Of course elections are 'rigged'

A woman casts her electronic ballot at a polling station
Nicolas Kamm | AFP | Getty Images
A woman casts her electronic ballot at a polling station

There aren't too many issues that trigger as much instant anger as the question of voter fraud in America. Of course, presidential candidate Donald Trump has made the issue even more controversial with his recent claims that the election may be "rigged" to go along with the more traditional argument that the voter registration rolls are seriously inaccurate and ripe for abuse.

The basic divide in the nation can be summed up this way: Most Republicans and conservatives believe voter fraud is a serious problem or at least a serious potential problem that needs to be combated with voter I.D. laws. Most Democrats and liberals refuse to believe voter fraud is a problem and think voter I.D. laws are really just racist voter suppression schemes. These two beliefs seem oceans apart, and it doesn't look like there's any chance of reconciling them anytime soon. But there's no need to be so pessimistic as long as we can agree to a broader definition of what vote fraud and chicanery really is, and follow a little common sense.

On the first point, let's agree that voter fraud or the actual acting of fouling the vote isn't just about bogus registration rolls, repeat voters, or even illegal immigrants showing up to the polls. It also includes confusing ballots, tampered ballots, electronic voting mishaps, and even insufficient or ill-prepared polling station volunteers. And let's further agree that all of the above can and has hurt both parties in the past.

And let's also use that common sense and agree that elections are extremely valuable to the winners. Even local offices present the victors with real power over lots of people and the ability to profit politically and financially for years to come. Anything of value is going to be stolen from time to time, or at least people will always try to steal it.

This is not even up for some kind of Utopian counter-argument. It's simply human nature. Another weak argument comes from those who are willing to admit there is limited vote fraud in every election, but not enough to make much of a difference. That reasoning would make sense if elections in America weren't winner take all affairs that can be decided by just one vote. This is especially true in presidential elections where 48 of the 50 states and the District of Columbia award all their electoral votes to the top vote getter no matter how small the majority or plurality.

And we should all remember recent elections where small margins of victory coupled with some voting or ballot irregularities made major news. In 2000, the infamous "butterfly ballot" and hanging chads in Florida helped add to the chaos that became a presidential election where millions of Americans still believe the Supreme Court simply selected George W. Bush to take the Oval Office.

In 2008, Al Franken won his U.S. Senate seat from Minnesota, and gave the Democrats a super majority in the Senate, by a 312-vote margin fraught with evidence that many ineligible votes were cast and counted. And we're already hearing of a number of questionable cases of possible repeat voters in the early voting process across many states in this election so far.

"And just to bring the spirit of humility and bipartisanship into the quest for a more genuine and secure voting process in America, let me make this confession: I am the direct descendant of one of America's most infamous and effective vote-riggers. And he was a Republican."

Note that the above cases don't favor one party or the other. Bush was a Republican and Franken is a Democrat who won elections under the cloud of voting irregularities and disputes. And also note that the bad taste this leaves in almost every voter's mouth is just as bad for the democratic process as so many critics believe Trump's rigging comments can be.

None of this is going to stop simply by wishing it away or burying our heads in the sand. And just to bring the spirit of humility and bipartisanship into the quest for a more genuine and secure voting process in America, let me make this confession: I am the direct descendant of one of America's most infamous and effective vote-riggers. And he was a Republican.

Known as a Chicago "ward boss," my great-great grandfather Morris Eller was actually the Cook County Collector. Even though that was an elected position, it didn't stop him from delivering elections for more than just himself. But this being Chicago, rigging elections usually meant stopping the Democrats from rigging them more.

Thus, Eller's favored tactic was holding top Democrat foot soldiers at gunpoint for all of Election Day to cut down on their abilities to run repeat voters or scare Republican voters away. And yes, this process was as brutal as it sounds. Even Al Capone was one of the people working with my great-great grandfather before "Scarface" struck out more on his own. We don't hear about that kind of election tampering so much anymore, but rest assured that other methods are still being used by rogue operators all the time.

Okay, back to fixing it. The Democrats and liberals have a point when they say many Republican efforts to require voter identification at least appear to have gone too far. This is especially true for the handful of states that do not cover the voter's personal cost to get an I.D. But these are middling concerns that can easily be fixed. For the small number of people in America who do not have any kind of legal identification, it can be provided to them at very low cost.

And perhaps more importantly, the disenfranchisement people without a real I.D. suffer from goes way beyond voting rights. Issuing the poor government-provided I.D.'s should be a form of welfare both conservatives and liberals can agree on if they could both just get their partisan heads out of the sand.

Ballots should always be made as clear and easy to fill out as possible and no single party official should ever be allowed to unilaterally design them. And electronic voting machines that generate paper ballots are fine, but no machine that counts votes should be left unguarded at any time and no machine should be connected to the internet to prevent hacking.

If you can't agree to the above changes and protections, you're either too partisan to think straight or a campaign lawyer. Neither of those groups of people have preserving our representative democracy as a priority, they just want to win. And it's exactly that kind of win at all costs mindset that leads to vote fraud in the first place.

Fixing this is going to take some humility, seriousness, and most of all, honesty from a lot of people not generally inclined to exhibit those virtues. But when half of the political spectrum refuses to admit there's a problem and accuses the other side of racism, and the other side often isn't really looking to fairly fix the problem, we can't get anywhere.

But let's end this on a positive note. It's important to remember that fixing voter fraud is a lot like a 12-step program at Alcoholics Anonymous. Once we admit there is a problem that we can't fix fast and easy, the country will see this a process that will show benefits with every baby step along the way. Let's start walking.

Commentary by Jake Novak, CNBC.com senior columnist. Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.

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