To hear those allegations, knowing how hard we work and all the precautions we have in place, not just here but with all my counterparts nationwide, is so discouraging. —Sherrie Swensen
Here is an important number to remember: 3,143.
That is the number of counties, and county equivalents (boroughs, independent cities, etc.) in the United States. It’s an important number because, in order to rig a presidential election, you would need to somehow fix the outcome in a strategic number of these.
Dig deeper, and the number gets considerably larger. The conspiracy would have to involve, somewhere along the line, precinct judges, people capable of reprogramming computers without the knowledge of, or in cahoots with, people who supervise the process and, as is the case in Utah, post-election auditors who randomly check the paper trail each machine prints against the tally the machine recorded — audits by the way that are open to public scrutiny.
That’s a lot of dishonest people — volunteers, mostly. It’s also a lot of people to keep quiet.
For Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen, an elected Democrat who has supervised elections that have put a lot of Republicans in power since she took office in 1990, Donald Trump’s blanket allegations of a “rigged election” are “disheartening.”
“To hear those allegations, knowing how hard we work and all the precautions we have in place — not just here but with all my counterparts nationwide — is so discouraging,” she told me Tuesday. To rig an election “would take such an orchestrated collusion of thousands of people. If you’re going to say those things, have something real you can point to.”
Trump will point to various studies showing the inaccuracy of registration rolls (in many places, names of dead people and the recently moved remain). Some undercover reports by right-wing groups refer to busloads of people flooding areas to register illegally.
These sorts of allegations aren’t new. And yes, people have indeed tried to rig elections since the republic began. But a comprehensive study by the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice in 2007 looked at many recent allegations and concluded, “by any measure, voter fraud is extraordinarily rare.”
The reason has a lot to do with the number 3,143, and with the inefficiency of trying to cast one illegal ballot at a time. A few years ago, reports surfaced in Florida of party operatives “helping” senior citizens vote by mail. Again, even if true that is a tedious and highly inefficient form of fraud.
Swensen is unwittingly somewhere near the center of this nationwide controversy. Far from being a place where the presidential choice is a foregone conclusion, recent polls show Utah could be a toss-up state, and that means its most populous county could be pivotal to the allocation of the state’s six electoral votes.
Swensen reminds me that the state has a central database that includes the names of each registered voter. As soon as you cast a ballot, either by mail or at a polling location, you are marked as having voted. You quickly would be caught if you tried to vote again.
If your name isn’t in the database, you may file a provisional ballot that must be verified before the official tally is announced. Everyone needs a driver's license or state-issued I.D., with a valid address, to register.
If the Russians or some other hackers were to attack the election, they would have to do so through voter registration rolls, most likely by erasing people who are likely to vote a certain way. Swensen said she has kept her eyes on these. The rolls in Salt Lake County have swelled from 470,134 on Sept. 20 to 486,576 by Tuesday morning, which she says is a healthy sign of growing interest in the election.
“If the number suddenly dropped off, we’d know about it,” she said. Everyone would know about it on Election Day, when many people learned they no longer were registered.
And yet Trump continues to beat the drum. He is doing so independent from the Republican Party. Mark Braden, former chief counsel for the Republican National Committee, told Reuters that rigging an election at the national level “just is impossible.”
What is not impossible is to destroy the nation’s faith and confidence in its election process, which, as Swensen notes, involves thousands of volunteers. It is a process guided by local governments closest to the people, and it is one upon which the credibility of the nation’s entire government structure rests.