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What’s behind fears of voter fraud?

November 4, 2016 at 6:35 PM EST
In 2012, Mitt Romney received zero votes in inner-city Philadelphia. Some Republicans believed such an extreme result indicated fraudulent voting behavior, and this election season, Donald Trump and his supporters have revived that hypothesis. William Brangham speaks with officials in Pennsylvania for analysis of the 2012 data and explores what motivations might lie behind fraud concerns.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Meantime, allegations of widespread voter fraud are nothing new, but they’ve taken on a renewed intensity in this campaign. While there’s virtually no evidence for the claims, Donald Trump and his supporters insist the voting process is rigged.

Our William Brangham takes a look at those accusations and how they’re being heard by the accused in the battleground state of Pennsylvania.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: This past weekend in Allentown, Pennsylvania, a group of Donald Trump’s supporters staged a rally at a busy intersection.

WOMAN: We’re not going to take it anymore!

CARROLL HAAS: I’m here to support Trump, and pray that Hillary goes to prison for all that she has done.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: These voters argue Trump is exactly what the country needs right now, and they think the media isn’t treating him fairly and is overlooking Hillary Clinton’s flaws.

Many are also deeply suspicious that the election is somehow going to be stolen from them.

LARRY NAUSBAUM: I think the machines are rigged. I watched on YouTube how they rig the machines, where you vote Republican, and it turns up Democrat.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Trump has made this same charge repeatedly over several months.

DONALD TRUMP (R), Presidential Nominee: We’re in a rigged system, folks. We’re in a rigged system.

We’re going to watch Pennsylvania. Go down to certain areas and watch and study and make sure other people don’t come in and vote five times.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: There’s no evidence for the kind of widespread fraudulent voting that Trump says is going on right now. But his supporters, people like Tom Carroll, say if you don’t believe rigged voting occurs, just look at Philadelphia.

TOM CARROLL: It is absolutely rigged. Philadelphia is a perfect example. You had wards in 2012 that had more than 100 percent turnout-

LARRY NAUSBAUM: In Philadelphia, there were 17 districts where there were 100 percent Obama votes, which is statistically impossible.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: This is exhibit A for their case. In the 2012 presidential election between President Obama and Governor Romney, Obama won Pennsylvania, getting almost three million votes, compared to Romney’s 2.6 million.

But in Philadelphia, in these 59 divisions, known as precincts in most places, not one single vote was recorded for Mitt Romney, not one. Obama received 100 percent of the presidential votes.

AL SCHMIDT (R), Philadelphia Election Commissioner: I was struck the same way that anyone else was in wondering, how could this possibly occur? So, this is the voting system that we have in Philadelphia.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Al Schmidt is on the commission that runs and oversees elections in Philadelphia. He’s the only Republican on the three-person panel. After that election, he investigated: Was it possible that no one in those divisions voted for Mitt Romney?

AL SCHMIDT: I ran around the city to all these different precincts to look at, how could this possibly occur? We were chasing down members of the minority party and asking, did you in fact cast your vote this way or that way? You don’t have to tell us, but we’re looking into this. And we didn’t find a single one.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: So, you went around those areas trying to find Romney voters, and you couldn’t find any?

AL SCHMIDT: Correct.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Schmidt says these particular precincts are very small, they’re almost all black, and President Obama remains hugely popular.

In fact, John McCain back in the 2008 presidential race got less than 1 percent of the vote in these same areas.

So, you feel confident that the fact that there were no Romney votes registered in those particular areas is not evidence that someone somewhere was taking Romney votes and throwing them in the trash?

AL SCHMIDT: Correct. And even if you set aside everything I just said about the fact that you couldn’t find anyone who voted for him, that the precincts are very small, so the voting — the electorate there is very similar, you can’t subtract votes from our voting machines, period.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: You just can’t do it?

AL SCHMIDT: You can’t.

SEAN HANNITY: In inner-city Philadelphia, Mitt Romney did not get a single vote.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: But, still, that’s not how the story is perceived among Trump’s supporters and certain parts of the media. FOX News has cited Philadelphia’s 2012 results as clear evidence of fraud numerous times, same with other popular conservative Web sites like Breitbart, Infowars, The Blaze.

They all imply votes were stolen.

AUDREY STREIN: Hopefully, he can count on your vote this November.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Trump supporter Audrey Strein is one of those concerned about fraud. One poll showed that 49 percent of Trump supporters are not confident the vote will be counted accurately, compared to just 18 percent of Clinton supporters.

AUDREY STREIN: If we outnumber and get people, everybody to come out and vote, we can overcome any of the anticipated voter fraud.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: When she’s not running her roofing company, this mother of three, wearing her “Adorable Deplorable” T-shirt, tries to persuade undecided voters.

She says voting fraud won’t be a problem in her small town of Jamison, Pennsylvania, but she’s suspicious about urban areas like Philadelphia.

AUDREY STREIN: In the cities, you are going to have more Democrat majority. And when you have a dominant party, there’s no one watching the henhouse.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: To understand how accusations of possible fraud are being heard, we talked with voters in West Philadelphia, the same place where Romney received zero votes four years ago. Many saw these accusations as an attempt at voter suppression.

MANUEL GLENN: There is an individual in this race who wants to make the process so dirty, that wants to turn people off from the process, that they won’t come out and vote. And he feels that that’s his path to victory, because his voters are so fired up, they’re going to come out regardless, rain, sleet, snow, hell, hell or high water, return of Jesus, they’re going to vote.

ALFRED HAZLY: It goes back to World War II, and Joseph Goebbels, and Hitler in the ’30s: Tell the biggest lie you can, as loud as you can, for as long as you can, and, eventually, someone will start to believe it.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Greg Spearman is the Democratic ward leader for this area. He was here in 2012, and he will be here again next week on Election Day.

I asked him about the racial undertones of these accusations.

It’s usually white Republicans saying this about minority voting districts.

GREG SPEARMAN, Philadelphia Democratic Ward Leader: Sure.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Do you think race has anything to do with the…

GREG SPEARMAN: Sure. Race has something to do with most things in America. I think that’s the fire that Trump is stoking. His buzzwords are targeted for that mind-set.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: David Thornburgh is president and CEO of the Committee of Seventy, a group in Philadelphia dedicated to ensuring clean and fair elections.

DAVID THORNBURGH, President, Committee of Seventy: And what we really have in terms of our sense of election fraud is a series of anecdotes. You add all those up, and it doesn’t constitute the same kind of massive, systemic fraud that the Trump campaign is asserting is out there.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Philadelphia Elections Commissioner and Republican Al Schmidt says he has documented isolated cases of voter fraud. He wrote this report on examples from the 2012 primary election.

Philadelphia indicted 10 people for voter fraud since the report was published. They amounted to a dozen votes being improperly cast across the city.

AL SCHMIDT: It’s important to recognize the distinction between individual cases of voter fraud and allegations of widespread, systematic vote-rigging, and no one finding out about it, despite it changing the outcome of the presidential election. That’s pretty far-fetched.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: The Clinton and Trump campaigns say they will do everything to ensure the legitimacy of this election, both nationwide and in this critical battleground state.

Lawyers and poll monitors from both parties will be out in full force next Tuesday. But for black voters here in Philadelphia, the accusation that they have committed fraud and will do so again is painfully familiar.

JAMIE FLETCHER: Being a minority, you expect it. It is just what comes — it just comes with skin color and where you live, so that’s just what it is.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m William Brangham in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

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