In the last couple weeks, people from President Donald Trump to supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders to top Republican operatives have begun to loudly proclaim that the Democratic presidential primary is being “rigged” against Sanders in favor of former Vice President Joe Biden.
The conspiracy theory is that “establishment” members of the Democratic National Committee and liberal media elites are so terrified that Democratic voters might elect Sanders, a democratic socialist, to be the party’s nominee that they’re actively conspiring to ensure that doesn’t happen.
Importantly, the Sanders campaign itself doesn’t make this case, but it’s an increasingly popular narrative — hashtags like #RiggedDNC and #RiggedPrimary were even trending on Twitter this week.
But experts who’ve studied actual rigged elections in places like Russia say the notion that the Democratic primary is being “rigged” is completely bogus — and they warn that perpetuating this narrative could deeply harm the legitimacy of the election, and faith in US democracy itself.
This is a point recently made by Nina Jankowicz, an expert on election rigging, election observation, and disinformation at the Wilson Center think tank in Washington, DC. In a smart Twitter thread on Wednesday, she laid out clearly what real election rigging looks like — and the second you read it, it becomes very apparent that this is not happening in the Democratic primary process.
For a moment, may I please opine on the allegation that the Democratic primary has been “rigged?”
As someone who has studied and observed elections in countries where election rigging is very real, it offends and worries me.
— Nina Jankowicz (@wiczipedia) March 4, 2020
I decided to call her up to better understand what is actually happening in the US political process, how it differs from actual rigged elections, and why she thinks all this talk about the primary being “rigged” against Bernie Sanders is so dangerous.
Our conversation, edited for length and clarity, is below.
What prompted you to write that Twitter thread about the growing claims that the Democratic primary is being rigged?
I’ve been on a number of election observation missions in countries like Russia and Georgia and Ukraine, as I specialize in the former Soviet Union. The types of things that we look for during those observations include rigging and widespread irregularities, and I’m very familiar with what actual election rigging looks like.
Rigging is a really, really serious accusation. It implies some political party, perhaps the political party that’s in power, is systematically denying citizens the right to be heard at the ballot box.
That is not what is happening in the Democratic primary.
Making that accusation is a really dangerous thing at this point because it could affect the peaceful transfer of power. It could affect, certainly, who endorses whom as the primary goes on. But most importantly to me, as somebody who studies disinformation, it leaves us open to a lot of manipulation by our adversaries, including Russia.
To be extremely explicit, what is happening in the Democratic primary? Do you see any problems with it, or is it just a normal American primary process?
This is one of the more democratic primary processes that our country has seen recently. We had a phenomenally diverse set of candidates. Now, are there misgivings to be had about the way that people of color and minorities were covered during this election and the way that the female candidates were covered by the media? Absolutely. Is that election rigging? No.
A lot of the other commentary I saw, particularly from some Sanders supporters, was that the fact that moderates like Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg endorsed Biden was some sort of election rigging. That’s a normal political process that happens all the time. That’s not rigging.
But in fairness, there are a lot of problems with our democracy.
Sure. We have some reports of very long lines at polling stations in places like Texas and California. This is something that happens every year and it is very worrisome. It should not happen in the United States of America.
But it’s important to point out that elections in the US are administered by state and local election bodies. In some cases, even though these are expert election administrators, the resources that are allocated to those bodies is decided by, again, local and state administrations. And in some cases they might not even be run by Democrats, just professionals.
There isn’t some sort of cabal in the Democratic Party to keep people from voting.
So give me an example of actual election rigging that you’ve either studied as an expert or observed as an election monitor.
Russia, in particular, is quite expert at election rigging. Sometimes that takes on a more overt form via ballot box stuffing or the alteration of ballots that have been cast by precinct captains and things like that when the vote count is happening. Election observers would often see that happen, especially in the 2011 parliamentary election which led to large-scale protests.
There are also less overt forms. There is very little independent media in Russia, as most outlets are state-run. Opposition candidates, including the most popular one, Alexei Navalny, don’t get any airtime. These state-run outlets don’t even say his name on state-run TV.
If he’s not getting the same airtime as other people, especially in a country as large as Russia, Navalny can’t compete with Putin with all the grandpas and grandmothers who don’t watch his videos on YouTube. If they don’t find out about his actions on television or radio, they’re not going to find out about him at all. That’s just one example, but that happens systematically to other opposition candidates as well.
Those are some of the things we see in other places that are more direct election rigging. But if international election observers were here looking at all of the elements of the process, they wouldn’t point back to the Democratic National Committee and say this process is rigged against a certain candidate.
If I’m understanding you correctly, it requires a concerted top-down effort to rig elections. It would be incredibly noticeable.
Right. Think of the candidates that have made it this far. There have been plenty of debates. Those debates wouldn’t even happen in a country where there were rigged elections.
And, actually, the fact that US states are the ones administering elections means there is less room for top-down corruption or top-down rigging that you were talking about. States so firmly hold onto that control. They have the right to purchase voting machines, they have the right to set what ballots look like. They have the right to set the rules and regulations for how elections are run in their states.
So it’s very, very difficult to organize some sort of top-down effort, especially in some cases where those election officials may not be of the same political party as you.
If people are genuinely worried about election rigging in America, what are the things they should look out for?
The things that worry me are things like campaign finance reform and the use of dark ads and unlimited caches of money to target people at a really minute and discrete level with misleading political ads. Things like that are really, really worrisome to me. I think the election system, in that case, certainly needs some new laws to dictate what is and is not allowed on the internet with political advertising.
But our process is really safe from rigging. Our election precinct captains are pretty well trained. They are from a number of different parties and they’re nonpartisan in the work that they do on Election Day. We have media and other watchdog groups looking at stuff like this. It’s not something that I worry about on the same scale as I would in a country like Russia or Ukraine.
What worries you most about people insisting that the Democratic primary has been rigged?
Even the allegation of election rigging might discourage some people from going out and voting. That was worrisome when President Trump said that the election was rigged in the 2016 campaign, and it’s worrisome now when we have candidates on the left and the right saying the same thing.
The suggestion that that might be happening leaves us open to manipulation. It makes people have less faith in the democratic process. The democratic process needs participation to work. We need everyone to go out there and vote. That’s what the best cure for this is, I think.
The election is not rigged. Everyone should feel confident that their vote is being counted, whether you’re mailing it in or whether you’re doing that in person. We have a pretty sacrosanct process.