One of the most absurd and disturbing themes of the campaign was Trump’s refusal to accept the legitimacy of the election results. After he won, all of his concerns evaporated, and, in an expected change of heart, he extolled the virtues of the electoral college. But when Clinton joined with Stein’s quixotic push for a recount in several states, Trump weighed in again, calling the recount a “scam.” He then said that he had actually won the popular vote too—as long as we take into account the millions of illegal ballots. So Trump has all of his rhetorical bases covered: the election was both fraudulent and legitimate.
Setting aside the absurdity of Trump’s tweet, there has been a chorus of people calling Clinton a hypocrite for jumping into the recount. She appears to be doing exactly what she scolded Trump for doing: not accepting the results. Bad “optics.” What’s the “narrative”? Choose your pundit argot.
But calling it hypocrisy is a mistake. We can see why when we distinguish the ways an election can be “rigged.” The word has become quite, shall we say, polysemous and malleable. So what do we mean when we call the election “rigged”? It is a question that deserves careful consideration. There is no doubt that we will face claims about “rigged” elections in the future. So let’s prepare ourselves.
There are seven senses of ‘rigged.”
Trump’s main concern was that people who shouldn’t be voting were voting—and voting in absurdly high numbers somehow only for Clinton. Regardless of the fact (must we repeat it?) that there is no evidence of it actually occurring, it is easy to see on a conceptual level that this type of voter fraud would constitute a type of rigging. What it would take to pull off a such a scheme is truly breathtaking, but if a party were able to cast millions of illegitimate votes, then that election certainly would be rigged.
Was the election rigged(1)? NO
Voter suppression and intimidation
The campaigns of voter suppression are, in some sense, the opposite of voter fraud. For one, instead of ballooning vote totals, it diminishes vote totals. More specifically, it diminishes vote totals by making it difficult for likely Democrats to vote (that means poor people in cities and people of color). And second, unlike voter fraud, voter suppression actually happens. With the Shelby County decision that stripped the Voting Rights Act of many of its provisions, there were 868 fewer polling places in 2016 than in 2012. There were massive lines. Voter ID laws deterred people.
Trump also dog-whistled into existence a palpable voter intimidation scheme. Signing up “poll watchers” and claiming that people in certain cities will “steal” the election from him, he emboldened a group of ardent supporters to scare voters away from the polls.
Was the election rigged(2)? YES
There is a lot to say about gerrymandering. But when one party wins more votes than the other and yet loses seats in Congress, we know something is wrong—at least insofar as we value democracy. There is no doubt that district lines are drawn to advantage Republicans. In the electoral college, a single vote in Wyoming and Iowa is worth more than a vote in California or New York. Literally. So when the electoral votes are apportioned in a way that gives more weight to states that are more likely to go red, then, insofar as we value democracy, something is wrong. We wonder how Clinton can win the popular vote so comfortably while Trump can win the electoral college so comfortably. If the ratio of votes to electors were the same in all states, the chances of that happening would go down substantially. By drawing district maps in certain ways and weighing states more than others, an election can meaningfully be “rigged.”
Was the election rigged(3)? YES
There has been some talk about the hacking of voting machines. It is easy to envision some dystopian breakdown of democracy where “somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds” tampers with enough technology to swing an election. Fortunately there is not much evidence that this type of rigging occurred, but there is no denying that ‘hacked’ is a frequently invoked sense of ‘rigged’.
Was the election rigged(4)? GOD HELP US
Systematically miseducating voters
A way to rig an election is to ensure that a sizable portion of the electorate is misinformed. The trend of fake news is deeply disturbing, and now there is evidence that Russia played a part. If an interested party puts in place an effective system of miseducation with the intent of influencing the outcome of an election, it is probably fair to say that the election is “rigged.” That is, this represents a severe impediment to the democratic process insofar as we value an educated electorate. (Some people might argue that the so-called “mainstream media” is guilty of this sort of rigging as well.)
Was the election rigged(5)? YES
Here we are moving from a Trumpian to a Sandersian “rigging.” By pouring immense amounts of money into elections, it becomes easier for the well-funded candidates to win (through ads, appearances, swag, staff, etc.). Simply put, a poorly funded campaign is likely to be a losing campaign. So, insofar as we value elections that are focused on ideas, the qualifications and ideals of the candidates, and differing policy proposals, our current campaign finance system effectively shifts elections away from those values. Instead, the result will be influenced heavily by what a handful of rich people do with their cash. We can call this rigging, at least insofar as we think democracy should value ideas over dollars.
Was the election rigged(6)? WELL, IT’S KINDA COMPLICATED
When Stein and Johnson call the election rigged, they might well be meaning to say that the system is set up for third-party candidates to fail. A third-party candidate could be eminently qualified and yet, unequivocally, they will not become president. This is because, in a sense, the election system is “rigged” against them.
Was the election rigged(7)? EH, LET’S NOT TALK ABOUT IT HERE
Now we see how the election can be rigged in one way but not in another. If I say “It is rigged!” and you say “It is rigged!” it is possible for us to disagree. I might be saying, “It is rigged(1)!” You might be saying, “It is rigged(5)!” When Trump left us “in suspense” about accepting the results, he had in mind rigging(1). I can consistently, non-hypocritically, and correctly say that he is wrong while also claim that the election was rigged in other senses.
Clinton, however, is not claiming that the election was rigged at all. She is simply aware that Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan were decided by a total of around 107,000 votes. That is not very much. We should be sure that the count is correct. It is an affirmation of the election process. The recount does not signal wrongdoing on the part of Trump or a third-party, nor is it a refusal on Clinton’s to accept the outcome.
So in conclusion, by participating in the recount Clinton is not suggesting that the election was rigged. And even if she did claim that the election was rigged, this would in no way be in conflict with her denouncements of Trump’s unenlightened and undemocratic accusations.
Listen to the Vimcast episode about this article: