What It Means To 'Rig' An Election: Law Expert Says In Election 2016 It's 'Extraordinarily Unlikely' Donald Trump has questioned the integrity of the election. Edward Foley of Ohio State University's Moritz College of Law says he's not convinced that any widespread "rigging" could happen on Nov. 8.

Election Law Expert: Rigged Election 'Extraordinarily Unlikely'

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At a rally last night in Green Bay, Wis., Donald Trump once again leveled a charge he's been making a lot lately.


DONALD TRUMP: The media is trying to rig the election by giving credence - and this is so true - by giving credence to false stories that have no validity.

MONTAGNE: And Trump has not stopped at accusing the media. He's been suggesting the actual voting will be rigged against him. That, like much else in this extraordinary candidacy of Donald Trump, has split the Republican Party with many joining Democrats in rejecting that possibility. To find out what it means to rig an election and whether it might indeed happen this year, we reached out to Professor Edward Foley. He's an expert on election law and history at Ohio State University. Welcome to the program.

EDWARD FOLEY: Thanks. It's great to be here.

MONTAGNE: In a broad sense, what constitutes a rigged election?

FOLEY: Well, I like to define rigging an election as the systematic manipulation of the voting process or the counting of ballots. It's intended to distort the outcome of the election, and it's a systematic effort to do that.

MONTAGNE: So historically, tampering with or stuffing ballot boxes, buying votes, any number of things.

FOLEY: Exactly right. It's trying to get a different count at the end of the election from what the voters actually wanted. And I think ballot-box stuffing is the historic example.

MONTAGNE: So getting back to this election, what do you see as the possibility of it being rigged?

FOLEY: I think it's extraordinarily unlikely that we're going to have a rigged election because the fact that our system is so decentralized. The states run elections compared to the federal government. So if you were to try to rig the presidential election, you'd have to try to rig it in multiple swing states targeted ahead of time for rigging, and the attempt to rig it would've had to go undetected.

I mean, that's a lot to happen sort of systematically and under the radar screen. Now, the new phenomenon is the risk of a cyberattack. And again, I think the risk of that is very low as long as the voting machines are not hooked up to the internet. And most states, as I understand it, do not hook up their vote-tabulating equipment to the internet.

MONTAGNE: Well, certainly, these things have happened across the landscape of American political history. I mean, talk about ballot-box stuffing, jokes are made about it where dead people vote. What are examples of actual rigged elections in American history?

FOLEY: Well, there are more of them earlier on. The 19th century had many more examples than the 20th century. So one good news is that we are getting better. In terms of the 20th century, perhaps the most well-known and consequential example comes from 1948, Lyndon Johnson's run for the U.S. Senate. It was a very close election. It was decided by 87 votes. And it's pretty clear on the historical record that there were 200 fake votes added to the so-called infamous Ballot Box 13 in south Texas. And that's an example where a statewide race, a consequential one, can be affected by this kind of problem.

MONTAGNE: The word rigged is being thrown around somewhat loosely in this election. The Trump campaign is saying outright that this presidential election is rigged, and there's been talk of the race for the Democratic nomination back in the spring and early summer as being rigged at the expense of Bernie Sanders and especially after emails surfaced that the head of the Democratic National Committee clearly favored Hillary Clinton over Sanders. Is that part of your definition of rigging an election or an election being rigged?

FOLEY: No, absolutely not. I do think the rhetoric has been irresponsible, some of it, and overheated. And so I do confine the concept of rigging to this manipulation of the voting process itself and the counting of votes. Now, there may be efforts to try to do that. There - again, there have been these instances in history. We've talked about a U.S. Senate race, but we have improved the system since 1948. I don't want to say that the risk of this is zero, but I do think the risk is very, very small. That doesn't mean it's perfect, but we should go into this election very confident that it'll be a fair and free election, or if something went wrong, we have the institutional capacity to correct it through recounts and the courts and the like.

MONTAGNE: Edward Foley heads election law at Moritz - a program at Ohio State University's Moritz College of Law. Thank you for joining us.

FOLEY: Thanks very much for having me.

MONTAGNE: And a reminder that last presidential debate is tomorrow night, and NPR will be live fact-checking starting at 9 Eastern on npr.org.

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