Donald Trump accused the American establishment of trying to rig the presidential election in favor of Hillary Clinton:

"Remember, we are competing in a rigged election," Trump said at a Wisconsin rally Monday night. "They even want to try and rig the election at the polling booths, where so many cities are corrupt and voter fraud is all too common."

Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton accused the Russian establishment of trying to rig the election in favor of Donald Trump:

“It’s almost unthinkable,” Mrs. Clinton said on Monday, referring to what she called recent “credible reports about Russian interference in our elections” and citing a hacking of the Democratic National Committee’s emails in July.

This raises the question: is it even possible to rig the elections? Could the American or Russian establishment skew the actual election results if whoever is picked is not favored by them? And if yes, how?

  • @John Slegers see:voter fraud is a big problem in the US....
    – user 1
    Commented Nov 3, 2016 at 9:46
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    This seems to be an issue over the meaning of the word "rig". Prior to this election, "rigging an election" usually meant interfering with the vote itself, for example stuffing ballot boxes, miscounting votes, obstructing voter registration, that kind of thing. Of course it's possible for a well-funded or well-positioned group to do that, to some extent. But Trump is now using it to mean (among other things) news reporting he considers biassed against him, and Clinton to mean the use of espionage to generate events embarrassing to her. This is "interfering", not "rigging". Commented Nov 3, 2016 at 10:34
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    And prior to this election, I don't think any candidate accused biassed media (whether that be Fox News or the Washington Post) of "rigging" an election. They were sometimes said to be "participating" in the campaign on behalf of their preferred candidate. Commented Nov 3, 2016 at 10:35
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    @JohnSlegers: Come to think of it, the media (in particular NBC) were accused of improperly calling Florida too soon. This might fall at the soft end of election-rigging, except that they called it for Gore first, then withdrew that, then called it for Bush (this time, Fox was first). Then all media reported a Bush win on the basis of the initial count, and it's not clear whether or not this belief in a "de facto" result might have influenced both Florida courts and SCOTUS not to change the "accepted" winner. Commented Nov 3, 2016 at 10:50
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    Define rigging. You have a system where it's hard to vote if you are poor (and/or black) and where most votes don't count because of the electoral college. It's still the best democracy money can buy. Commented Nov 3, 2016 at 14:52

3 Answers 3


Is it possible to rig elections?

There are plenty of criminal offences in relation to rigging elections: voter impersonation or intimidation, interfering with ballot boxes or voting machines, vote-buying, abuse of public offices. From time to time, people have been convicted of these offences. It seems reasonable to suppose that from time to time, people have got away with them. There's no undisputed example of unlawful tampering with the electoral process actually changing the result of a Presidential election, in the sense of a criminal conviction where the crime committed changed the result. You can't precisely accuse George W. Bush of rigging Florida in 2000 by winning a court case, although some do accuse him of "stealing" the election, since they don't agree with all the various courts' decisions in respect of the recount.

Some people accuse Jeb Bush of rigging Florida 2000 by purging voter rolls of innocent voters on the pretext of them being convicted felons from out-of-state, when in fact they were not. But this is hardly undisputed. He did use lists of out-of-state convicted felons to remove names. Many of the people he removed co-incidentally shared names with convicted felons. But he didn't even completely block them from voting: merely made it harder for them to vote than it was for people who didn't share one of those names. Whatever someone thinks his intent might have been in terms of disproportionately affecting Democrat voters, there were no grounds for a prosecution, so as far as the indisputables go, he was playing the game by the rules. However it was in that case near-certainly possible for a state Governor to improperly affect the outcome of a Presidential election. Whether Jeb Bush actually did so is irrelevant: the situation merely illustrates that there are mechanisms by which a Governor could act improperly and have some chance of getting away with it.

Is it possible for the American establishment and the Russian government to do the things Trump and Clinton accuse them of?

For the most part yes, it is possible for the American establisment to present a consistently biassed view against Trump, and it is possible for the Russian government to sponsor hackers to retrieve Clinton's emails or other sensitive information from wherever it might lie.

Can the things they're accused of affect the election outcome?

Depends how close it is. If it's really close then anything can affect the outcome, so it's possible. In a close count, both sides will have observers disputing the interpretation of particular ballots on a case-by-case basis, because even a (literal) handful of votes could swing the result. In a situation like that, even a small amount of electoral fraud, or a small number of people whose vote was swayed by a negative story about a candidate, could be enough.

Does the establishment of either the US or Russia get to decide the result of the election?

Not in general. Certainly they can't both have the power to just decide the result, but if either of them does then it's the US establishment in best position to somehow manipulate the voting and counting process. It's big-time conspiracy territory to suppose that there's any person who decides whether or not they like the result and flip it if not. Rather, members of the establishment seek to obstruct their opponents, and it would be astonishing if this never extends to improper or illegal interference.

It's generally considered unethical for foreign powers to interfere at all in elections, but to suppose that neither the Russian nor the US government has ever sought to affect the results of a foreign election would be naive. Both states have sponsored armed coups in other countries in the past, never mind under-the-table support for their preferred candidate. The extent to which their intelligence services get involved in campaigning in each others' elections is of course unknown, but I suppose it's safe to say that Russian elections have never been close enough that the US government has ever had any real hope of affecting the outcome. So if either of them has a chance of doing it effectively to the other one, then it's Russia to the US.

Is interfering with an election rightly described as "rigging it".

Not always. The common understanding of "election rigging", I think, is illegal interference in the electoral process itself. Illegal interference in the campaign is not usually described as "rigging", even though it's improper and it could affect the outcome at least in principle. In practice it's incredibly difficult to evaluate hypothetical questions like, "if this bad story about a candidate hadn't come out during the campaign, would they still have lost?", but pollsters can try to establish people's reasons for voting as they did, or for switching their intentions when they did.

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    There are also attempts at preventing the opposition to vote. Some real-life examples include reducing the number of polling stations and voting machines in some areas. Or not allowing people who have been in jail to vote. Or by making it difficult to register yourself. Or by accepting different types of identification for voting (like accepting gun carry permit, but not student id).
    – liftarn
    Commented Nov 3, 2016 at 12:33
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    Innocent voters=out of state felons, and that's a pretext? Really? Sounds like whats required legally to me, because it is.
    – user9790
    Commented Nov 3, 2016 at 12:52
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    @K Dog: a lot of people who were not out of state felons had their names removed from the electoral register. It was not legally required to remove everyone with the same name as an out of state felon. There are duties to prevent felons from voting while permitting non-felons to vote, and of course an area of conflict in cases where you aren't sure whether the person is a felon or not. Those who say it was a pretext are saying that Jeb not only erred too far on the side of removing names, but knowingly did so, and AFAIK there's no proof of that. Commented Nov 3, 2016 at 13:00
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    @K Dog: but Jeb Bush was not required by federal statute to do it (or rather, to arrange to have it done) in precisely the way he chose to do it. As with many things, Governors make decisions, their job is not merely to mindlessly follow federal procedure. Commented Nov 3, 2016 at 13:17
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    My mail-in vote is routinely thrown out because the party I lean towards is in the minority in my town and so my signature "does not exactly match" the one they have on file when reviewed (by fans of the other party). Commented Nov 3, 2016 at 20:59

I will make an assumption as to the intended definition of "rig" in order to make a valuable answer one of the possible outcomes of this response. For the purpose of this response, "rig" means to intentionally affect the outcome of the election to such a degree as to enable the final outcome to be different than the outcome resulting solely from the 'accurate and official' vote tally.

In the absence of hard numbers, the qualitative, common-sense answer is 'no'. Supporting 'evidence' may be found in the manner in which vote counts are collected, counted, and verified. Voting booths are managed on a local, district level ultimately run and administered by a publically elected county official. Taking into account the sheer number of counties in each state, and considering each county independently performs (is responsible for) both the counting and verification of the final count totals, significant manipulation of the vote tallies would require the cooperation of a large number of public officials and/or the multitudes of persons working the individual district voter locations; a feat overwhelmingly unlikely in any circumstance.

A successful manipulation of a national election in the United States is much, much more likely to occur via one or more very small, but selectively specific segments of the overall vote (i.e. single district locations possibly involving single or small groups of persons) which, due to the specific circumstances of the election, provide a window of opportunity due to the relative importance of the specific district vote totals; a situation not common to all elections in any case.


"Rigged" is not a very precise term.

How about "Influenced", that's obviously true--advertisements and speeches influence elections.

Perhaps "Improperly Influenced"--this year we've had examples of sending people to voting places to "Monitor" them which will have the (un?)intended effect of scaring some voters away. I also heard on the way in that people are posting images telling people they can vote by just texting #Hillary and saving themselves that nasty trip to the polls.

Or maybe "Illegally Influenced"--We currently have at least one state being investigated for removing blacks from the voter registration lists.

Or how about manipulation through fear tactics? Not at all illegal, but when you frighten a certain group with a subject such as "Abortion" or "Guns" you are influencing voters where whichever person is elected they will probably have minimal effect on those areas compared to all the decisions they will make. No Democrat OR republican has had a significant impact in either of these areas in quite a while--yet both sides use them as hot-button topics.

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