Fact Check

Did Obama Once Say Democrats Rigged Elections?

He allegedly made the remark at a 2008 presidential campaign rally in New Philadelphia, Ohio.

Published Aug. 17, 2023

 (Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images)
Image Via Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images
Claim:
Former U.S. President Barack Obama — a Democrat — once said Democrats have rigged elections.
Context

What Obama actually said during a 2008 campaign rally was that both Republicans and Democrats had "monkeyed around with elections in the past," and that it's important to ensure it doesn't happen going forward.

For years, claims have spread online that former U.S. President Barack Obama, a Democrat, had at some point "admitted" that Democrats rig elections. 

For example, "Obama admits Democrats rig elections" one TikTok video claimed on Aug. 15, 2023. In the clip, the then-presidential candidate was claimed to have said:

Well, I'll tell you what, it helps in Ohio we have Democrats in charge of the machines. [Applause] But look, I come from Chicago. So I want to be honest, it's not as if it's just Republicans who have monkeyed around with elections in the past. Sometimes Democrats have too. Whenever people are in power, they have this tendency to try to tilt things in their direction.

Two things about this video are readily apparent, even on a single viewing: First, the context of what Obama said, both before and after these remarks, was omitted from the short clip; second, it's clearly misleading to claim that in this clip Obama "admits Democrats rig elections." What he said was that both Republicans and Democrats "have monkeyed around with elections in the past."

We found other examples of the claim in social media posts on platforms like X (formerly known as Twitter) and Facebook in August 2023, as well as YouTube in February 2018. On Reddit, we found a post making the same claim in 2016. In this tweet from October 2016, the order of Obama's sentences was changed to convey a false impression of what he actually said: 

We found that the video referenced in all of these instances was authentic, and in most cases unaltered (apart from being foreshortened). We reached out to the office of Barack and Michelle Obama for comment and will update this story if we hear back. 

The speech occurred at a campaign rally at Kent State University Tuscarawas in New Philadelphia, Ohio, in September 2008. We found a C-SPAN video of the rally. Below is the full transcript of the question that was asked, as well as Obama's answer. The material directly relevant to the claim is bolded:

 Audience member: I would just like to know what you can say to reassure us that this election will not be rigged or stolen. [Applause.]

Obama: Well, I tell you what, it helps in Ohio that we got Democrats in charge of the machines. [Applause.]

But look, I come from Chicago. So I want to be honest, it's not as if it's just Republicans who have monkeyed around with elections in the past. Sometimes Democrats have too. Whenever people are in power, they have this tendency to try to tilt things in their direction.  

That's why we've got to have, I believe, a voting rights division in the Justice Department that is non-partisan and that is serious about investigating cases of vote fraud, is serious about making sure people are not being discouraged to vote. That's why the voting rights legislation that was passed a couple of years ago to help county clerks, make sure the machines were in place that were needed, are important. That's why we need paper trails on these new electronic machines, so that you actually have something that you can hang on to after you've punched that letter, make sure that it hasn't been hacked into. I mean, those are all part of the process of making sure that our democracy works for everyone. 

[Full video]

In the clip, Obama was specifically discussing previous Chicago elections. The Encyclopedia of Chicago wrote that a "Democratic Machine" formed under the leadership of Anton Cermak, mayor of Chicago from 1931 to his assassination in office in 1933, and ended with the election of Harold Washington, Chicago's first Black mayor, in 1983. Incidentally, Ohio's governor and secretary of state were both Democrats in 2008, when Obama held his rally.  

In sum, the clip was too short to provide full context for what Obama was saying. The former president was making the point that both parties had "monkeyed around" with elections in the past, and that it was important to enact reforms to prevent voting fraud by either party in the future. It was, and is, misleading to reduce those remarks to "Obama admitted Democrats rig elections."

Sources

Evon, Dan. "Did This Video Show Obama Agreeing with the Trump Administration on Immigration Policies?" Snopes, 20 June 2018, https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/obama-agree-trump-administration-immigration-policies/.

Machine Politics. http://www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/pages/774.html. Accessed 17 Aug. 2023.

Obama Campaign Rally at Kent State | C-SPAN.Org. https://www.c-span.org/video/?280876-1/obama-campaign-rally-kent-state. Accessed 16 Aug. 2023.

"Ohio." National Governors Association, https://www.nga.org/former-governors/ohio/. Accessed 16 Aug. 2023.

"Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner on Voter Rights, Faulty Electronic Voting Machines, Voter Fraud and GOP Voter Challenges." Democracy Now!, http://www.democracynow.org/2008/10/9/ohio_secretary_of_state_jennifer_brunner. Accessed 16 Aug. 2023.

Izz Scott LaMagdeleine is a fact-checker for Snopes.