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How Common Is The Belief That An Election Can Be Rigged?


As we just heard from Ari, when it comes to voter fraud, there is a gap between perception and reality. Polls show that a significant minority of Americans think elections can be or have been stolen. Research shows that voter fraud is extremely rare. Political scientist Pippa Norris directs the Electoral Integrity Project. It's housed at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and the University of Sydney in Australia. Welcome to the program.

PIPPA NORRIS: Thank you, Robert - pleasure to be here.

SIEGEL: You heard those North Carolina voters who told Ari Shapiro that they think an election can be rigged. How common is that belief generally, and is it more common in this election when we've had a candidate for president making that claim?

NORRIS: So it has become fairly common. If we look at, for example, The Washington Post-ABC News poll in September, they found nearly half of all Americans believe that voter fraud occurs very or somewhat often. But amongst Trump supporters, it jumps to two-thirds. I mean that's pretty remarkable. And the thing is that the belief in fraud has really been increasing over the years ever since Florida in 2000.

SIEGEL: Now, how common are actual incidents of voter fraud?

NORRIS: They're not the problem. The Brennan Center, for example, did one of the most thorough studies, and they found voter impersonation was more or less nonexistent. That's when you vote a couple of times at the polls, which is part of what Donald Trump is saying is the problem of American elections - doesn't mean to say there aren't problems in the system, but it's really not about what happens in the polling booth or when people go to vote. That's not where the problems arise.

SIEGEL: Donald Trump claims that the race is rigged for several reasons, including, as he says, the fact that Hillary Clinton is allowed to run despite doing things he thinks should disqualify her. But when he or his surrogates talk about fraud at the polls, they invoke stories of what we used to call the graveyard vote. Didn't big city political machines once manipulate vote results in America? And are we confident that those days are gone?

NORRIS: Absolutely. So in Chicago, it was vote early; vote often. We've had a history of that and vote buying as well. There's all sorts of problems there. But those are really a long time ago, and they're historical. They're not the actual practices of what goes on today. So when people say there's vote rigging, that's a strong charge. It's really saying that there's illegal activity which is organized to distort the outcome, and that's not the case.

SIEGEL: There are other aspects of our electoral system that people criticize - the superdelegate system in the primary season, the gerrymandering of districts, ballot access for third party candidates. Is it really surprising that a large share of our electorate consider the system unfair?

NORRIS: No, I think those are some real criticisms. And when again we ask experts, the real problem is money in the media. In other words, it's the amount of money which is being spent in the campaign which people don't trust because of the way that large donors or other groups can influence the process through dark money. And then media - people often feel that the media is unfair, is imbalanced and issues of gerrymandering or of long-standing history in America.

And indeed, when we compare American elections and their integrity with other countries around the world and we ask experts to evaluate them, in fact, America doesn't come out very well. America ranks 52nd out of 153 countries worldwide, and it's the worst of all the democracies.

SIEGEL: If in fact we have an election night in which the loser refuses to say, I lost fair and square, and I congratulate the winner, what's the damage?

NORRIS: So it has long-term damage. Where people don't trust the election, they tend not to vote so much, so turnout goes down. They have less confidence in elected institutions like Congress. And as you know, it's already at one of the lowest levels. And ultimately it also damages confidence and faith in the performance of democracy in America.

Now, America is an established democracy, but in countries which are emerging and becoming democracies, if you have some allegations from sore losers that the outcome is rigged or fraudulent, you have major instability. Think of Kenya where there were thousands of people who were killed and displaced in 2007, cases like Bangladesh where there's tremendous violence every election, Thailand where there was a military coup d'etat and Nigeria where there were ethnic violence.

So you can see that in more fragile democracies, the consequences of having problems in your elections really spreads throughout the system. That's not going to be the case in America. But even minor cases of protests that don't go through the courts or any sort of individuals who resort to any sort of violence can create fundamental tensions that will make things worse rather than better.

SIEGEL: Pippa Norris, thank you very much for talking with us about it.

NORRIS: Thank you very much, Robert.

SIEGEL: Pippa Norris - political scientist with the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and also director of the Electoral Integrity Project. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.