“It’s intimidating to poll workers,” Weiser explained. “Many of them are older. Some are doing this for the first time.”
And the net result could be a “really volatile situation. It makes polling places the sites of confrontation and worse”—like harassment, “especially in a heated election. There are places where people can cross the line into impermissible conduct.”
It remains unclear how successful Trump’s mobilization efforts might be, but Weiser is concerned that election officials may not be prepared for this year’s influx of challengers. While other years have featured similarly-minded conservative efforts, including True the Vote, “This is the first in a long time where a presidential candidate with such a big platform has done so.”
Indeed, the very suggestion—preemptively—of fraudulent election behavior is largely unprecedented in the modern era (not, of course, the assertion of fraudulent election behavior after the fact). Such fearmongering is “quite common in less mature democracies,” said David Carroll, director of Democracy Programs at the Carter Center—which oversees a significant amount of international election monitoring:
“It’s seen in many of the places that we work in: places undergoing transition. In the context of weak and emerging democracies, it is not unusual. Quite often, it’s a party that fears it’s going to lose that is saying that.”
An official from the United Nations, which doesn’t monitor elections but does offer technical assistance, pointed to a practice that has been successful in “hotly contested” races, as this year in Lesotho and Nigeria, or Malawi in 2012. Ahead of the election itself, leaders of political parties sign a code of conduct, committing to accepting the results of the election. Should they have any complaints with its results, they vow not resort to violence, but to instead pursue legal means. The signing ceremonies of these pledges are sometimes televised, with presidents of neighboring countries in attendance. “Peer pressure,” the official explained to me.
The problem here is that Trump has shown no interest in being convinced that the election might be fair. His reluctance to sign a pledge to support his own party’s nominee—something he ultimately reneged on, anyway—makes it hard to imagine him signing anything that might bind him to anything, no matter how weak the language in the agreement.
And—as with birtherism—Trump’s party is already so animated by this conspiracy that, to a certain extent, it can live on without his active endorsement. According to Pew, only 38 percent of Trump supporters believe the vote will be counted fairly. That may not be surprising, but consider the widespread nature of this paranoia.
According to a 2012 Cooperative Congressional Election Study (emphasis mine):
31 percent of Romney voters… endorsed the idea that Obama was not the legitimate winner of the race.
Among those with “very positive” views of the tea party, 51 percent held that perspective.
But 22 percent of Romney voters with a less positive view of the tea party also questioned the legitimacy of the election, suggesting that this belief was not restricted to a fringe of the party.
Herein lies the most potentially devastating effect of Trump’s florid and public propulsion of a “rigged system.” His corps of challengers may very well sow chaos on election day, but the laws allowing them to do so are at least laws—able to be repealed or updated (or kept in place), but at the very least subject to formal legislative governance.
Public trust, however—the core of our social compact—is not a matter of legislation: It is a terrible thing to lose, and a difficult thing to regain. And Trump has lately determined that his survival may be contingent its erosion; the last three days, after all, have shown the country how much he’s prepared to risk. It’s a dangerous play for the candidate, but unquestionably, a far more hazardous one for democracy.