“We wuz robbed!” That is the contention of a not insignificant number of voices on the Internet who believe that the contest for the Democratic presidential nomination has been riddled with election fraud, that a clean contest might have made Bernie Sanders, not Hillary Clinton, the Democratic standard bearer. That belief could have consequences if it serves to inflate the corps of “Bernie or bust” diehards. If the nomination has been awarded via fraud, that’s all the more reason never, never to vote for Hillary Clinton, the beneficiary of a corrupt process.
I haven’t made an exhaustive study of the fraud allegations, but from what I have seen, they tend to be poorly supported. The most common charge of fraud involves pointing to some apparent irregularity or mishap in the administration of the primary elections in one place or another, with the result that significant numbers of people were denied the opportunity to vote. It is assumed without evidence that most of the people excluded from the ballot box would have voted for Sanders. Other allegations involve unnamed poll watchers or other sources who claim to have witnessed tampering with vote tallies.
Election administration in the US, reflecting our decentralized political system, presents an uneven patchwork of arrangements that too often fail to work properly. That unevenness does open up possibilities for mischief as well as for honest screw-ups. No one can reasonably deny the possibility of shenanigans involving vote-counting or voter exclusion here or there. You don’t have to be a Republican to suspect that John F. Kennedy may have owed his 1960 presidential election victory to deft vote splicing by Mayor Richard Daley’s Chicago machine. But the contention that election fraud has been widespread and decisive in this year’s Democratic race challenges credulity. Not only does it imply a mind-boggling amount of corruption of our election system, but it runs into two plausibility problems that the fraud complainants never seem to consider.
First, the fact is that Clinton was ahead of Sanders in the national polls throughout the primary process. Sanders did briefly almost close the gap, but most of the primaries took place when Clinton held a lead averaging around 10% or more at the national level. So, you don’t need fraud as an explanation of her success; indeed, it would have been surprising had she not usually prevailed over Sanders. The contention that Sanders “really won” the primary race has to be based on something like magical thinking when you consider that he was losing all along in the polls.
Secondly, if there has indeed been widespread fraud that victimized Sanders, the Sanders campaign has been incomprehensibly passive about it. Undoubtedly the fraud watchers have repeatedly communicated their suspicions to the Sanders people. We must therefore presume that the Sanders people have been hoodwinked over and over again, despite these warnings. Can the Sanders campaign really be that incompetent? And why have they said nothing? Certainly, Sanders and his people haven’t been reluctant to make known their complaints about what they perceive to have been an unfair process, but they have made no claims of fraud (very minor exception: Puerto Rico). Why not? The Sanders campaign had an obvious interest in exposing fraud and had the resources to make the necessary investigations. The fact that they didn’t join the chorus crying fraud suggests that they saw little substance to the allegations, and knew that they would look foolish to endorse them.
There is just one line of argument for the fraud thesis that deserves serious consideration. Exit polls in the primary states consistently showed Sanders with a larger portion of the vote than he actually received according to the official returns. Often, the difference between the exit poll and the official result was very substantial. How can this remarkably consistent pattern be explained? It is well-known that exit polls are unreliable , but how could it be that they all erred in the same direction? The obvious answer, according to Richard Charnin, is fraud. But it is also known that exit polls, at least during this election season, have tended to overstate the proportion of young voters in the primary electorate. That would explain a tendency to skew toward Sanders. On the other hand, exit polls also have tended to underestimate the proportion of whites in the primary electorate, which would tend to skew against Sanders. It’s not clear how these two tendencies would net out, or whether there are other factors skewing the poll results one way or another. (I’m no expert on polling—if there are any political scientists reading this who have relevant expertise, I’d love to hear from you.) So, I don’t think fraud is such an obvious answer to this puzzle; given the inherent implausibility of the fraud thesis for reasons I’ve already given, I’m willing to bet that there is some other reasonable explanation. It is also worth noting that in only one state—Massachusetts—was the exit poll winner actually different from the official winner. The exit polls showed Sanders winning by larger margins in states that he won anyway, and losing by smaller margins in states that he lost. So, the exit poll thesis for fraud doesn’t support the larger claim that Sanders would have won a clean fight for the nomination, although it would suggest a tighter race than what actually transpired.
In sum, the claim of ”fraud” sounds like the cry of impassioned sore losers. The Sanders insurgency inspired great hope and enthusiasm. It looked like the impossible might be possible. It almost was, but not quite. For some enthusiasts, that reality is just unacceptable.
It might seem surprising that I have posted so soon after the Orlando horror without commenting on it. But really I would have nothing major to add to what I have said about terrorism and its role in American politics in two previous posts. Both Trump and Obama have reacted in character (despicable and decent, respectively).