A few weeks ago in Ambridge, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump wrapped up his speech with a request for Pennsylvanians to not just vote, but to monitor others.
“[It’s] so important that you watch other communities,” Trump said. “Because we don’t want this election stolen from us.”
The claims of a “stolen” or “rigged” election have become a familiar refrain for Trump, and it's oft repeated. A recent poll by the Washington Post and ABC News showed that nearly half of Americans believe that voter fraud occurs somewhat or very often during U.S. elections.
The truth is, however, that voter impersonation is exceedingly rare in the United States. A comprehensive study that examined voter fraud between 2000 and 2014 — a period during which more than 1 billion votes were cast — showed just 31 incidents of voter impersonation.
Philadelphia has been a regular Trump target for voter fraud. That's news to Al Schmidt, a Republican city commissioner in the city.
He and his two fellow commissioners, who are both Democrats, have only one job: running fair, clean elections. Schmidt takes the job of stamping out voter fraud very seriously.
“A single vote being cast fraudulently is enough to be concerned about,” Schmidt said. “It’s always unacceptable. We investigate it every time.”
While Schmidt said that voter fraud does occur — he investigated a case in 2012 where one woman voted in two districts — he is also quick to point out that those are isolated incidents.
“There's a big difference between cases of voter fraud and vote rigging or some sort of mass conspiracy involving hundreds of people stealing thousands of votes to change the outcome of a presidential election and nobody knowing about it.”
Even proponents of tighter voting laws agree that election rigging just isn’t possible.
Back in 2012, Patrick Cawley had to defend Pennsylvania’s photo ID voting law while he was working in the state attorney general’s office. The state lost that case over concerns that it would disenfranchise minorities and poorer voters.
According to Cawley, trying to pull off widespread voting impersonation would be a logistical nightmare.
“Somebody, to commit impersonation, has to know the identities of the people who are still on the voter rolls, but who are either no longer living or no longer residing in Pennsylvania,” he said. “They then have to assign those identities to someone who is willing to commit this crime, and finally those people have to realize that it’s a crime and that they are taking a risk, that if they get caught, they will pay some stiff penalties.”
Cawley said it would be theoretically possible to steal a low-vote election, like a township supervisor or small-town mayoral race, but definitely not a statewide or national election.
That’s backed up by research by Lorraine Minnite, a professor of public policy at Rutgers University in Camden. In 2010, she wrote a book called The Myth of Voter Fraud that examined how incredibly rare voter impersonation was.
“It’s very irrational behavior,” Minnite said, because poll workers are actively looking for fraud. “It’s sort of the equivalent to deciding that if you’re going to rob or pickpocket somebody and steal their wallet, that person you choose is a police officer.”
Oh, and about those fears that Russians are going to hack Pennsylvania voting booths? According to Schmidt, that won't happen, either.
“We have pretty primitive devices," he said. "They are not connected to the Internet. They are more similar to a household appliance than a laptop or anything like that.”
For once, Pennsylvania’s woefully outdated technology actually comes in handy.