John McCain proved himself a rotten student by finishing 894th in a class of 899 at Annapolis. In the third presidential debate last week, he demonstrated that flunking U.S. history must have contributed to his dismal grade point average when he stated that ACORN was “now on the verge of maybe perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history in this country, maybe destroying the fabric of democracy.”
Getting a place on the short list of the greatest voter frauds would require something a lot more brazen than smuggling a few thousand ineligible voters onto the rolls, as ACORN has been accused of doing by some critics. Even a casual fanning of U.S. history books reveals hundreds of more blatant examples, including ballot stuffing, the purchase of votes, counterfeit votes, discarded ballots, voter intimidation, and bloody murder.
As Tracy Campbell demonstrates in Deliver the Vote: A History of Election Fraud, an American Political Tradition—1742-2004, election chicanery is “deeply embedded” in our political culture. Far from regarding cheating as wrong or anti-democratic, its perpetrators have treated it “as part of the game that one has to practice in order to counteract one’s equally corrupt competitors.”
“Election fraud is a crime that usually pays,” Campbell writes.
Rampant voter fraud existed in the Colonial era, when voting was generally limited to white, property-owning men. To swing local elections, Campbell writes, corrupt campaigns would arrange for the landless to gain title to property in return for their vote, after which the land would be returned. The purchasing of votes was so popular in Rhode Island that the practice became known as “Rhode Islandism.” Potential voters were also paid in Rhode Island not to cast a ballot. During Colonial times, sheriffs were known to “manipulate poll locations, voting times, and voter qualification,” as well as to “simply change election results unilaterally and intimidate various voters.”
George Washington won his seat in the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1758 by spending 40 pounds on booze for his neighbors. The passage of the Massachusetts Constitution in 1780 appears to have been the work of election thefts, concluded historian Samuel Eliot Morison in 1916. In the early days of the Union, Whigs encouraged passage of registry laws “since they felt Democrats resorted to importing voters in a large number of elections,” Campbell notes. Democrats, of course, opposed registry laws because they discriminated against citizens who had recently relocated. In one Michigan city, Republicans co-opted a registry law by declaring scores of Democrats as improperly registered and allowing Republicans, “registered or not,” to vote.
New York City’s Tammany Hall “imported inmates from the Blackwell’s Island Penitentiary to vote in Democratic wards” in an 1843 contest. Tammany was known to employ “floaters” who cast multiple ballots, “thugs” who intimated opposition voters, and “colonizers,” illegal voters who could be summoned from another city or state to swell the registration rolls at the last minute and throw a close election. The 1844 and 1876 presidential elections appear to have been won by fraud. Historian Alexander Keyssar writes in The Right To Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in America that in 1845 Louisiana expanded its residency requirement from one year to two in order to stop newcomers from voting.
Yet, every instance of conventional voter fraud recorded in the history books pales in comparison with the murderous rampage that followed black suffrage in the South following the Civil War. Vigilantes, mobs, Klansman, and law officers killed hundreds and probably thousands of African-Americans who voted or otherwise attempted to exercise their civic rights. Hundreds of thousands were brutalized and intimidated from voting. The terror extended for decades and well into the 20th century as blacks were killed, maimed, and blocked from the polls. It’s a history lesson John McCain might want to brush up on before he speaks on the topic again.
Campbell essays at length on voter fraud in Kentucky, Missouri, Louisiana, California, Georgia, Texas (where Lyndon Baines Johnson stole a Senate election), Illinois, and other states throughout the 20th century. According to Keyssar, New York City suppressed Jewish turnout in 1908 by holding voting registration on the Jewish Sabbath and Yom Kippur. In the deep South, poll taxes and bogus literacy tests kept blacks from voting when bullets and beatings didn’t.
In the last quarter of the 20th century, vote buying, vote tampering, and voter-registration shenanigans continued in places like Georgia, Kentucky, Illinois, Louisiana, South Carolina, and Florida, writes Campbell. And that’s just an overview. Everybody has an opinion on whether the 2000 presidential election (butterfly ballots, hanging chads, absentee ballots, invalidated votes, et al.) was clean or stolen, but all agree it constituted a national embarrassment almost equal to a stolen election. Of the Florida outcome, Campbell writes, it validates Boss Tweed’s observation: “The ballots didn’t make the outcome, the counters did.”
As Campbell notes in his book, compromising an election’s integrity in any way qualifies as fraud, whether it changes the outcome or not. So when John McCain shouts fraud in response to the sham voter-registration forms submitted by ACORN for “Mickey Mouse,” “Donald Duck,” and the Dallas Cowboys starting lineup, he’s right. Just because these registrations might have been purged before a vote could be cast with them doesn’t invalidate his charge. Fraud is fraud.
Democrats get accused of voter fraud more often in the modern era than Republicans, but as Larry Sabato and Glenn R. Simpson write in Dirty Little Secrets: The Persistence of Corruption in American Politics, that’s probably because they have more opportunities. (Where Republicans have chances, they’re known to take them, Sabato and Simpson quip.) Typically in the election cycle, Democrats are trying to increase the number of registered voters and boost turnout—especially among African-Americans and Hispanics, who tend to vote in lower percentages.
The more aggressive the Democratic registration effort, the more likely that “quality control” will suffer and fraud will result, and every relaxation of voter-registration rules increases the likelihood of “mischief.” For example, while the passage of the “motor-voter” bill in 1993 enfranchised many of the disenfranchised, it also made it easier to commit voter fraud. (See this think-tank critique, which declares the whole motor-voter process highly corrupt.)
Conversely, it’s in the Republicans’ interest to tamp down Democratic registration and turnout. Writing in the new Rolling Stone, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Greg Palast consider the ongoing efforts by Republicans to “obstruct” voter-registration drives, “purge” legitimate voters from the rolls, require “unnecessary” voter IDs, and reject “spoiled” ballots as an attempt to steal the 2008 vote, even where those efforts are legal. These barriers and others, Kennedy and Palast write, are examples of “GOP vote tampering”—the contemporary equivalent of poll taxes and literacy tests.
Finding the crease in the zone, where both inclusion and integrity reign at the American voting precinct, is probably impossible. If you care enough to see your candidate win, you probably care enough to cheat outright or, if not cheat outright, then bend the rules and rewrite them to your party’s unfair advantage. Not even Solomon could satisfy everybody if he were in charge.
So, let’s look on the bright side and enter the Election Day countdown appreciative of the fact that voter fraud—or charges of voter fraud—are leading indicators of high civic involvement.
My favorite example of voter fraud? Robert D. Novak writes in his memoir, The Prince of Darkness: 50 Years of Reporting in Washington, that he deliberately committed voter fraud by casting two ballots for Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1956. Send your favorite to firstname.lastname@example.org. (E-mail may be quoted by name in “The Fray,” Slate’s readers’ forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)
Track my errors: This hand-built RSS feed will ring every time Slate runs a “Press Box” correction. For e-mail notification of errors in this specific column, type the word fraud in the subject head of an e-mail message, and send it to email@example.com.