How to rig an election
How to rig an election
"Just as a controlling political party may not use public funds to pay its campaign expenses, it is also quite wrong to use public power for the sole purpose of enhancing the political strength of the majority party." ~ Retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens
If you were planning to steal an election, you would first need to choose between two different approaches. Our long history of rigging the popular vote can help you there. First, you could try controlling who counts the votes, or how those votes get counted. It's the most direct and effective way of defeating democracy when those votes are cast, counted and stored by electronic machines.
There's a better method, one that is easier and legal, but not quite as reliable. It's done right out in the open by people we elected who redraw lines on maps to create unnatural voter districts for political purposes. Commonly known as "gerrymandering", it's a great way of gaining long-term influence over the election process – but more about that later.
Decades ago, with our typical enthusiasm for technology, American citizens accepted voting machines – first mechanical, then electronic, now digital and tomorrow wireless – as a valid replacement for paper ballots. We were wrong.
It's bad enough when machines malfunction on their own, but a system that uses hard drives to store votes provides a thief with the easiest possible way to steal an election. All you need is a few minutes access to machines before an election to install malicious software, or similar access to hard drives that store votes after they have been cast. That kind of access is available to corrupt officials of whatever political party controls any state government.
It's much harder to rig elections that rely on paper ballots marked with a pencil. Lots of people in every precinct are involved in counting those ballots, which fill hundreds of heavy boxes. A running tally is often kept and posted, and a recount is possible when necessary. There's no way to beat that system unless you can control the entire process. That's unlikely, so we Oregonians can have reasonable faith that our paper ballots will be counted honestly.
That hasn't been true in states that embraced electronic voting machines over the past two decades. An estimated $3 billion taxpayer dollars has been spent across the nation to install new technologies after the 2000 "hanging chads" presidential election fiasco in Florida. Ohio shelled out $115 million one year just to upgrade their software, but the result has been a sharp increase in counting errors and suspicious results.
Fortunately the digital voting trend is fading, at least for now. Machines get older and must be replaced while the rest require new software and security measures every few years. Most states simply won't pay to do that any longer; many have already returned to paper ballots while others are making plans to do the same. In 2016, less than 25 percent of American voters will use an electronic or digital machine to cast their vote, down from about 40 percent in 2008.
Of course there's no need to steal an election if you can predetermine its outcome years in advance. That's what gerrymandering is all about. When you redraw the voting districts in a state or a county into weird shapes and create districts dominated by members of one political party, you can affect every election in your state for the next decade.
The name itself comes from a former governor of Massachusetts who later became the nation's fifth Vice President. In 1810, Gov. Elbridge Gerry, a member of the Democratic-Republican Party, drew up a state district map that included one district so convoluted that it looked like a salamander. It's said that over time, Gerry's salamander became known as a gerrymander; it's a practice still much in use these days. The current map of Ohio shows one central district that resembles a crooked vine built from Lego blocks. Some Lane County residents even offer our own 2010 redistricting as a local example of political gerrymandering for the way the Eugene-Springfield metropolitan area was divided up.
The quote at the top comes from former Justice Stevens' recently published book, "Six Amendments: How and Why We Should Change the Constitution", in which he proposes the following amendment that would put an end to gerrymandering:
"Districts represented by members of Congress, or by members of any state legislative body, shall be compact and composed of contiguous territory. The state shall have the burden of justifying any departures from this requirement by reference to neutral criteria such as natural, political, or historic boundaries or demographic changes. The interest in enhancing or preserving the political power of the party in control of the state government is not such a neutral criterion."
So there are ways of dealing with thieves who try to steal our votes, and there are ways to prevent riggers from controlling which choices we'll have to vote for. There's still one other threat to voting rights that must be confronted, however, and that's the growing problem of vote blockers – laws and legislators, people we elected, who try to suppress eligible voters from even registering in the first place.
It's become a popular tactic among those who want to control the American experiment in democracy instead of abiding by democratic principles – and it's also a subject for some other time...
Rob Lafferty is a former newspaper editor and National Affairs columnist from Hawaii now living in the woods of Oregon's Coast Range.