(Bloomberg View) -- When Donald Trump suggested in August that the presidential vote might be rigged, his claim was dismissed by fact-checkers and experts who explained that large-scale electoral fraud is not possible in the U.S. Indeed, it hasn't taken place for generations. And yet it's useful to keep in mind how easy it is to subvert an election system: I know, I come from a country where it happens systematically.
For 10 years after the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia had a largely fraud-free election system; international observers certified Russian elections as free and fair in the mid-1990s. In the 2000s, however, fraud became widespread, and it determined the outcome of the most recent elections for parliament, on Sept. 18.
In terms of organizing elections, Russia and the U.S. share similarities. The main argument of those who say U.S. votes aren't vulnerable to significant rigging is that the system is decentralized. Counties and states are in charge of organizing the balloting and counting votes. Different technologies are used in different places. In 27 states, scanners read paper ballots. The U.S. Election Assistance Commission has certified 22 different electronic voting systems from 14 manufacturers. While many of these machines can be hacked, anyone doing so would need to mess with each individual one to reprogram them. Trying to influence the outcome of a presidential election would appear to be a huge undertaking.
Russia, of course, has less than half the population of the U.S., but almost twice the territory. Though President Vladimir Putin has worked tirelessly to recentralize government after a decade of regional empowerment in the 1990s, and most Russian regions depend on the central government in Moscow for funding, it's a big and diverse country. But Team Putin, working cycle after cycle to ensure a majority in parliament for the pro-Kremlin United Russia party, has figured out that it doesn't need to mess with the results everywhere to get what it wants.
Alexander Kireev, the Russian-American founder of an electoral-geography website who lives in Washington State, has documented the rigging over the years. "The major falsifications in 2011 and this month occurred in the same set of ethnic republics and regions," he told me. "The south of Russia is much more prone to rigging than the relatively clean north, and Siberia and the Far East do it less than the European part of the country. There are cultural differences."
Those who study electoral geography such as Kireev and the physicist Sergei Shpilkin uncover fraud by studying the detailed results from each polling station, which Russia's Central Election Commission makes public after the vote. What they usually discover is that the higher the turnout at a station, the better United Russia's showing. Shpilkin argues that, since the anomaly only occurs in United Russia's favor, it constitutes evidence of fraud. In 2008, the Central Election Commission published a paper attempting to refute that argument. It pointed out that the constituencies are too diverse for results to follow a normal distribution: In small villages or army garrisons, for example, people tend to turn out in greater numbers and vote in a more coordinated manner simply because they all know each other. That's not the case in big cities. That, however, didn't quite explain the anomaly in favor of just one party.
Kireev recently published an analysis of parliamentary election results in Saratov, a big city on the Volga River, where the outcome at most polling stations approached 40 percent of all registered voters for United Russia. At 40 stations it was exactly 40 percent. This was made possible by driving the turnout up to about two-thirds (the official national turnout was 47.8 percent). There were a smattering of stations, however, where turnout was close to 40 percent and United Russia gained a much lower proportion of the vote. These results, Kireev speculates, were "real": fraud becomes impossible in places where election officials refuse to follow orders or active observers prevent falsification.
Most of the electoral fraud, Shpilkin said in a recent interview, occurs in a simple way: election officials fill in unused ballots and stuff the boxes. "That increases the turnout: the more ballots you add, the higher it appears," the physicist said. "At such stations we see a very high number for certain candidates and a very small one for the opposition."
Some Russian regions use transparent ballot boxes, whose contents are hand-counted on election night, and some use scanners. In the latter case, election officials simply feed piles of pre-filled ballots through them. Sometimes the ballot-stuffing is caught on camera. The Central Election Committee then invalidates the results. That has only happened at nine stations so far since the most recent elections, and the police are investigating a total of 32 election fraud cases.
In theory, there's nothing to prevent attempts at Russian-style collusion among election judges and polling workers at a U.S. polling station, especially in states that don't require the presence of two judges from different political parties. According to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which sends observers to U.S. elections, voting machines in 13 states do not leave a paper audit trail. That means the vote results can be altered before local voting officials submit them to county centers for counting. Besides, foreign observers have noted that at many U.S. polling stations, there are no local observers from political parties and civil society groups. There is a lot of trust in the system, and that could present a golden opportunity to anyone who might try to rig the vote by using stations in the more remote and neglected areas of battleground states. Because the popular vote is less important than candidates' results in each state, there are more opportunities to swing the vote that way.
The OSCE is sending more than 10 times more observers to this year's U.S. presidential election than it did in 2012 -- 100 long-term observers and 400 short-term ones -- mainly to respond to concerns about new voter identification laws in some states. These are largely being pushed by Republicans who say they aim to prevent fraud such as multiple voting. Many Democrats are worried, however, that the new rules are designed to curb practices disproportionately used by minorities, such as voting-day registration. Multiple voting, however, is a costly and inefficient way of rigging an election. Russia has universal voter identification, and it doesn't prevent fraud on a huge scale. Thanks to such machinations, according to Shpilkin and Kireev, United Russia received an additional 14 percentage points to win a constitutional majority in parliament, and turnout was inflated by about 11 percentage points.
One reason the U.S. might be better than Russia at preventing ballot-stuffing is that it has a more independent judiciary, better able to handle fraud complaints, and a far more pluralistic media environment. A big conspiracy to subvert election officials would probably be next to impossible to conceal from reporters. The electoral system itself, however, is vulnerable; I imagine if someone with Putin's dictatorial leanings ever were to ascend to the White House, the danger that fraud would return to U.S. politics after a long absence could become real again. The vote-counting system would certainly be vulnerable to this threat.
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