When Donald Trump claims that the presidential election will be rigged, does he know what he is talking about for a change? There is a chance that he does. There is also a chance that he is not just concocting an excuse for losing, but hoping that the vote will be rigged — in his favor.
If the election is indeed fixed, it will not be because mythical hordes of Democrats will vote multiple times as the GOP candidate claims. On the contrary, if there is any serious fiddling with the vote totals, it will be by hackers having targeted electronic voting machines, voter databases and election night tabulations. And if this happens, there is a very good chance that the hackers will turn out to be Russians, almost certainly state supported, who have already shown they can hack the Democratic National Committee, which prompted Mr. Trump to invite them to hack Hillary Clinton's emails before the public knew her campaign manager's messages had been hacked. Perhaps Mr. Trump, whose numbers are steadily sinking in the polls, wouldn't mind if Vladimir Putin also directed hackers to disrupt the American presidential election and hand him an unlikely victory.
But even without hackers fixing the outcome, the doubt created by contested, but uncheckable, returns could throw the nation into chaos on election night — a chaos that could last for weeks, strain the foundations of our democracy to the breaking point and make the 2000 Florida "hanging-chad" disaster seem quaint.
Mr. Trump has been trying for years to do large financial deals with the Russians. As his son Donald Trump Jr. said in 2008, Russian money made up "a pretty disproportionate" chunk of Trump assets and was "pouring in." Mr. Trump fawns on the autocratic Mr. Putin as a strong leader and has claimed Mr. Putin called him "brilliant" in return, although the Russian word more likely means "colorful."
There would be nothing colorful — or even faintly amusing — about a hack of the November election voting.
Direct Recording Electronic (DRE) voting systems are clearly vulnerable to amateur hackers, much less state-sponsored ones, who might have infiltrated the computer code that has been or will be loaded into the machines. And computerized voter registrations and tabulations are vulnerable in real time online through Election Day. Just corrupting the returns sent to the networks and newspapers would be enough to cast doubt on who won that could take days to sort out.
In states with paper backups for the electronic machines, unreliable vote totals could even lead to unrest while the mess is sorted out by counting the paper backups, but at least there will be something to count. However, there will be hundreds of precincts with electronic voting without paper backups in key states. One of them is Florida, a must-win state for Mr. Trump.
Florida had something to count in 2000: punch cards from every precinct. But this year there will be absolutely nothing to recount on the DRE machines used by about a quarter of the state's voters spread throughout 25 counties, including populous southeast coast counties such as Broward and Miami-Dade. That means nothing to show whether votes have been added, deleted or switched. Voters in the rest of the state will get safe, hand-countable paper ballots.
The 2000 election was relatively normal, with normal candidates, compared to 2016. After the Supreme Court aborted the recount in a unprecedented and partisan ruling, Al Gore conceded without a fight, showing love of country ahead of self and party. What are the odds that Mr. Trump or the current Republican Party would do the same in a contested election today? Considering Mr. Trump's apparent contempt for democratic tradition, and the unprecedented obstruction the GOP has waged against the Obama administration, a decent and honorable concession would be totally out of character.
Altogether, 15 states with some or all of their precincts with electronic voting machines and no back up, will award 208 of the 538 electoral votes, meaning that hacking could turn the election results topsy-turvy. Even just disrupting the results where there are no backups to be counted might throw the election into the House of Representatives, which would give the GOP an easy victory.
Mr. Trump's ties to the Russian regime are obvious, though we don't know how deep they run. His tax returns might tell, but he refuses to release them. Is Mr. Trump in hock up to his orange pompadour to Russian oligarchs? If so, it would be one debt he cannot avoid repaying — making him Mr. Putin's poodle in the White House if elected.
Bentley Orrick (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a retired newspaper reporter and editor who covered Maryland and Florida politics and observed the 2000 Florida election debacle firsthand.