Tuesday, August 09, 2016

No, U.S. elections are not "rigged"

Tyler Cowen, my esteemed Bloomberg View colleague, has a post about Donald Trump's comments predicting a "rigged" election. Though Tyler states explicitly that he is not defending Trump's comments, the post certainly reads like a defense. Tyler's main points seem to be:

1. Elections really are "rigged" in some sense, and

2. Accusations of election "rigging" often come from the Left.

I don't want to put words in Tyler's mouth, though, so I'll repost much of his post:
[O]ver the last few years or indeed decades I also have seen the following: 
1. Numerous arguments insist that money buys elections and campaign finance reform is imperative... 
2. Numerous arguments that Republican-backed voter registration requirements are keeping significant numbers of voters, most of all minority voters, away from the polls... 
4. Do we not all teach the Gibbard-Sattherthwaite theorem to our Principles classes on week three?  In case you forget, the theorem shows that under some fairly general assumptions elections processes are manipulable in a rigorous sense... 
5. A related branch of social choice theory, stemming from Dick McKelvey’s work in 1979, suggests that when the policy space has more than one dimension, the agenda setter in Congress has a great deal of power and typically can shape the final outcome... 
6. Major political scientists from schools such as Princeton tell us that elites determine policy and ordinary voters have very little say in what happens... 
7. The American electoral system is designed to give the two major parties a huge initial advantage... 
How many Democrats have alleged that the 2000 Presidential election was rigged?  Or that today most Americans want some form of tougher gun control, but that the system is rigged against that outcome happening?
Many people are not a big fan of this post. I would count myself among that number. Here are my points in response to Tyler:

Point 1: Let's not muddy the definition of "rigged". 

When most people hear the word "rigged" in the context of an election, they probably think that means the results have been falsified - that the numbers of votes recorded for each candidate differ meaningfully from the number actually cast.

To most people, a "rigged" election probably does not mean that the franchise ought to have been extended to disenfranchised groups. For example, in 19th century America, women could not vote. That was bad. But were all 19th century American elections therefore "rigged"? Most people would say no. Similarly, there is a good argument for extending the franchise to 17-year-olds in America right now. If we eventually do that, would that mean that all elections in the 20th century were "rigged"? Again, most people would say no.

Similarly, I've never heard of anyone who says that tactical voting is a form of election-rigging. Since tactical voting is universal (that's what Gibbard-Satterthwaite is about!), it also doesn't seem very helpful to label this a form of "rigging".

How about campaign finance? There are certainly a few people on the Left in America who would define this as election-rigging. I personally think that's silly. First of all, most evidence shows that money doesn't really give that much of an electoral advantage. Second of all, stringent campaign finance laws - such as those found in Japan - will still result in some groups and individuals having disproportionate power over election outcomes. Again, it seems worse than useless to define something that is inevitable and universal in a democracy as "rigging".

The only item Tyler mentions that seems to me like it could significantly count as vote-rigging is intentional disenfranchisement of voters who are officially afforded the franchise. For example, if eligible voters are intentionally and systematically purged from voter rolls to produce a certain outcome, that probably counts as "rigging". There is at least an outside possibility that this sort of manipulation made a difference in Florida in the 2000 election, thus throwing the election to Bush.

But when Trump says that the election will be "rigged", he doesn't mean any of these things - he's suggesting that vote totals will be falsified.

Point 2: Watering down the definition of "rigging" gives aid and comfort to those who would deligitimize our democracy.

If politicians like Trump consistently claim that election results are falsified, it erodes confidence in the electoral process itself - the people on the losing side will distrust the results of any election. That seems like it could eventually lead to a lot of bad outcomes. Election losers, convinced they actually won the vote, could become more intransigent and refuse to work with winners. Polarization could increase, eventually leading to outright civil conflict and the disintegration of the nation. Support could increase for military coups to depose election winners on the grounds that these winners were not elected legitimately. In other words, false claims of election-rigging seem pretty clearly to lead to the breakdown of our institutions, our democracy, and our country itself.

Now, I think those are bad things. Maybe Tyler disagrees. Though he has affirmed his support for democracy in the past, his mind might have changed since 2008. Certainly not all of his colleagues at GMU support democracy as the best system. Similarly, Tyler might believe that the United States of America ought to be split up, along regional, economic, or ethnic lines - or that nation-states themselves shouldn't exist. Certainly, there are others who do believe this.

But I believe that countries where democracy has lost its popular legitimacy, like Russia, Turkey, and Thailand, have not seen good outcomes over the past couple of decades. I also pretty strongly believe in nation-states, and in the United States nation-state in particular. So I think that when Tyler claims that U.S. elections are "rigged" in any substantial sense, it is probably a bad thing.

Of course, I support calls for ensuring that the franchise be extended as broadly as possible, and I'm interested in improving our campaign finance laws, but - see Point 1 - I don't think that calling for these reforms is anything even remotely similar to making allegations of election-rigging.

Point 3: Just because some on the Left do this doesn't make it OK for Trump to do it, nor is there an equivalence between the two.

Yes, there are some people on the Left in America who claim from time to time that elections, especially Democratic primaries, are "rigged". These claims are very rare, but I have heard them, especially from diehard Sanders-then-Stein supporters in the current election. Here is a Salon column alleging "rigging", but defining rigging down much as Tyler does. Here is an Inquisitr article alleging true election-rigging, i.e. vote-falsifying.

I see these allegations as obviously false, reprehensible, and dangerous in much the same way Trump's are. But to point out that "the Left does it too!" only reinforces the need to fight back against delegitimization of our democracy. It does not merit a shrug or a "Hey, dude, both sides do it".

Also, there is an asymmetry here. Diehard Sanders-then-Stein supporters are a fringe, and there will always be a fringe in politics. Trump is the nominee of one of the two major parties. Al Gore certainly never alleged vote-rigging in 2000, even after everything that happened in Florida. There is no equivalence at all here, and to try to draw one is a de facto defense and excusal of Trump's dangerous, unacceptable behavior.

So for these reasons, I am not a big fan of Tyler's post. American elections are not perfect, but - unless there is major evidence that has not yet come to light - they're pretty darn good. And Trump's questioning of their legitimacy is truly unprecedented, and not a part of partisan business-as-usual.


On Twitter, Rajeev Ramachandran hits the nail on the head:
[T]here's a diff b/w "systematically favours X" and "result won't depend on votes actually cast". The first calls for reform. The second is a call to armed insurrection.
Yes. Exactly. I couldn't have said it better (as evidenced by the fact that I didn't!).

Here is some new evidence that Republicans, but probably not Democrats, are starting to question whether votes are counted accurately in American elections. I view Tyler's post as contributing to this very negative and asymmetric trend.

As Trump intensifies his campaign to preemptively delegitimize the election result, Tyler's post is looking more and more spectacularly ill-timed...


  1. I read both your writing and Cowen's regularly. And saw your twitter exchange. And it seems completely obvious to me that Cowen's main complaint was hypocrisy/double standards. A (perhaps overdone) theme of his.

    Just look at Cowen's first point. quote:
    1. Numerous arguments insist that money buys elections and campaign finance reform is imperative. That’s not exactly my view, with Trump himself now being Exhibit A on the other side of the issue, but please try to be consistent. A lot of you believe that elections are (were?) rigged! (Hey, psst…when can we go back to them being rigged again? Asking for a friend!)

    He's being a total smart aleck! Annoyed about people whining about overuse of rigged and dumbing it way way down. And not understanding that by theory all complex elections have a manipulative aspect. And then going on and complaining when the other side uses "rigged" in the same way. This is so clear, and so snarky.

    Hence I think your summary at top of Cowen's claims is flat out not what he intended. And in fact your points #1 and #2 are (ironically) in total agreement with what Cowen is complaining about. And even true for #3 as well. Cowen is saying Trump is using rigged in a fashion that's quite popular in partisan politics, and this is a problem. Something you obviously agree with. And being annoyed folks don't understand the difference being fraud, and influence, and the Gibbard-Sattherthwaite theorem.

    Anyway, I think there is a true complaint about Cowen's post (besides being too snide without using enough emoji to cue in a modern reader), is it implies a false equivalence between the republican nominee for president saying "rigged" and folks in the more partisan press. I suspect Cowen would acknowledge this, and should have made this more clear in his post. This is pretty much the primary problem in my view, and has led to his post being so misread. It really is a bit deal for the republican nominee to say this, and not acknowledging that fact makes anything else you say easy to misunderstand.

    Another true complaint is he implies there's more lax use of rigged on one side than the other (prior to Trump). I re-read his post though, and am not sure he makes that claim. But it's pretty easy to get that impression.

    Anyway, enough for one day.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. I have heard a variation of this argument with respect to what is, or what isn't a coup when talking about Brazil. In general, I find an excessive devotion to rigor as applied to aggressive action to be distasteful. It's almost always an attempt at derailing (or feels like an attempt to derail) the topic at hand.

    If Brazil's bad faith impeachment drama wasn't a coup, then why do we call the 1997 event in Turkey "the Postmodern Coup"? That's because we pay attention to the ends of these sort of actions, and not the means, and attempting portray a memorandum as just a memorandum, and willfully ignoring the potential implied use of force is simply being deliberately obtuse.

    Again, what are the ends of straight up vote-rigging, like what can be done with electronic voting machines, say, in Kansas? Are they different from the unequal deploying of voting machines? Or the use of vote fraud as an excuse to intimidate people by having police "check up" on where they live? Does these alternative means really do less violence to the society at large? If not, do people not have the correct instinct to apply the most overt and indefensible terms to the panoply of underhanded strategies, so as to throw disinfectant social light on these tactics?

  3. This was one of Tyler's worst posts of all time. He's not given to intellectual dishonesty, but that was intellectually dishonest.

  4. A liitle more soul searchin from the LEft is needed here. You do not mention the blatant manipulation of Illinois in the 1960 election, and the noble attitude of Nizon of not diiging into it further.

    Contrast this with the 2000 Election. Even after the myth of fraud had stolen Florida from Gore was thoroughly debunked one year later by an extensive audit by the vote, Democrats still were referring to George W. Bush as illegitimate well after that.

    And there is the case of all the attitude of the DNC against Sanders. This is not exaclty coming out of the blue. And Democrats also bear responsiblity.

    1. Nathanael2:09 AM

      You obviously didn't read the actual audit of the 2000 vote. I did. By any consistent counting standard whatsoever, Gore won Florida.

      The Florida Supreme Court ordered that all the votes be counted. The Bush campaign team flew rioters in to stop the vote counting. Scalia and Thomas, whose family members were working on the Bush campaign, issued emergency orders to prevent the vote counting.

      2000 was straight up election theft of the most third-world variety.

  5. "When most people hear the word "rigged" in the context of an election, they probably think that means the results have been falsified ..."

    OMG, you will make up anything, won't you! That is NOT what rigged means! When a basketball game is rigged, it doesn't mean the final score has been "falsified"! It means that someone -- probably the refs (i.e, in an election, the media) has systematically tilted the playing field.

    If you are just going to make up BS off the top of your head like this, I gotta de-link your blog.

    1. Von Mises to Pieces9:51 AM

      In basketball, playing on your home court "tilts the playing field" in favor of one team. Playing your home games in Denver tilts the playing field towards the home team even more. There seems to be some acclimation effect to the altitude that is difficult for road teams to deal with in just a day or two.

      Neither of these structural factors means basketball is rigged because they don’t fundamentally change the conditions under which the game is played. Both teams try to get the ball through the hoop without traveling or double dribbling.

      Same with elections. The two party system is like home field advantage. Money and PACs may be like playing at home in Denver. Folks like Jill Stein, Gary Johnson, Donald Trump, and Bernie Sanders are all trying to get the ball through the hoop without traveling or double dribbling. The referees aren't calling Bernie for traveling when he clearly held his pivot foot. Nor are they awarding Hillary points for shots she misses. They all raise money under the same rules. They all buy ads under the same rules. They get ballot access and debate access under the same rules. They’re all free to attempt to influence party platforms under the same rules. They all compete for media under the same rules.

      As to the media… are they biased? I’d suspect so. Do they have rooting interests? Probably. Does that mean elections are rigged? Are MLB games rigged because umpires are more likely to call borderline pitches strikes against Latino hitters?

    2. If someone says a basketball game has been rigged, I'd assume the players on one of the teams threw the game.

    3. Usually when we say a game was rigged, we mean players on the teams manipulated the score (missing shots,etc) in order to make sure a specific team beat the spread.

  6. If "most evidence shows that money doesn't really give that much of an electoral advantage," what kind of improvements to campaign finance law do you feel are necessary?

  7. Gee, you really r a whiny little thing. Who gives a rat's bum if you delink? In fact, who wants whiny bald middle aged tosspots for company anyway...

    1. Nothing like an ad hominem attack to put him in his place right?

  8. Thanks for this post. I like Tyler's blog very much and was very surprised to see something this poor from him. Ironically, I think part of his motivation was to criticize the watering-down of "rigged" just as you do, but he did a poor job of it.

    Two separate problems are here: (1) A linguistic problem causing gaps in communication: "Rigged" has become so broad that it has become almost useless for conveying actual beliefs. Its primary meaning is outright miscounting votes a la Stalin, but it is now being used for much milder influences as well. (2) Trump appears to be claiming there will be outright miscounting of votes, a terrible claim by a major candidate.

    I think Tyler meant to say that unfortunately, (1) gives Trump cover for (2). He can say the election will be “rigged,” and most listeners will think he means in the strict Stalinist sense (I do)...but some people who might be outraged by the claim will instead think it sounds vaguely normal, due to (1).

  9. Tyler did not write that the election will be rigged. I don't quite understand your confusion on the point, to be honest. Your long excerpt from him omits the part where he says he believes the opposite:

    "Personally, I think median voters more or less get what they want on a large number of issues, especially broad-based ones in the public eye. You won’t find the word 'rigged' popping up too much in the MR search function, besides I started blogging (and breathing) after Kennedy vs. Nixon. But my goodness, I can in fact understand why Donald Trump thinks the system is rigged. For years, you have been telling him that it is."

    His point is that there's a double standard.

  10. I do not wish to enter into a discussion in this space as to whether there is evidence that insider tampering with electronic voting machines changed the outcome of races in Alaska in 2008 and 2014 and Kansas in 2014, but I'd be remiss if I didn't point out that Steven Levitt's work on elections outcomes linked in "most evidence shows" above has been vociferously contested by some in the Political Science field, for example Thomas Ferguson's "Investment Theory of Party Competition".


    I'm not really inclined to buy Chomskian bullshit by the pound from Ferguson in preference to Chicago School apologetics from Levitt, and I don't have the expertise in statistics to judge their competing claims, but I have a pretty good idea which of the two makes more money promoting these respective ideas on election financing, and given Levitt's terrible work on climate science in SuperFreakonomics, I'm not at all inclined to give his claims on campaign finance the benefit of the doubt.

    My own experience looking systematically at election results in aggregate suggests that big disparities in campaign spending can indeed have very big effects, the most obvious in recent history being Obama's win in Indiana in 2008.

  11. Not directly related to whether elections are rigged, but related:

    ""In the past three decades, the share of U.S. citizens who think that it would be a “good” or “very good” thing for the “army to rule”—a patently undemocratic stance—has steadily risen. In 1995, just one in sixteen respondents agreed with that position; today, one in six agree. While those who hold this view remain in the minority, they can no longer be dismissed as a small fringe, especially since there have been similar increases in the number of those who favor a “strong leader who doesn’t have to bother with parliament and elections” and those who want experts rather than the government to “take decisions” for the country. Nor is the United States the only country to exhibit this trend. The proportion agreeing that it would be better to have the army rule has risen in most mature democracies, including Germany, Sweden, and the United Kingdom."

    I suspect that if more people believe elections are rigged, more will be likely to support/accept/tolerate a military takeover.

  12. It's funny to me that Republicans (especially Trump) say things and pursue policies that alienate large swathes of the general electorate, but then whine about how they are treated unfairly. Since they can't seem to factor into their mental model the idea that maybe their policies and rhetoric are overwhelmingly unpopular they have to pursue this narrative of rigging elections. Their is plenty of evidence that their own actions alienate voters, but very little evidence in favor of the "rigged election" theory. Tyler is just being a useful idiot here and I really don't know why he's so esteemed in his field.

  13. What is the prior on elections simply being rigged, in. The concrete sense, in light of Bush, known hacks, etc?

  14. "Rigged" is not a precise term. There's a continuum from, say, discouraging some voters from turning up to stuffing ballot boxes (or worse). Some places in the US are well towards the middle of that spectrum (purging rolls, making ID mandatory but difficult to obtain, cutting voting places, gerrymanders....)

    As for "American elections are not perfect, but ...they're pretty darn good." By the standards of other developed countries (and even many undeveloped ones), US electoral processes are pretty horrible, but that is true of much US administration. Extreme decentralisation, a rich heritage of patronage and a deep suspicion of government do not make for efficient public services.

    1. Recently (as sometime this past year, iIRC) former President Carter outright said that the US doesn't have a functioning democracy.

  15. Dumb question time: has the "black box voting" issue been resolved? Or has it simply been forgotten?

    A reminder: you vote on an electronic voting machine. It is programmed to record your vote. Right? How do you know that?

    How do you know the voting machine hasn't been hacked?

    1. Let me get back to you on that.

      (Short Answer: Depends enormously on the machine used in your jurisdiction, and what steps the county authorities take to correct for the potential for mischief. See: https://www.verifiedvoting.org/ )

    2. OK, it turns out the answer is "They were, and the Left is so full of morons that no one can figure out that they actually were."