INDIANAPOLIS — Many Americans were shocked Wednesday night when Republican nominee Donald Trump suggested at the final presidential debate that he might not accept the results of the Nov. 8 election.
Legal, electoral and political experts, however, disagree somewhat on whether Trump is generally right to take a wait-and-see approach. It’s impossible to predict what might happen on Election Day or whether legal action will be needed to determine the outcome, even though they say the possibility of a “rigged” election is virtually nonexistent.
“It’s hard to draw a conclusion until you actually have the election,” said former Indiana Attorney General Steve Carter. “Sometimes there can be miscounting of votes or irregularities that are not necessarily criminal, and that’s what gets fixed in a recount.”
Carter, a Republican, said there’s nothing particularly dangerous about Trump advising his supporters that he’ll protect his interests in a fair outcome.
After all, he said, there are processes in place for candidates to review and contest election results, just as Democrat Al Gore did in Florida during the 2000 presidential election.
But Chris Mooney, director of the Institute of Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois, sees it differently.
Mooney said Trump’s statements should give pause to voters of all political stripes.
“That’s hugely dangerous,” he said. “To satisfy his own ego, basically, he is calling into question some of the fundamental, bedrock principles” of American democracy.
Mooney cited the 2000 election as an example of a smooth transition of power after a contentious race.
Carter, who has experience in ferreting out voter fraud, said another reason to wait is that the effects of electoral misdeeds may not be immediately apparent on election night.
East Chicago, Ind., Mayor Robert Pastrick appeared to have lost his 2003 re-election bid until mail-in absentee ballots counted several days later gave him a razor-thin margin of victory.
However, further investigations determined that Pastrick campaign workers fraudulently produced many of those ballots.
Ultimately, 47 people would be convicted of various crimes out of that election, and the Indiana Supreme Court later overturned the result.
However, researchers widely agree that in-person voter fraud is extremely rare.
Illinois authorities say there are safeguards in place to ensure that the type of widespread election rigging Trump has warned about is virtually impossible.
Jim Tenuto, spokesman for the Illinois State Board of Elections, noted there are 109 individual election authorities across the state, each responsible for counting its own ballots.
“It’s hard to imagine how you would put something together” to rig an election, Tenuto said.
The elections board issued a statement Thursday outlining its safeguards, which include public testing of voting equipment prior to Election Day and the presence of five election judges, both Democrats and Republicans, at each of the state’s roughly 10,000 voting precincts.
The board encourages those who are concerned about the integrity of the process to volunteer as election judges.
The office of Democratic Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan takes steps each election to uphold the integrity of the voting process, spokeswoman Annie Thompson said.
“Our office will be sending out teams of assistant attorneys general and investigators to monitor elections throughout the state to make sure that voters’ rights are protected,” Thompson said. “We encourage voters to contact our office if they encounter suspected improper or illegal activity, and we will have hotlines up on Election Day.”
Madigan’s office, the U.S. attorney’s office for the Central District of Illinois and the state elections board quickly met with Kankakee County officials earlier this month in response to dueling allegations of voter fraud and intimidation. That area is home to one of this year’s most hotly contested Illinois House races.
Political science professor Andrew Downs of Indiana University-Purdue University, Fort Wayne heard gasps at a debate viewing party Wednesday when Trump said he might not accept the election results.
But after thinking it over, Downs said he realized “technically, legally that is the correct answer” since the law provides numerous methods for a candidate to challenge or correct the vote count.
Downs is doubtful Trump will be able to pile up enough electoral votes to defeat Democrat Hillary Clinton, or even come close, making any localized ballot counting errors all but irrelevant to the national outcome.
But he said Trump certainly has his reasons for claiming the election could be rigged.
“He manages to motivate his base. … The pro-Trump base gets to get excited a little bit longer, and that’s all good for him,” Downs said. “But the problem for him, I think, is his base is not big enough to win an election.”