December 13, 2000: Every election is rigged if you ask the right people, but the 2000 contest was particularly ripe breeding ground for conspiracies. Al Gore concedes the contest a day after the 5–4 Supreme Court decision in Bush v. Gore put an end to a monthlong controversy over some contested ballots in Florida. With the country's highest court ruling that George W. Bush's victory in the state should stand, Gore doesn't have much of a choice, but he emphasizes in his concession speech that it was time to move on. "While I strongly disagree with the court's decision, I do accept it," he says. "For the sake of our unity as a people and the strength of our democracy, I offer my concession."
In a sense, though, that election is still going on today. Gore's remarks didn't stop the left from pushing the idea that the election had been stolen—a lot of theories center on Jeb Bush, George's brother who was then the governor of Florida. To this day, you can sign Change.org petitions calling for the 2000 election to be investigated; when Gore showed up at a Clinton rally recently, the crowd broke out in a "you won!" chant.
2004: John Kerry loses the presidential election. Or does he? Just like four years earlier, some on the left advance the theory that a close contest was stolen from the Democrat. Theories about how voting machines in Ohio were rigged to give the state and its decisive electoral votes abound for a long time afterward, even showing up in Mother Jones in 2005. But Kerry himself never gives any credence to any of this; he concedes the morning after Election Day once it becomes clear he couldn't win Ohio.
2008: As the election approaches—a relative cakewalk where Barack Obama would trounce John McCain—Republicans in Ohio challenge a rule letting voters register and vote on the same day. This is part of a broad right-wing effort to make it more difficult to vote on the grounds that voter fraud is rampant—an effort, Democrats say, that looks an awful lot like an excuse to intimidate and harass minorities, the poor, and students, all voting demographics that lean Democratic.
2012: Obama wins reelection pretty handily, but some on the right have questions about the areas in Philadelphia where Mitt Romney got zero votes. "Odd? Romney Got ZERO Votes In 59 Precincts in Philly, and 9 Precincts in Ohio" read one headline on conservative news site the Blaze. But it wasn't that odd—the 50 divisions (not precincts) in Philadelphia who went unanimously for Obama were Democratic strongholds, as were those Ohio areas. And, for his part, Romney himself carried some Utah precincts unanimously.
The notion that these results indicate something fishy persists, though, and local Philadelphia Republican Party officials took time to debunk this idea recently.
OK, time to flash forward, but you get the gist: A lot of people complain when their candidate loses, some of that complaining edges into conspiracy-theory territory, but candidates themselves don't traffic in any of this. The US has a long, pretty dang impressive history of peacefully transferring power from party to party, and a big part of that is that party leaders have always accepted election results and refused to even hint that the system screwed them over—even, as in Gore's case, when they would have had a decent case.
April 2016: Trump complains about the Republican primary rules in some states that led to Ted Cruz, his main rival, winning all of Colorado's delegates. "The system is rigged, it's crooked," Trump says on FOX News. Despite his sour grapes, Trump is actually winning and benefitted in earlier primaries from some GOP rules.
Summer 2016: On the other side of the political spectrum, Bernie Sanders supporters complain of various ways that they feel Hillary Clinton is stealing the primary. Among their most serious complaints are that a purge of the voter rolls in New York was intended to disenfranchise Sanders supporters, Arizona's disorganized primary benefitted Clinton, and that Sanders actually won California. Though later evidence would show that officials at the Democratic National Committee were pro-Clinton—and the whole process undoubtedly favors Establishment candidates like Clinton—these wilder theories seem to be just wishful thinking.
Sanders doesn't sign on to these conspiracy narratives. In early May, he says the primaries were a "rigged system" because of unelected superdelegates, but later that month he backtracks and just called some rules "dumb"—again, an example of a leader refusing to engage in his followers' wilder notions. During the Democratic convention, though some angry Sanders delegates would walk out, Sanders (and most of his supporters) remain firmly behind Clinton, dumb rules and all.
Donald Trump loves all of this:
August 1: Trump has been throwing around the word "rigged" to explain everything from Sanders's defeat to Clinton not getting charged with any crime over her private email server. But this day marks the first time he throws out the R-word when it comes to the general election. "I'm afraid the election is going to be rigged, I have to be honest," he says in front of a crowd in Ohio, before going on FOX News to tell Sean Hannity, "I hope the Republicans are watching closely, or it's going to be taken away from us."
It's worth nothing that at the time Trump's polling numbers were in a nosedive following an ugly public spat with the parents of a dead Muslim soldier.
August 2: In an interview with the Washington Post, Trump links up his criticism of the election with the mainstream Republican notion of the voter fraud epidemic. "The voter ID situation has turned out to be a very unfair development," he says, apparently referencing a recent court decision against a voter ID law. "We may have people vote ten times."
August 19: A poll finds that a majority of Trump supporters aren't very confident that their votes will be counted accurately, backing up anecdotal evidence from his rallies that Trump's fans see themselves as being in opposition to a vague but extremely powerful Establishment. That view dovetails with the us-against-the-world message Trump has been pushing since the primaries, so no surprise there.
August 23: A civil rights group asks international election monitors to watch the US contest closely in response to Trump's rhetoric about how his supporters need to make sure people in "certain areas" aren't committing fraud. When people sign up on Trump's website to be poll watchers—a routine function by campaign volunteers—they get an email that says, ominously, "We are going to do everything we are legally allowed to do to stop crooked Hillary from rigging this election," according to NBC News.
September 7: A poll of Florida voters finds that 75 percent of Trump supporters think that if he loses, it'll be because of fraud.
September 26: During the first presidential debate, Trump says that he'll "absolutely" accept the results of the election, even if he loses.
September 30: Trump changes his mind, I guess, because in an interview with the New York Times, he says, "We're going to have to see" if he would accept the results of the election.
Early October: In the wake of the scandal over the tape of Trump saying he could grab women "by the pussy" because he is famous, the GOP candidate starts throwing around accusations that the media is biased against him for supposedly focusing more on the allegations of sexual misconduct against him than on the Clinton campaign emails released by WikiLeaks.
But his "rigged system" rhetoric—repeated in tweets and at rallies—goes way past a candidate whining about the media's mistreatment:
As the election gets closer, Trump's repeated assertions that the election is rigged are notable because he's complaining about a crime before it happens, and because he's putting what would normally be a fringe view at the center of the campaign. Candidates never ever do this sort of thing, because it's seen, rightly, as a rejection of 200 years of American democracy.
October 15: Speaker of the House Paul Ryan tells Buzzfeed, "Our democracy relies on confidence in election results, and the speaker is fully confident the states will carry out this election with integrity," more or less directly contradicting Trump.
October 16: Trump surrogates go on television to defend their man. Former House speaker Newt Gingrich calls the election a "coup d'etat" by the news media against ordinary people, former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani says that "dead people generally vote for Democrats" and voter fraud is bad for Republicans because "they don't control inner cities the way Democrats do."
Also on October 16: Mike Pence, Trump's running mate, missed a meeting or something because he goes on Meet the Press and says, "We will absolutely accept the result of the election."
October 17: Kellyanne Conway, who missed the same meeting Pence did, talks to CNN and, when asked about what Trump means by "rigged," replies, "Anybody who reads the newspaper online or in print or has a remote control probably has recognized that in many ways, the fix is in for Mrs. Clinton when it comes to the mainstream media."
But wait, back up a second to October 16:
And then, back to October 17, literally just hours after Trump's own campaign manager is like, Oh, he's just talking about the unfair media:
Finally, just hours ago: The latest poll on the subject shows that four in ten voters—and 73 percent of Republicans—think that the election could be "stolen" from Trump.
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