The VICE Guide to the 2016 Election

The Fraud, Intimidation, and Lies Spread in This Awful Election

Elections are a lot cleaner than they used to be, but dirty tricks, lies, and outright fraud still occur every time an opportunity to vote rolls around.
November 4, 2016, 4:00am
A Donald Trump supporter takes a selfie with a woman in a Hillary Clinton costume at a rally on November 2. (RHONA WISE/AFP/Getty Images)

Edgar Allen Poe may have died from voting. To this day, no one knows exactly what killed the horror writer, but one popular theory for his 1849 death in Baltimore was that he was the victim of "cooping"—in other words, he was kidnapped by a band of thuggish partisans on Election Day, kept in a state of drunkenness, and forced to change his clothes so he could vote over and over again. He was left lying in the gutter of a pub that served as a polling place and died a few days later.

Life in 19th-century America sucked pretty hard in general, but elections were particularly brutal. There was no right to a secret ballot, contests were regularly rigged by local political machines, and rival factions would fight one another in the street. Today, things are better—there will be no brawls in Baltimore, no cooping schemes. The idea that a national election could be "rigged," as Donald Trump has repeatedly suggested, is silly. It's no longer 1960, when ballot box stuffing in Chicago and cheating in Texas might have cost Richard Nixon the election.

Rick Hasen, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, who runs the Election Law Blog, says that elections are "cleaner now" than they were in the 60s, thanks to increased transparency and more attention paid to how votes are counted. "The kind of things that are alleged to have happened in the past would be much harder to pull off today," Hasen told me.

Experts like Hasen are always quick to point out that voter fraud of any sort is very rare, and the in-person deception that Republican-backed voter ID laws are supposedly designed to stop barely exists. A much-cited 2012 report from News21 searched all 50 states for cases of alleged voter fraud since 2000 and found just over 2,000—and only ten of those involved impersonation at polling stations.

Still, America is a big country, and its election system is actually a clumsily stitched-together patchwork of state systems, each with their own rules. The sheer amount of activity on Election Day basically guarantees that there will be all sorts of chicanery. Voter fraud is alive and well—but it isn't the existential threat that Trump and others make it out to be.

In Denver, a CBS affiliate recently uncovered instances of dead people voting in the past several elections. Dead people have voted in Chicago as well. Eastern Kentucky remains a relative hotbed of vote-buying, with some people selling their votes in 2014 for $50. One local election that year was even overturned because of widespread corruption. The Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting published a deep dive into that region's recent history of funny business. One former candidate said that vote buying was "kind of ingrained in the local society."

Similar corruption was documented in voting rights scholar Mary Frances Berry's book Five Dollars and a Pork Chop Sandwich: Vote Buying and the Corruption of Democracy. Published this year, it centers on voting-related crime in Louisiana, which a former state election official told her was common and cut across party lines.

"Distressingly, poor people were often the targets of vote buyers," Berry writes. "Though the poor are with us everywhere, tenants in public housing developments were especially targeted, sometimes with an implied threat of eviction if they failed to sell their votes. In some communities, vote buyers—some of them wearing law enforcement uniforms—made paid calls on the neighborhoods where poor and working-class people lived."

These sorts of operations are mostly centered on local elections, and often not all that successful. As the Washington Post documented in a 2012 story about vote-buying in Appalachia, sometimes people have lied about who they cast their ballots for in order to get cash from shady political operatives.

It's important to note that accounts of electoral fraud are often exaggerated. It's true that an estimated 1.8 million dead people are registered to vote, for instance, but that hardly means that we're going to see that many fraudulent ballots. And laws pushed by right-leaning state legislatures requiring people to have certain kinds of identification in order to vote may prevent some forms of (vanishingly rare) fraud, but they also restrict the rights of the same people who are often taken advantage of by vote buyers.

Fears of fraud may have more of an impact on the 2016 race than actual fraud. Members of right-wing militias have pledged to protest a Clinton victory, and say they won't fire the first shot but will fight back if the government tries to disarm them. Everyone from the Oath Keepers to GOP operative Roger Stone is talking about monitoring polling stations in minority areas. One Iowa Trump supporter allegedly voted twice because she was worried her first vote would be stolen. The Florida GOP is accusing election officials of opening absentee ballots.

On the other side of the political spectrum, in August, a civil rights group called for more international election monitors to come to the US because the Supreme Court had stripped some of the protections the Voting Rights Act gave to minorities. Democrats in Ohio cried foul in October after Republican Secretary of State John Husted didn't mail a million absentee ballot applications out—385,000 merely because the would-be recipients hadn't voted in 2012 and 2014 and hadn't replied to county mailings confirming their addresses.

Meanwhile, trollish online plots to suppress the vote have proliferated. Fake announcements claiming that people could vote for Clinton by text spread on social media, while some alt-right keyboard Nazis claimed (likely facetiously) that they'll hand out booze and weed in black neighborhoods in Philly to encourage residents not to vote.

As Republicans ramp up their poll-watching efforts, Democrats are pushing back in court, filing a lawsuit against the Republican National Committee for allegedly violating a decades-old consent decree requiring them to steer clear of doing anything that could be construed as intimidation of voters. Separate lawsuits in a variety of states claim that GOP poll watchers aren't complying with the relevant rules, which can change from state to state.

"There is a heightened awareness of the issue of voter intimidation because Donald Trump has made it an issue" by telling his supporters they need to watch the polls, Hasen said."We don't know how much [voter intimidation] is going to happen this election, but there is certainly much more open talk about it than we've seen in recent elections."

When you add it all up—the scattered cases of genuine fraud and corruption, the court battles, the rampant fears on both sides that the election will be illegitimate—the 2016 contest is shaping up to be the messiest electoral battle at least since the 2000 debacle in Florida. And Election Day is bound to be full of even more rumors and panic.

"We're [already] starting to see false reports on social media," Hasen said, citing a tweet from an activist who claimed without evidence that Trump supporters—"men with dogs"—were patrolling a polling location open for early voting.

"These stories are very hard to figure out," Hasen told me. "Some of it is based on rumors, some of it is actually happening... On Election Day, there's a lot of misinformation."

Follow Harry Cheadle on Twitter.