World, Politics

S-RM: All Trumped up? US Election Rigging and Partisan Paranoia

By Carilee Osborne 7 November 2016

Donald Trump has continued to call into question the legitimacy of the US electoral system. The Republican presidential candidate infamously quipped “I will keep you in suspense” when asked whether he would accept the November 8 US election results. But just how salient are claims of election rigging with the US public? Moreover, what would a challenge to the election result actually entail? By CARILEE OSBORNE for S-RM, using data from BrandsEye.

On the eve of the US election, the notion of the vote being rigged has become a thematic flashpoint in media headlines. The idea has been fuelled by Trump and, in an unprecedented move for a US presidential candidate, a refusal to confirm whether he will accept the outcome. This suspicion, combined with concerns over possible Russian cyberattacks during the election and the apparent politicisation of the FBI, has led to an atmosphere of distrust in the final weeks before a highly contested vote.

Experts have weighed in on the argument. While there are indeed some exploitable vulnerabilities, the chances of systemic rigging are ultimately slim. However, as a significant number of Americans may genuinely believe in this possibility, the damage is already done in the erosion of public confidence in well-established institutions. Many believe this is precisely what Trump aims to propagate with this type of rhetoric. But just how much support has the idea of a rigged vote received?

Online sentiment analysis can provide some insight in this regard. BrandsEye, a South Africa-based media analytics firm, tracks such sentiment towards particular topics, issues or people online. From data collated between July and October 2016, it is evident that this discourse has gained traction. An across-time analysis of online discussions regarding US election rigging shows several important trends.

Between July and October, 4% of all conversations about US elections were about vote rigging. By comparison, only 1.2% of people discussed healthcare/Obamacare and 0.4%foreign policy; both are major talking points of the presidential campaign.

The volume of online engagement with this topic has experienced a number of peaks, illustrating the importance of certain events on the campaign trail:

  • Peak 1: 23 July to 2 August – corresponded to the initial WikiLeaks release alleging that the Democratic National Committee (DNC) had favoured Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders during the primaries.
  • Peak 2: On 13 August – occurred when Trump warned his supporters about election rigging in Pennsylvania.
  • Peak 3: On 26 September – coincided with complaints that Clinton met with moderators ahead of the debate.

One of the most important peaks occurred when early voting began in October, which saw an exponential 310% increase as citizens started casting their ballots. This period also saw Trump make repeated claims to supporters that the elections would be rigged, even asking them to go out and monitor voting stations themselves, a move that in many states is illegal and would result in them being removed from the voting precinct.

According to BrandsEye, a closer analysis of the top 100 most shared Twitter profiles in the rigged debate conversation shows that 45% are fervent Trump supporters (those with declared support in their social media bios). This suggests that a large portion of those talking about rigged elections are likely to believe Trump’s claims.

Digging deeper into the data reveals some other trends. The three states demonstrating greatest concern for system rigging are Ohio, Florida and Texas. This is important given that the first two are swing states, i.e. they often experience tight presidential races. Similarly, while Texas has seen some of the most vehement support for Trump and is an historical Republic stronghold, BrandsEye data shows a much tighter race in the state this year, as do a number of other polls.

These factors increase the likelihood that large groups of voters in these states will be unwilling to accept the electoral outcome. An American voter rejection of the result has not been seen since the South refused to accept Abraham Lincoln as president in 1860, resulting in the American Civil War (1861-1865).

While civil war is certainly not about to break out, a formal challenge to the election result is possible. There are two points at which the results can be disputed: at the state level and at Electoral College level. State-level results are challenged through state courts and each state has its own laws dictating how a candidate can go about challenging results. Electoral College votes can be disputed when US Congress meets on January 6, 2017 to ratify results.

In order for a challenge to be made, a candidate must show sufficient and clear evidence to back the claim. Furthermore, they must demonstrate that the overall outcome of the election for the entire state could change as a result of the claim. A candidate would have to identify how many votes were fraudulent and this would need to cover the margin between the candidates. In other words, the alleged rigging would have to be extensive or the results would have to be very tight. This is why increased discussion about vote rigging in Ohio and Florida is so important. The results in these states are likely to be close and thus claims of vote rigging are more likely to be taken seriously by courts, potentially fuelling public distrust in the result.

On the contrary, challenges at the Congressional level are exceptionally rare. At least one member from the House and one from the Senate must submit an objection to the vote. This would result in both debating the matter in their respective chambers. Following this they reconvene and must both agree for a vote to be rejected. In 2004’s election, Ohio votes were disputed in this manner; however, the Senate and House failed to agree and thus the results were accepted.

A generic claim of rigging would therefore not be enough to warrant a court or Congress taking the claim seriously. Electoral officials have also stressed that the increase in the conversation has actually reduced the chances of vote rigging because of enhanced security measures and improved awareness on the part of voters. However, given that the vote is likely to be closely contested in key states, it is possible that challenges will take place despite the bureaucratic and evidential burdens.

Even if a challenge does not take place, the idea of vote rigging will persist. Many voters identify with Trump’s populist politics, and his supporters are some of the more vocal and radical online. This distrust speaks to the rise of illiberal populism in the US and Europe, a trend that calls into question mainstream knowledge about how so-called strong democracies function. Similar challenges to well-established and largely transparent institutions were previously unheard of, a pastime reserved for conspiracy theorists. However, with the rise of anti-establishment parties and figures, as well as increasing dissatisfaction with the political mainstream, claims like Trump’s are likely to continue to resonate. DM

Carilee Osborne is a Europe and North America analyst at S-RM, a business intelligence and risk consulting company based in Cape Town. BrandsEye is a South Africa-based media analytics firm.

Main photo: A voter marks his ballot in a voting booth in a gymnasium at the Palisades Park polling site in the 2012 US presidential election in Pacific Palisades, California, USA, 06 November 2012. EPA/MICHAEL NELSON

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