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National elections are run by counties and volunteers. Can they be rigged?

Election night county clerks office San Luis Obispo Nov. 5, 1968. The process of counting and verifying votes has always been labor intensive. Richard Nixon was elected President this year.
Election night county clerks office San Luis Obispo Nov. 5, 1968. The process of counting and verifying votes has always been labor intensive. Richard Nixon was elected President this year. Telegram-Tribune

One of the wonders of our electoral system is that anyone declares to run at all.

There can only be one winner, and for the majority of losing candidates it is a deeply personal and bruising defeat. Having witnessed many election nights, the elation and sense of loss are raw and real.

Certainly cable news prefers to package almost every political story with metaphors that would better apply to a horse race, boxing match or war. Bombshells, sneak attacks and winning by a nose.

Over the years, I have voted for Democrats, Republicans and third-party candidates, and they haven’t all won. But I never doubted the process.

Fair elections. We all want them.

Democracy is a messy process, and this year, as social media stirs debate into a froth, there is a lot of bad information being thrown around. A recent story from BuzzFeed analyzed “hyperpartisan” Facebook pages on the left and right — such as Freedom Daily and Occupy Democrats — with Facebook pages from mainstream political news organizations such as CNN and ABC News.

False or misleading content was posted 0.7 percent of the time by mainstream news, 19 percent of the time by left-wing groups and 38 percent of the time by right-wing groups.

Slapping type across a picture and sharing doesn’t require fact, or even the ability to spell and punctuate correctly. It doesn’t help raise the level of discourse when political candidates stoop to the same tactics. One recent theme is that one presidential candidate controls a secret cabal that will rig the election.

In my experience covering elections since 1982, I have consistently been impressed with the openness and transparency of the process. Conversations with county clerks, on their most pressure-packed nights, have been accessible and open.

Elections are not federal, they are administered at the state level with much of the responsibility delegated to counties. Many tasks are carried out by trained volunteers and cross checked by paid staff before each county clerk certifies election results to the state.

There are over 3,141 counties or equivalent entities in the 50 states. Commonwealths and territories add another 121 voting districts. Not all counties are equal in size. Half the population of the United States lives in 146 counties. But rigging the election would require a massive organization operating unobserved.

An Oct. 17, 2016, Associated Press story by Christina A. Cassidy notes that 29 states have a Republican secretary of state. In that story, Republican election commissioner Al Schmidt dismissed talk that election fraud could take place in Philadelphia.

“The real threat to the integrity of elections is irresponsible accusations that undermine confidence in the electoral process,” he said.

Saying the election is crooked is a smear on all the state and county officials who certify the results. It also besmirches your neighbors, the volunteers who staff the polls and help manage the avalanche of ballots.

Arguing for an untrained vigilante effort to monitor polls on election day shows a weak grasp of election trends. Since 2008 in California, well over half of all ballots cast were vote-by-mail.

The election is not just election day. The county clerk’s office has a staff that works year-round registering voters and qualifying candidates for the ballot. They mail election materials, collect and verify election ballots, count votes, cross-check and certify results. There is no standard national voting machine; those decisions are made on the county level.

True, there are emotional and contested elections. The system is not flawless, it requires vigilant and active participation. Sometimes investigation and court intervention is required. Sometimes elections are decided by a single vote, as Nebb Eldwayen discovered in November 1986 in his run for Pismo Beach City Council.

We have a vote-counting process that equals of the most fair and transparent in the world.

Before clicking the share button on a negative meme, get out from behind the computer screen. Get trained and volunteer to work within the system. Stop pretending to be engaged. Get involved. We have a system that is the envy of the world.