Of the many troubling things that Republican candidate Donald Trump has said during this U.S. presidential election campaign, the most worrisome may be his claim that the November vote will be “rigged” and that he might not accept the results when polls close. At the first presidential debate last month, the moderator had to twice ask Trump before he said that he would accept the outcome if defeated by Democratic Party nominee Hillary Clinton. Four days after the debate, he reversed himself, saying instead, “We’re going to have to see what happens.”

It is hard to imagine a statement more corrosive for U.S. democracy. The authority of the president ultimately rests on his (or her) legitimacy as the winner accepted by all electors, even those that did not vote for him (or her). A loser, and especially one who has decried a political system that systematically disenfranchises significant parts of the public, who refuses to accept that verdict undermines the very foundation of the American political system and the individuals who exercise power through it. This disrespect for the democratic process is the most dangerous element of the Trump candidacy.

There have been four U.S. presidential elections when the loser could claim that the results did not truly reflect the will of the people. In 1824, 1876, 1888 and in 2000 the eventual victor did not win a majority of the votes cast. Instead, they won because they amassed the electoral votes needed to claim the White House. And, most significantly, even when the results literally were hanging in the balance, as in Florida in 2000, Vice President Al Gore accepted defeat precisely because he understood the stakes and recognized that the country’s future depended on acceptance of the legitimacy and finality of the electoral process by winner and loser alike.

Trump’s claim is different. He is asserting that the actual process of casting and counting votes is flawed, and that the will of the majority will be flouted because of illegal or invalid votes accepted as legitimate. There is no evidence of any fraud in the electoral process, much less enough to “steal” a result. But that has not stopped a vocal and determined group of officials and advocates from claiming that fraud is a threat to U.S. democracy and demanding (and in some cases imposing) restrictions on voting; it is no coincidence those efforts weigh most heavily on voters that back the “other” political party.

The absence of evidence of fraud and the prospect of significant disenfranchisement prompted courts to block many of those efforts, but voting rights advocates charge that the instigators of the new restrictions are engaged in rearguard actions to slow and frustrate the rulings. Trump’s recruitment of individuals to “watch” polls and prevent cheating is yet more tinder for an already flammable situation.

There is another looming threat to the legitimacy of the upcoming election, but it is one that Trump does not address: The prospect of hackers somehow interfering in elections and undermining the results. According to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), hackers have sought to penetrate voter registration and administration systems in at least 20 states. In at least four cases, the hackers gained access. The threat of such intrusions has prompted 25 states to reach out to the DHS for help in assessing vulnerabilities and fending off attacks to their voting systems.

The leading suspect in these acts is Russia. As always, attribution is not certain, but the hackers’ work day corresponds to that of Moscow, and Russian fingerprints are on hacks of the Democratic National Committee that led to leaks that sought to embarrass the Democratic Party and its nominee, Clinton.

Experts agree that the U.S. election system is too distributed — spread across 50 states with no uniform way of running an election and counting votes — for an election to be hacked or stolen. No virus can infect and attack the nation’s voting system. Coordinating an attack across all those jurisdictions, or even knowing where to target attacks that would prove critical to changing results, is impossible. A senior U.S. administration official notes that “our voting infrastructure, our election infrastructure, is really quite resilient,” adding that “people should be quite confident in it.”

The problem, however, is that the goal is not to actually change the outcome of the vote, but to delegitimize the democratic process. Russian President Vladimir Putin is reportedly still stewing over then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s claim that he stole the 2011 parliamentary elections in Russia. Putin is also said to fear a democratic revolution in his country — and believes the U.S. is behind any popular movements that challenge his leadership. Undercutting the authority and legitimacy of democratically elected governments in Europe and on Russia’s periphery has been a staple of Russian black ops for the last decade. There is no reason to think that Moscow would turn down an opportunity to meddle in U.S. elections if it could.

Opponents of the U.S. seek to undermine that government in Washington. One of the most effective ways of doing so is to delegitimize the U.S. administration and to claim that it does not truly represent the will of the people. We expect such behavior from America’s adversaries; not its presidential candidates.

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