clock menu more-arrow no yes

Today’s election will not be rigged

A Philadelphia elections official debunks a favorite Trump campaign claim.

Philadelphia residents cast their primary-day ballots on April 26, 2016.
Jessica Kourkounis/Getty Images

“I will tell you at the time,” he said. “I’ll keep you in suspense, okay?”

This is how Donald Trump answered a question at the third debate about whether the election would be rigged and if he’d accept the outcome if he lost.

“That's horrifying,” Hillary Clinton said in response. And it is — but it’s nothing new. Trump has been making noises about voter fraud and refusing to concede for months now. As his poll numbers have slipped recently, he has increased the urgency and frequency of his predictions that the election will — not may — be "rigged" against him.

As he tells it, the major locus of felonious election tampering will be Philadelphia —where I happen to live and serve as a neighborhood elections official.

Here’s an exchange he had with Fox News’s Carl Cameron earlier this month:

TRUMP: And you look at certain cities. I won't name them right now. [INAUDIBLE] the cities…

CAMERON: You have mentioned Philadelphia quite a bit.

TRUMP: Philadelphia is one that's mentioned. I think Romney got no votes and McCain got no votes. I mean, like no votes, and Philadelphia is certainly one.

Trump surrogates have been pushing this storyline as well. Rudy Giuliani on State of the Union on CNN: "You want me to [say] that I think the election in Philadelphia and Chicago is going to be fair? I would have to be a moron to say that." Newt Gingrich on ABC's This Week: "I remember when Richard Nixon had the election stolen in 1960, and no serious historian doubts that Illinois and Texas were stolen. So to suggest that, we have, you don't have theft in Philadelphia is to deny reality."

Trump and his Sunday news show allies have made (and continue to make) extraordinary, outrageous claims about Philadelphia elections without offering credible evidence, and those allegations are doing real damage to the health of our democracy.

Trump's supporters seem to be agreeing with Trump, in astonishing numbers. According to a recent Politico/Morning Consult poll, 81 percent of them (and 41 percent of voters overall) believe the election could be stolen from him.

To those voters I'd say, hear me out. If Donald Trump loses the 2016 general election, it will be because the American people prefer his opponent Hillary Clinton for the job. His defeat will have nothing to do with voter fraud. And, because he and his team are specifically implicating the city where I am a minor elections official as the center of this fraud, let me state categorically: Fraud did not occur in the 2012 general election here, and it will not occur in 2016.

Where the “Romney got no votes in Philadelphia” rumor came from — and how it was disproven

It should be obvious, but contrary to Trump’s bizarre “no votes” claim, Mitt Romney got votes in every city in the United States. And he certainly got votes in Philadelphia: 96,467 votes, in fact. McCain did even better in 2008, with 117,221 votes. But these votes were not evenly distributed around the city. In fact, in 59 of the 1,687 divisions (precincts) in Philadelphia in 2012, Romney received zero machine votes.

Some (mostly nonlocal) Republicans raised their eyebrows about these numbers. Once and future senate candidate from Alaska Joe Miller tweeted: “Zero Votes in 59 Philly Precincts? Sounds Like Western Alaska, circa 2010.” Sean Hannity called the phenomenon “mathematically impossible.”

But a team of reporters for the Philadelphia Inquirer went looking for GOP voters in these largely African-American, largely poor sections of our still rather-segregated city. Although the reporters found a handful of Republicans, many of whom were unaware that was how they were registered, none had voted for Romney. Many of these divisions had cast no votes for John McCain four years earlier, nor were there votes cast in the Republican primaries.

The demographics of the voters in these divisions, the historic candidacy of Barack Obama, and the complete lack of anyone coming forward to say, "hey, what happened to my vote for Mitt Romney?" should have put a stop to the fraud rumors, and indeed they did for years, at least in the mainstream press. But the story has simmered unchecked in fringe and conspiracy-minded media (many of which linked to the Inquirer story without noting the rest of the story's reporting), and its bubbling back into public view has coincided with the rise of Donald Trump.

I became a voting inspector because I wanted make sure that every eligible, willing voter’s vote was counted, exactly one time

The 2012 “scandal” led me to act on an idea I’d been mulling for a while. I’ve always relished voting as a pure expression of civic pride and patriotism, but I’ve also been fascinated by the process: the machines we use, the systems we put in place to ensure accurate results, and the ways in which those systems can fail, or be thought to fail (which can amount to the same thing).

I wanted to help; to make sure that every eligible, willing voter’s vote was counted, exactly one time, and to make sure that the public shared my confidence in the outcome. I gathered signatures from my neighbors to run for one of two inspector positions for my division. As an independent (and occasional Republican), I’ve now served as my division’s minority inspector through five elections, acting alongside an appointed clerk and machine inspector, in partnership with — but also as a check and balance to — the Democratic judge of elections and majority inspector. Our collective job: to sign in legal voters, take down their names, and keep the voting machines humming.

On the morning of Election Day, we set up the machines, verifying the seals that ensure the machines have not been tampered with. When the voting’s done, the machines print multiple copies of paper tallies of all our local results. Each poll worker signs them all, and one copy is hung publicly outside the voting division. One goes downtown with a police officer, along with the data cartridge that also contains the results. Copies of the tape can be given to any poll watchers, and as the minority inspector I take a copy home. I’ll compare it to the city’s website results when they are posted, and I’m required to keep my hard copy for a year.

Why widespread fraud is impossible

The first thing to know about the machines we use in Philadelphia: There is absolutely no way to erase votes. We use direct-recording electronic voting machines called the ELECTronic 1242. They were designed in 1980s, requisitioned by the city in the 1990s, and put into place in the early 2000s. The major downside of these machines is the downside of all direct-recording voting machines: There is no confirmation of the voter's ballot, no verifiable paper trail, and no chance for a recount in a close election.

The voter presses lights next to the name of her preferred candidates, then presses a large green VOTE button, and the machine beeps and goes dark until a poll worker resets it for the next voter. There are no redos. If you (or more likely, your grabby kid you've brought with you) hits VOTE before you're actually done completing the ballot, that's too bad. Better luck next election! There's literally nothing poll workers can do to take back that vote and let you try again.

But how can we know what happens to the vote inside the machine? I should say that for the all-but-two days a year I’m not an elections inspector, I’m a product manager for a software company. My background is technical without specific expertise in voting machine hardware or security, but with that caveat: Could nefarious actors change the software to make votes switch from one candidate to another in the final tallies? Not likely.

Unlike some electronic voting machines still in use in some jurisdictions that are built on insecure technologies like Windows 3 and have been demonstrated (at least in the lab) to be hackable, the ELECTronic is an embedded system with no real OS. It's essentially an appliance, like a toaster oven.

Sure, if you had access to the machine's motherboard and logic chips, you could theoretically change out the hardware and get it to perform any way you wanted (although to my knowledge this has never been fully demonstrated with this machine). But you'd have to gain physical interior access to literally every machine you wanted to affect. These machines cannot be networked; there is no chance of infecting one with a virus and having that malevolent code spread to any other machine. And needless to say, none of this would be possible on Election Day. Sorry, we’re not going to let you take apart our voting machines.

If you think the Philadelphia Democratic Party itself has invested vast clandestine technical resources to hack the county's machines and has successfully managed to keep the huge conspiracy secret, my question to you is: Why don't they break out the FraudoMatic functionality for all statewide elections? Why would Pennsylvania have ever elected Gov. Tom Corbett, or Sens. Rick Santorum or Pat Toomey? Why is this only used every four years for presidential elections?

It comes down to people

If it's not the machines, is fraud still possible in Philadelphia elections? It would have to come down to the people: the voters of the city and the few thousand volunteers like me who work the polls on Election Day. By and large, this process runs very smoothly. Occasionally there are glitches that do swing into fraud territory. Although I don't know of any examples, it would not surprise me if an elderly voter or two is turning in their dead spouse's absentee ballot. This is obviously a problem and illegal, but certainly a far cry from the 1.8 million dead people that Donald Trump claims are already rising from the grave to vote in November.

As for in-person fraud, forget about it. Philadelphia divisions are very small, and we're a city of neighborhoods. If you are registered to vote in my division, we live within a few blocks at most. We (me, the other poll workers, you, the other voters in line) see each other at the grocery store, or restaurants, or church, or the park. Your kids might go to school with mine. Good luck with your claiming to be someone else! If for some reason your risk of federal prison time pays off, you've managed to add … one extra vote.

Poll officials are not immune from problems. Four election workers were prosecuted in 2015 for (stupidly) adding six votes to the machines at the end of the night to make their machine counts match the number of voters who had signed their rolls. It's something I'm glad the district attorney took seriously, but ultimately if this essentially accidental fraud is the worst sort of election rigging our city encounters, we're largely doing okay.

Which brings me to the topic of poll watchers. Trump has encouraged Republican poll watchers to spend time in Philadelphia polling places, and I encourage them as well. Properly certified poll watchers can be present — one at a time — in any polling division in the city. Their presence would assure smooth, fraud-free operations and essentially bless the results as legitimate. It was actually a poll watcher who noticed and reported the division workers adding votes in 2014. Properly trained and certified poll watchers are a boon to the system, and to the extent they're deployed in good faith, I and my fellow election workers will welcome them.

There doesn't seem to be a significant uptick in applications for Republican poll watcher certificates, however, and that has me concerned. All of this talk of rigged elections in Philadelphia — without a shred of substantive proof — nevertheless has Trump's supporters expecting fraud and specifically expecting it in the city I love. I'm worried about what may happen outside polling places on Election Day, and I'm even more worried about the longterm confidence in the legitimacy of our representative democracy.

Ryan Godfrey is a software product manager and an inspector of elections for a voting division in the Cedar Park neighborhood of West Philadelphia. He looks forward to returning to tweeting about movies and jokes after the election.


First Person is Vox's home for compelling, provocative narrative essays. Do you have a story to share? Read our submission guidelines, and pitch us at firstperson@vox.com.