in office."
Often, presidents are judged heavily on the state of the economy on their watch. For much of Trump’s term, unemployment was low, boosting his prospects of a second term. However, 2020 has been a bad year, rocked by coronavirus, economic problems, and a sharp focus on systemic societal problems, like racial inequities in policing.
That’s why some analysts like Abramowitz believe the public’s approval or disapproval of Trump’s handling of the coronavirus could be an important metric in determining his electoral prospects in November. And that trend line has not looked good for the president.
The RealClearPolitics polling average of the public’s approval of Trump in handling the coronavirus shows that as of Aug. 21, fewer than 40% of respondents approved of Trump’s handling of the coronavirus, while more than 58% disapproved.
FiveThirtyEight’s weighted average of national polls had Biden up by 8.6 percentage points nationally on Aug. 21. Perhaps equally important, Biden’s lead has been stable since he clinched the nomination and the pandemic hit. Trump has never come closer than four points during that period, and that was back in early April.
In the states most likely to be decisive, Biden has also put together notable leads: 7.4 points in Michigan, 6.1 points in Pennsylvania, 6.8 points in Wisconsin, 5.4 points in Florida and 3.6 points in Arizona. Biden would need only the first three to reverse the 2016 result and achieve a Democratic victory.
But Trump is not destined to lose, because intervening events could upset the status quo. The polls could be off; problems with the voting process during a pandemic could keep some voters’ ballots uncounted; and news events favorable to Trump or unfavorable to Biden could occur.
But Trump said it was impossible for him to lose unless the election were rigged. That’s simply not the case.
Trump said, "So this is just a way they’re trying to steal the election, and everybody knows that. Because the only way they’re going to win is by a rigged election."
An actual conspiracy to rig the results of a national election would require hundreds or thousands of people working together to commit felonies across many critical jurisdictions. Experts do not consider this feasible, nor do we.
Meanwhile, Trump is an incumbent facing several ongoing challenges: a major pandemic, high unemployment, civic unrest and future uncertainty. Those are significant political hurdles that would be challenging for any president.
We rate this claim Pants on Fire.
Rev.com, Donald Trump Speech Transcript August 20: In Joe Biden’s Hometown, Aug. 20, 2020
Professor Rick Hasen Op-Ed New York Times, Trump’s Relentless Attacks on Mail-In Ballots Are Part of a Larger Strategy, Aug. 19, 2020
WIRED, WIRED's Totally Legit Guide to Rigging a Presidential Election, Oct. 19, 2016
Trump twitter archive search for "rigged", Accessed Aug. 20, 2020
Washington Post, Postal Service backlog sparks worries that ballot delivery could be delayed in November, July 30, 2020
FiveThirtyEight, "Who's Ahead in the National Polls?" accessed Aug. 21, 2020
270toWin, pundit forecasts, accessed Aug. 21, 2020
Gallup, Presidential Job Approval Center, accessed Aug. 21, 2020
RealClearPolitics, "Public Approval of President Trump's Handling of the Coronavirus," accessed Aug. 21, 2020
FiveThirtyEight, "How popular is Donald Trump?" accessed Aug. 21, 2020
NPR, Signed, Sealed, Undelivered: Thousands Of Mail-In Ballots Rejected For Tardiness, July 13, 2020
Politico, ‘Imagine what Donald Trump would say’: Key swing state sweats over vote-counting fiasco, June 5, 2020
New York Times, Vote-by-Mail Ballot Requests Overwhelm New York City Elections Agency, June 19, 2020
Wall Street Journal editorial board, New York’s Mail-Vote Disaster, July 20, 2020
Ashby Law, Twitter thread, Oct. 15, 2016
National Conference of State Legislatures, Election administration at state and local levels, Feb. 3, 2020
PolitiFact, Donald Trump's baseless claims about the election being 'rigged' Aug. 15, 2016
Email interview, Sarah Matthews, White House spokesperson, Aug. 21, 2020
Telephone interview, Wendy Weiser, directs the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, Aug. 21, 2020
Email interview with Richard L. Hasen, Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine, Aug 21, 2020
Email interview with Paul Gronke, Reed College political science professor and founder of the Early Voting Information Center, Aug 21, 2020
Email interview with Ed Foley, Ohio State University law school professor, Aug 21, 2020
Email interview with Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, Aug 21, 2020
Email interview with Alan Abramowitz, Emory University political scientist, Aug 21, 2020
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