MONROEVILLE, PENNSYLVANIA - John Larkin loves his country, but after following the news throughout a tumultuous election season, he’s beginning to wonder if the system is rigged.
Relaxing on his porch after a long day of work purchasing supplies for a golf course, the die-hard Donald Trump supporter says the polls putting Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton several percentage points ahead of the Republican nominee in his home state of Pennsylvania can’t be true.
“Sometimes I think the polls are rigged. Sometimes I think they’re lying about the polls,” the Monroeville resident said. “From talking about politics all day, everyone I talk to is for Trump, so how he’s falling behind, I have no idea.”
A lifelong Democrat swayed by Trump’s takes on immigration and the economy, Larkin spends his days talking about the election, finding common ground with the truck drivers and housekeepers he encounters at his job.
They’re the kind of supporters Trump reached out to at a rally in western Pennsylvania in mid-August when he said his opponent “can’t beat what’s happening here. The only way they can beat it, in my opinion, and I mean this 100 percent, if in certain sections of the state, they cheat.”
Trump followed up that claim by posting a sign-up form on his website, asking for volunteers to “Help me stop crooked Hillary from rigging this election!”
Larkin’s view isn’t an unusual one during an election marked by a deep distrust of the political establishment and a perceived status-quo system that seems to sidestep the average voter. Trump’s push to have his own supporters monitoring voting sites on Election Day, however, could be unprecedented.
Voter-intimidation laws prevent campaigning within a certain distance of voting stations, and it remains to be seen exactly what role Trump volunteers could play on Election Day.
Voter fraud in the United States is extremely rare, according to a Carnegie-Knight News21 study of more than 2,000 alleged election fraud cases between 2000 and 2012. The study found the level of fraud was almost immeasurable compared with the number of voters.
But Sondra Dull, a barber for 33 years in the small town of Herminie, Pennsylvania, doesn’t think the presence of Trump supporters could complicate potentially intense situations involving fraud challenges.
“The Trump side?” she said, laughing, “I think maybe the other side. I think those would be the ones who would give us the most trouble.”
When Dull talks to her customers about the election, the issue of poll-taking and how to beat the system inevitably comes up.
“A lot of them, when they feel it’s a polling phone call, they won’t answer because they don’t want to jinx the election, so they’re being quiet, they’re being secretive,” she said. Her tone is similar to the “silent majority” concept advanced by the Trump campaign, formed around the idea that there is a large group of Americans whose voices and interests are not covered by the news media or recognized by the political establishment.
Dull doesn’t anticipate as many voting irregularities in her small town precinct, where she will serve as an observer, but she does foresee potential issues in larger cities like Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, where large Democratic-leaning minority populations have helped tilt the statewide polls toward Clinton.
“In this state, you don’t have to show your voter ID, your license, so who is to say?” Dull said of the bigger cities. “They don’t know their communities. They don’t know who you are. So it’s very easy to go in and say you’re somebody and sign up.”
Setting up an army
“If he doesn’t win Pennsylvania, it’s definitely rigged,” said Tricia Cunningham, a volunteer unofficially affiliated with the Trump campaign, who says she has built an 8,000-person volunteer catalogue in the state. She says the transparency of social media combined with a depth of concern across the country about voting-machine fraud will make for “the most unique general election we’ve ever seen.”
From a small office in Monroeville, Cunningham has collected the names of area volunteers who filled out the form on the Trump website, getting them certified by state officials and trained on what to do on Election Day. She refers to this group as a “mass force and a mass army” not just in Pennsylvania, but nationwide.
Cunningham has organized for the Trump campaign without pay for the last year of her life. Wearing a “Hillary for Prison 2016” T-shirt and near tears as she speaks of the importance of this election, Cunningham expects the Trump volunteers to encounter unprecedented intensity on Election Day.
“We’re allowing anybody that would try to rig it to know that we are going to be watching,” Cunningham said. “If somebody comes out and says, 'Hey, the voting machine didn’t reflect what I voted for,' we’re going to have to shut it down and have people there to take care of the paper ballots and also oversee the election.”
The presence of Trump volunteers could make for an uneasy mix at polling places, since local Republican Party organizations already have observers in place to check for voting-machine malfunctions and voter fraud.
“We always have poll watchers at pretty much the major polling locations, and they’re always watching for issues that are happening,” said D. Raja, chair of the Allegheny County Republican Party. “If they see issues, they can call the hot line, they can call our legal team and we can deploy right away.”
Challenging the status quo
Raja said the local committees will look to align with the Trump volunteers. With a business background in information technology, Raja says he understands why voters would be concerned by voting irregularities now that the system is more reliant on computers.
“Now you have software, so there’s a way to say there’s an audit trail. They can publish matching information and give it to the local polling places. I think that would go a long way to satisfy the local committees,” he said.
Even if local party organizations are satisfied, though, Trump volunteers still may need to be convinced by the final results. The informal nature of the campaign in Pennsylvania means it’s difficult to measure the reach of Trump’s appeal, and the sense among many supporters who spoke out is that this is an election that will change the status quo.
“I just can’t see Hillary Clinton as my president,” said John Larkin. “I don’t know where they get that she’s ahead — I don’t see it anywhere.”
If the numbers end up going against the Republican nominee in Pennsylvania, dedicated Trump supporters will have to decide just how far to challenge results — and potentially stretch the presidential contest far past Election Day in November.