How to Refute Vote Fraud Claims Like Trump’s
International election monitors have proven ways to verify a disputed vote. Could they work in the United States?
This article is part of Election 2020: America Votes, FP’s round-the-clock coverage of the U.S. election results as they come in, with short dispatches from correspondents and analysts around the world. The America Votes page is free for all readers.
Since Joe Biden was declared U.S. President-elect on Saturday, outgoing President Donald Trump and his Republican allies have doubled down on their baseless allegations that the voting process was fraudulent and that Biden is “stealing” the election with “illegal” votes. This is not unusual in certain countries around the world, where voting fraud is often alleged in problematic elections—with or without basis. In fact, allegations of vote manipulation are a classic characteristic of elections in struggling democracies and authoritarian states.
But election monitors in such countries have ways to verify the vote count that generally make it possible to detect any significant cheating in the aggregation of election results. This allows them to quickly assess the probability of any claims of voting irregularities or fraud—and their potential effect on the election outcome.
Leaving aside the fact that there is no basis for any of Trump’s claims of systematic fraud, could such techniques have worked in the 2020 U.S. election to assess the possibility of fraud, even if only to refute the claims? Unfortunately, highly effective techniques used to verify the vote count in other countries either do not work in the U.S. election system or have not been widely attempted.
Since the 1980s, election-monitoring organizations such as Democracy International, of which I am president, have conducted a form of vote-count verification known as parallel vote tabulations (PVTs). Also known as quick counts, PVTs assess the accuracy or verify the integrity of election results as reported by electoral authorities in controversial elections. The way they work is that local election observers at a sample of polling stations observe the actual balloting and counting, and then independently report the local polling station results. This enables the monitoring organization to independently assess the accuracy of the aggregated, reported results within statistically significant margins of error. While PVTs can’t replace a recount when the margin is razor-thin, they generally detect any systematic false reporting of the actual results, the main method in which elections have been manipulated in problematic elections around the world.
Could the United States deploy PVTs to increase trust in the voting process and prevent frivolous and destructive claims of election fraud from gaining traction? Unfortunately, there are several ways in which elections are currently different in the United States from most other countries in which PVTs are used. For one thing, because each U.S. state does its own vote count instead of having a single, nationwide voting system as in most other countries, there would need to be a separate, statistically significant PVT for each swing state. That greatly increases the complexity and expense. More fundamentally, PVTs work best for elections that use paper ballots deposited into physical ballot boxes. When elections are run using multiple technologies and highly automated vote counts, as they are in most U.S. states, PVTs would require significantly different techniques.
In the United States, there are extensive efforts by the national media to collect enough local information to “call” election outcomes. Since these calls shape public perceptions, this would suggest the possibility of problems if election authorities reported different outcomes. But unlike PVTs, these calls are not based on independent observation of the balloting and counting, but on a statistical analysis of the authorities’ preliminary results. Because media projections are, in effect, only reporting the aggregation of counts by local and state authorities, they don’t provide much information about whether there were problems with those local vote counts. And of course, the media’s calls are under attack from Trump as well.
Another way monitoring organizations around the world often draw inferences about election integrity is by looking at exit polls and public opinion surveys. In an exit poll, researchers ask selected voters from a sample of polling places about how they have just voted. The researchers can then compare the findings to reported results. (Some U.S. media projections use exit polling as part of their process as well.) In some cases, international observers have pointed to a divergence between pre-election opinion polls and the results reported by the authorities as a basis for questioning the latter.
The current elections in the United States, however, call into question the accuracy of pre-election polling rather than the other way around. No one is using pre-election polling numbers that favored Biden in order to suggest that the vote has been manipulated to favor Trump. Likewise, few would believe that exit poll numbers could be used to challenge the integrity of reported election results. Moreover, any polling or sample-based process would be too blunt an instrument from which to draw any inferences about the likelihood of fraud in the count in a very close election, as in most of the states where the process is currently under scrutiny, such as Georgia and Wisconsin.
To assess the legitimacy of Trump’s attacks on the vote count in the current election, Americans will need to trust the integrity of state and local election officials conducting in the count and to rely on the results of the counts and potential recounts as witnessed by representatives of both parties. Fortunately, we have no reason so far to question that process—and every reason to believe that these officials are fully committed to the integrity of the process.