The Real Problem With American Elections

“In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally,” tweeted then-President-elect Donald Trump, three weeks after he won the presidential election. Two days after his inauguration, President Trump reiterated his claim in a private meeting with Congressional leaders that three million to five million "illegals" voted in the 2016 presidential election.

Trump reaffirmed this view in an interview last week with ABC News, and called for a “better system” of election administration.

Mr. President, you are right. We do need a better system.

While there are some serious problems facing American elections, voter fraud just isn’t one of them. The challenges to election administration are numerous, but the main ones are chronic underfunding for new voting machines, high ballot rejection rates for overseas and military voters, and costly voter registration systems.

Does this mean that voter fraud never occurs? No, voter fraud occurs and we should treat it seriously. But do the four confirmed cases from the 2016 presidential election represent a systemic threat to the integrity of our democracy? Unlikely.

Trump’s claim of rampant widespread voter fraud is unsubstantiated and simply not true. It’s not a different perspective or an “alternative fact.” It’s a lie.

Now that the spotlight is shining on election administration, we should move our national discourse forward by beginning to talk about how chronically underfunded many voting technology systems are.

The Brennan Center, a non-partisan think tank, found, for example, that the majority of states are using voting machines that are over 10 years old. In the most egregious cases, some localities are still using machines from the 1990s that run on a Windows 2000 operating system. It shouldn't come as a surprise that many of these older machines are increasingly susceptible to malfunctions on Election Day. In fact, the 2016 election saw several failure points, with voting machines breaking down in Detroit, New York City, and Washington County, Utah.

It’s not a lack of will, however, that prevents election administrators from updating these machines. It’s a lack of funding. In its 2015 poll of election officials, the Brennan Center found that jurisdictions across 22 states needed to replace aging voting technology, but were unsure of how to scrape together the money.

There are also some serious data gaps surrounding the types of ballots that are rejected and why they are rejected. Many states, for example, reject an unusually high portion of absentee ballots from military and overseas voters. Vice President Pence’s home state of Indiana topped the list in both the 2012 and 2014 elections, rejecting 21 and 16 percent of military and overseas voters’ ballots, respectively.

Well, what about that Pew Charitable Trusts report from 2012 that Trump continues to cite as evidence of pervasive voter fraud? While the report makes no mention of any voter fraud actually occurring, it does mention that election systems face many challenges.

Pew notes that state-run voter registration systems are costly and inefficient, and suffer from a lack of coordination and data sharing. But, the finding that 2.7 million individuals were registered in two states—a list that evidently would include Steve Bannon, Jared Kushner, and Tiffany Trump—is not a smoking gun for voter fraud. It is an indication that states maintain bloated voter registration databases and spend an inordinate amount of time and millions of dollars a year printing forms and mailing voting information to people who have moved.

So yes, Mr. President, we do need a better system, and your fixation has brought our attention to the issue. But worrying about four known fraudulent votes out of a total of 136,628,459 votes cast focuses on a rounding error of minute proportions. By that current estimate, Americans were more likely to be killed by lightning (1 in 10 million in case you’re wondering) than engage in voting fraud.

Instead, we should be talking about the critical issues facing local election administrators across the hodgepodge of 3,000 jurisdictions in the United States.

If President Trump wants to create a better system, he could start by listening to the needs of election administrators across the political spectrum. These hardworking staff—many of them volunteers—are safeguarding democracy with limited tools at their disposal. Let’s hear them out and give them the resources they need to improve the process in their laboratories of democracy. That way, we can really make our elections great.