Last week, President Donald Trump questioned the legitimacy of American elections, as he repeated false claims of widespread voter fraud. He again made unsubstantiated claims that the reason he lost the popular vote was because of widespread voter fraud in states like California.
"They vote many times, not just twice, not just three times," Trump said. "They vote — it's like a circle. They come back; they put a new hat on. They come back; they put a new shirt. And in many cases, they don't even do that. You know what's going on. It's a rigged deal."
These statements are fantasy – complete fiction, made up apparently on the spot by President Trump, based on no evidence whatsoever.
A comprehensive study by the Brennan Center for Justice found only 31 credible allegations of fraud when surveying over 1 billion votes cast in U.S. elections. After Trump made his initial statements that he had lost the popular vote in 2016 because of illegal voting, numerous Secretaries of State, of both parties, publicly said that allegations of fraud had been investigated and almost always found to be baseless.
The only documented example of fraudulent activity on a wide scale in the last couple of years was on behalf of a Republican congressional candidate in North Carolina last year, involving falsified absentee ballots. Stealing or manipulating absentee ballots is a more efficient way to “rig” an election than the sort of repeated in-person voting that Trump imagines, given the public nature of polling places and the large number of official witnesses present.
Meanwhile, the real threat to our elections remains unaddressed by the President and Congress, as the warnings about our country’s failing election infrastructure become increasingly loud.
A new report by the Senate Intelligence Committee shows that Russia targeted voter registration and other election systems in all 50 states. As with the Senate report, this should not be a partisan matter, and elected officials concerned with election integrity should not worry about saying the word “Russia” for fear of upsetting President Trump.
Furthermore, U.S. intelligence officials have warned that, in addition to Russia, China and Iran and other antagonistic foreign countries have both the capacity and interest to disrupt our 2020 elections – either to assist favored candidates or to embarrass the country by derailing election processes and potentially creating a constitutional crisis.
Congress should listen to this warning and move to protect our election infrastructure. This includes passing federal legislation that would set federal minimum requirements for election security, bolster security resources available to the states and provide funds for modernizing voting equipment, preparing election officials for the newest threats and provide for continual testing and improving election systems across the country.
The 2016 election exposed glaring holes in our ability to police foreign intervention in U.S. elections, particularly when it comes to online electioneering. Foreign interference in 2020 has the potential to further shake public confidence in elections, unless we do something about it.
States with vulnerable and outdated technology—including electronic systems with no “paper trail” to audit if the machines break down or are tampered with—desperately need money now to buy new machinery. Yet Mitch McConnell has prevented the Senate from voting on any measures to address 2020 election security. He says that he does not like the House passed measure that would provide funding to the States because it also would establish federal standards for new voting technology, thereby usurping states’ rights. Leaving aside for the moment the question whether elections for national office shouldn’t meet certain minimum technological standards to protect our national security, McConnell could allow the Senate to vote on funding bills without this requirement—but he refuses to do that too. The refusal to even allow the Senate to discuss our current election emergency in time to do something about it before 2020, and allow a bipartisan consensus on action to emerge, does a disservice to our country.
To help improve faith in our elections, we should work to improve the transparency of campaign spending. To help protect our democracy from foreign interference, Congress and the Federal Election Commission (FEC) should adopt laws and rules that strengthen the transparency of our election systems and help identify foreign actors attempting to influence the votes of everyday Americans.
The bipartisan Honest Ads Act would provide a good first step towards this. Passing this bill would ensure that digital political ads are subject to the same disclosure requirements as television advertisements.
Additionally, the FEC and internet platforms should require political advertisers to identify themselves to voters. Requiring disclaimers stating who paid for digital political ads should be an easy fix. Both the FEC and some internet platforms are already making progress in this direction, but more must be done.
Instead of focusing on President Trump’s wild fantasies, we need to focus on the dangerous current realities we are facing now.