ATLANTA—Election officials across the country are pushing back against Donald Trump’s assertions that the presidential election may be rigged, arguing that too many safeguards exist against engineered results nationally or in individual states.
Claims of “rigged” contests are “part of free speech,” Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate, a Republican, said in an interview. “But I would tell voters not to overreact to some of the more spirited language.”
It’s clear, though, that some supporters have taken Trump’s comments to heart. Trump told a town hall crowd in Columbus, Ohio last month: “I’m afraid the election is going to be rigged; I have to be honest,” without elaborating.
In recent weeks, voters have linked the GOP nominee’s remarks to attacks on two states’ voter registration databases and questions surrounding the security of electronic voting machines.
A clear divide remains between Democrats and Republicans on the prevalence of in-person voting fraud, sharpened by recent court rulings against voter identification laws in several states, including North Carolina. Appeals court judges in the North Carolina suit said state officials didn’t provide evidence of in-person fraud they claim strict identification requirements will prevent. Researchers also have found few cases of fraud in years of study.
Asked in Dalton, Georgia, about his views on voter fraud, Trump’s running mate, Mike Pence, told a woman that “skepticism is well-founded but the response ought to be action.” He then segued into a defense of voter identification laws. The day before in Perry, Georgia, Pence recommended that a person with similar concerns about election results get involved as a local precinct poll worker.
Pence didn’t mention the “Trump Election Observer” registration system on the campaign’s official site, in which they call for volunteers to stop “Crooked Hillary,” as he calls his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton, “from rigging this election.”
“I understand the anxiety that people feel, and we’ve seen instances of voter fraud in this country over the last ten to twenty years,” Pence told the crowd.
Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp, a Republican, said he’s not concerned about results being effectively changed by Election Day shenanigans. But he remains supportive of the Southern state’s still-active law requiring identification at the polls, and says it will ensure no one can vote unless eligible.
“I’d tell Donald Trump or anyone else, that we’re not going to stand for a rigged system in Georgia,” Kemp said.
Election systems used to cast and count ballots are different from other targets of cyberattacks this year, including the Democratic National Committee and voter registration databases in Arizona and Illinois. Officials around the country say they’re prepared for any attempted attacks. But they recognize any problems in the nine weeks remaining before Election Day give fuel to skeptics.
“I don’t sense a groundswell of the public panicking or questioning the results,” California’s Democratic Secretary of State Alex Padilla said. “It’s been such a dramatic campaign cycle, especially at the presidential level, that at times it’s difficult to separate genuine concern from the political rhetoric.”
Indiana Secretary of State Connie Lawson said her office plans to coach local officials for interactions with any skeptical voters. Lawson, a Republican, said more information will ensure that nobody stays home this fall out of disgust or fear.
“I hate the fact that people are questioning whether the outcome of an election could be rigged,” Lawson said.
Election officials should open their doors to the public long before in-person voting starts, said Whitney May of the Center for Technology and Civic Life. The Chicago nonprofit encourages election agencies to use email lists, social media and public events to teach people about the process.
“Your own personal experience with government is everything, whether it’s an election or the DMV,” May said.
After the FBI warned last week that hackers had targeted voter registration data in two states, officials around the country publicized their efforts to keep those databases and separate voting systems secure, detailing tests and other checks that happen before, during and after each election. In Connecticut, for example, Secretary of State Denise Merrill called a press conference to cover her agency’s rules for voting machines, which include never connecting the devices to the internet.
“There is a lack of knowledge generally about how elections work,” Merrill, a Democrat, said. “People know the basics but no one has really pulled the curtain back.”