Donald Trump is spending the final weeks of his presidential bid declaring he’s the victim of an unprecedented vote-rigging conspiracy meant to elect Hillary Clinton.
Many top Republican Party officials agree.
Interviews with more than two dozen members of the Republican National Committee reveal abiding fears of Democratic voting fraud and widespread belief that at least part of the process or outcome is rigged.
“I do believe that there are elements that will try to rig the election on varying degrees of scale and this will certainly affect the outcome in varying degrees,” said Peter Goldberg, an RNC committeeman from Alaska.
“Should Hillary get ‘elected’ she is immediately delegitimized,” said California RNC Committeeman Shawn Steel in an email. “The 1% of Wall Street Bankers, Clinton Machine and [mainstream media] including your employer, Politico, is part of a massive Left Wing Conspiracy to rig this election.”
Not all of the RNC members who spoke with POLITICO believe the election is rigged. Some contend Trump is wrong about the scale of the conspiracy he describes and others believe he should be targeting his ire at the media, which, they believe, are indeed conspiring against him.
But rather than knock down Trump’s claims, most lauded his focus on ballot integrity and pointed to instances of what they say is fraudulent voter registration as proof that he may be onto something.
“It is a grave concern on a number of fronts,” said Arizona RNC Committeewoman Lori Klein Corbin, “WWhen you have Democrats using Obama’s federal forms to register voters who do not have to declare if they are citizens or not and often show no ID.”
Party chairman Reince Priebus has not refuted the notion that the election is rigged; the RNC declined requests for comment.
In some cases, RNC members defending Trump are at odds with Republican secretaries of state – several of whom publicly insisted this week that there’s no cause for concern. These GOP election administrators expressed varying degrees of concern that Trump’s so-far-unsubstantiated charges could cast doubt on the integrity of the November election results. (Recent national polls show him trailing Clinton by a significant margin.)
“First of all, I can reassure Donald Trump: I am in charge of elections in Ohio, and they’re not going to be rigged. I’ll make sure of that,” Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted told CNN Monday. “Our institutions, like our election system, is one of the bedrocks of American democracy. We should not question it or the legitimacy of it. It works very well. In places like Ohio, we make it easy to vote and hard to cheat.”
Husted, who has called Trump’s claim “irresponsible,” has been joined by GOP secretaries of state in Iowa and Georgia in pushing back against the allegations. In recent days House Speaker Paul Ryan has insisted he is “fully confident” in the integrity of the election – prompting a backlash from Trump. And former RNC lawyers said Trump is way off base.
“A national conspiracy to rig the election, I find, is ludicrous,” said Mark Braden, an RNC lawyer from 1979 to 1989. “There is no nationwide conspiracy because there’s no way of doing it.”
“I believe in voter ID laws to ensure fair and free elections. Having said that, there is not and has not been any indication of systemic rigging of elections in America, and it’s extremely dangerous to make those unfounded claims,” said Charlie Spies, one of Braden’s successors as RNC counsel. “Donald Trump should be focused on running an effective campaign rather than making false excuses for losing.”
But Corbin, the Arizona committeewoman, said she agreed with Trump’s warning earlier this month that Democrats may be intentionally allowing undocumented immigrants into the country to vote in the election – though they are no substantiated claims that this is occurring. “This is happening all over the U.S. and we don’t even know how many illegals are here presently that will take advantage of these loopholes,” she said.
Close to 20 RNC members pointed to other forms of voter fraud or fraudulent voter registration – concerns that have helped fuel a drive by Republicans to implement voter identification requirements, measures they say will ensure the integrity of elections. Democrats reject those efforts as voter suppression tools, arguing that they predominantly disenfranchise poor and minority voters.
When pressed for evidence of fraud occurring on a mass scale, RNC members pointed to smaller-scale issues that have erupted over the years. Some questioned why a large number of precincts in Philadelphia voted unanimously for Barack Obama in 2012. Others described dead people getting absentee ballot request forms in the mail or people registered to vote in multiple locations. Others still worried that hackers might attempt to manipulate electronic voting data.
Montana GOP chair Jeff Essman pointed to a recent Billings Gazette story in which some voters in Missoula complained of people visiting their houses and offering to mail in ballots for them.
“Here’s your voter fraud,” Essman said, though the secretary of state’s office indicated in the article that returning ballots to the elections office on a voter’s behalf is legal.
Other Republicans raised similar anecdotal concerns.
“Yesterday, I saw a member of the Assembly post that one of their neighbors had received a ballot in the mail for her husband that was dead,” said California RNC Committeewoman Harmeet Dhillon. “What we have here is a very poor – and behind the times – secretary of state’s department which does not purge the voter rolls, which does not do anything to police the integrity of the voting.”
Dhillon, a lawyer who has been a poll monitor and plans to oversee a local election this year, emphasized that Republican election attorneys intend to fan out all over the country to monitor polling places to minimize instances of fraud. She added that she isn’t suggesting there’s “an organized effort by the Democratic Party to commit massive voter fraud” and she said she’s confident the results of the election will be “fair.”
Charlie Copeland, chairman of Delaware’s Republican Party said Democrats lack incentive to commit fraud in his state because they vastly outnumber Republicans – but he pointed to reports showing tens of thousands of dead relatives remaining on voter rolls.
“So, what is the true registration, and who is making sure that only ‘real’ voters are voting? This is the situation in Delaware and it is an environment that is ripe with the potential for fraud,” he said. “In other words, with voter rolls this bad and without enough Republicans to oversee the vote, citizen doubt about the validity of the vote of a close election is logical.”
Only a handful of RNC members expressed confidence in their own states’ ability to police voter fraud or noted that overwhelming evidence suggests such fraud is rare and inconsequential.
Oklahoma RNC Committeeman Steve Curry said he’s fully confident in Oklahoma’s policing of elections because of a robust voter ID law, but added he’s concerned about election integrity in states without such restrictions. Tennessee RNC Committeeman Oscar Brock, said he has “complete faith in the electoral process here in this state.” And a spokeswoman for Michigan state party chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel told POLITICO she, too, is unconcerned.
“We have very strong Election Day operations efforts to safeguard against any attempts to defraud our election results. We are confident that these efforts will help protect our state from voter fraud,” said the spokeswoman, Sarah Anderson.
State party chairmen in a number of states have also expressed confidence in the oversight of their elections. Ohio GOP Chairman Matt Borges tweeted his support for his state’s election oversight.
“The vast majority of battleground states have Republicans overseeing their election systems,” said South Carolina GOP chairman Matt Moore. “I think it’s safe to assume they’re not rigging the process either against Donald Trump or for anyone else.”
One thing most RNC members could agree on was their belief that the national media are in league with Democrats in attempting to manipulate voters.
“It depends on what you mean by ‘rigged.’ Our nominee is experiencing an unprecedented onslaught by most of the media in the country,” said Miriam Hellreich, an RNC Committeewoman from Hawaii. “Fox News seems to be the only news outlet reporting on the cloud of deception, distraction and disregard for the truth when it comes to Hillary Clinton’s record and her fitness for the Presidency.”
Added Robert Steele, a Michigan RNC committeeman, “If journalists were surgeons, the malpractice dockets would be filled and the patients all dead.”
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