How elections have been rigged


From our overstocked archives

Sam Smith, 2000


In the beginning, rigging elections in this country was easy. Those in power just didn’t permit blacks, women, and white males without property to vote.  It would take more than half of America’s history for the last of these discriminations to be officially eliminated. It would take even longer to remove most of the covert barriers. Here are a few of the stops along the way:

1787 The passage of the Constitution gives white male property owners age 21 and over the right to vote.

1807-1843 Series of acts change voting requirements so that all white men age 21 and older could vote.

1870 The 15th Amendment guarantees the right to vote to all men 21 or older regardless of race or ethnic background.

1920 The 19th Amendment gives women age 21 and older the right to vote.

1964 The 24th Amendment makes it illegal for states to charge a poll tax to voters.

1965 The Voting Rights Act authorizes the federal government to take over registration of voters in areas where state officials have regularly prevented blacks and other minorities from registering or casting their ballots through usage of literacy tests, grandfather clauses, and intimidation tactics.

1971 The 26th Amendment lowers the voting age across the nation to 18.

1982 Voting Rights Act Amendments extend the guarantees of the 1965 legislation. Provisions are added for those  with disabilities, voters not able to read and write, and those not fluent in English.

 Undoing the franchise

 As part of a deal that put Republican Rutherford Hayes in office after a tight eletion contest with Rutherford Hayes in 1876, federal troops were removed from the South and, in their wake, Jim Crow laws were revived – leaving many blacks without the right to vote until well into the next century. Details

 Recovering the franchise

The battle to recover the franchise began to take hold in the 1960s. It wasn’t easy. For example, in 1965, the US Civil Rights Commission held hearings in Mississippi. Among the witnesses was Henry Rayburn, a 63‑year‑old farmer from near Charleston,  who said he was approached by a man with a club while going to vote. Rayburn said the man told him “he would kill me if I tried to vote.” The Commission wanted to know if the police had been notified of the threat. No, Rayburn replied, because “the law coincides with what the other side does insofar as Negroes are involved.” Another man named John Brewer went to sign up. He and his friends were met by a crowd of whites. One of them said, “You niggers get away from the courthouse. You don’t have no business here.” For the next three weeks trucks with gun racks on the back repeatedly drove up and circled Brewer’s house. He finally registered on the fourth try. Brewer was a World War II veteran. He told the Commission, “The only time I felt like a man was when I was in the Army. After I got out it seemed my freedom run out.” He added, “I want to vote because there are some things I want to get straight.”

Masters of the game

 Historically, political corruption in America has largely been a Democratic phenomenon. This is not to say that Democrats were inherently more corrupt, but  — with a few exceptions, such as Philadelphia, which the GOP controlled for 69 years — Republicans did not hold office long enough to build the sort of machines that allow corruption to flourish.

 There have been two main strains of Democratic corruption: northern urban and southern ubiquitous. More than a few of the cases of black vote suppression in Florida had their provenance in classic practices of the southern Democratic machines.

 Yet even as southern Democrats of the last century were suppressing southern minority votes, their northern counterparts were using political corruption as a means of upward mobility for minorities in the cities, particularly the Irish.

 Ghost voters

  In ‘Rascal King,” Jack Beatty tells how in 1942, when James Michael Curley ran against Thomas Hopkinson Eliot for Congress, Eliot was approached by an alleged defector from the Curley camp claiming to have a list of voters serving in the military overseas. All Curley had to do was use some of his supporters to pretend to poll workers that they were the soldiers. Eliot — the grandson of a Harvard president — recognized a set-up and immediately sent the woman away. He knew the papers would have the story the next day if he had fallen for it. Come election day, Eliot checked out each precinct in his district. Everywhere he went he saw the same six men get out of the same car and go to vote. They turned out to be the missing servicemen who were now adding to Curley’s total. Curley won handily.

This sort of fraud was the meat and potatoes of the likes of Chicago ward leaders Hinky Dink Kenna and Bathhouse John Coughlin as well as the source of numerous political anecdotes such as the one in which a voter identified himself as William Croswell Doane, a prominent member of the Episcopal clergy. “Come off it,” said an election official, “You’re not Bishop Doane.” Replied the incensed voter, “The hell I ain’t, you bastard.”

 The BB trick

  Party hacks would place a BB in the hole under the spot where their opponent’s voters would be punching their ballots. This would prevent the card from being punched properly. The trick would soon be discovered, but with enough BBs on enough machines, you could affect the vote.

 The humidity excuse

  As late as the 1980s, Cook County Clerk Stanley Kusper was blaming a delay in vote counting on high humidity that prevented the proper tally of the ballots. It was also true, however, that the longer the wait, the more chance for party intervention.

 Overdoing it

  One political ward heeler delivered a perfect result: zero percent for his opponent. The proud man expected praise from the ward leader but instead was sent back to steal a few votes for the other side so the extraordinary results would not attract public attention.

 Scaring them away

 Where fraud didn’t work, voter or candidate intimidation did – one of the most dramatic examples being the Kansas City Bloody Tuesday of 1934 in which, on election day, there were four murders, 11 critical injuries, and over 200 cases of assault as the Pendergast machine returned to power.

 Why we went to machines.

  Audrey Hudson, The Washington Times: Eliminating paper ballots in favor of machines was one way to eliminate voter fraud. Party officials would trade half-pints of whiskey or $10 to $20 in cash for ballots and votes. So blatant was the practice that after Kentucky Gov. John Y. Brown lost a Democratic primary bid to Wallace G. Wilkinson in 1987, a county coordinator in Mr. Brown’s campaign called the Louisville Courier- Journal to complain – on the record – that Mr. Wilkinson’s campaign had unfairly raised the price of a vote from $20 to $25 on Election Day.

  Andrew Callow, ‘The City Boss in America:’ The secret ballot, the voting machine and permanent registration have not eliminated fraud, but they tamed the wild and sly ways of the old-fashioned city boss.

  If a city or state was corrupt enough, no system worked all that well. As Earl Long said when his Louisiana made the switch to voting machines: “If I have the right commissioners, I can make them machines play ‘Home Sweet Home.’ The machines were introduced between Long’s two terms by Governor Robert Floyd Kennon, whose biographer suggests where they stood in the pantheon of political reform: “During his term in office, Kennon is credited with ending an era of open, illegal gambling in the state and replacing the paper ballot with voting machines. He reinstated Civil Service, appointed blue ribbon boards to watch over state departments, reformed prisons and mental institutions.”

 Landslide Lyndon Treasury Of Texas Trivia: The year is 1948, and Texan Lyndon B. Johnson is locked in political combat with popular Coke Stevenson for a US Senate seat. Stevenson had apparently won the bitterly fought race until an amended tally .from precinct 13 in Jim Wells County gave Johnson enough additional votes to win the election by a margin of 87 votes out of a million votes cast. This squeaker gave Johnson a nickname that would stay with him until he died: “Landslide Lyndon.” Johnson was accused of stealing the election with the help of political boss George Parr, known as “The Duke of Duval,” who allegedly had the ballot box stuffed in Johnson’s favor.

Watching the dance When the Democrats were listed on one side of a voting machine and the Republicans at the other, party poll watchers could figure out how people were casting their ballots by watching their feet under the curtain. Among the warning signs was “the dance,” a sign that voters were splitting their vote.

  The long count Old-time political machines loved a long count. The more delays, the more recounts, the more opportunities to change votes. Here are some of the things that went on: ‘s. Canvassers would place some graphite under their thumbnail during a recount to be used to invalidate a ballot by marking two boxes for the same post.

  “Short pencil men” did the same thing with pencil stubs. These workers would also stand outside the precinct handing out pre-marked ballots to voters who would collect a blank ballot inside, but cast the marked one. The blank would be given to the short pencil man to mark for another voter.

 How I learned to watch the count: In the only election I ever entered, I almost lost thanks to a manual tally. It was 1974, and I was running for advisory neighborhood commissioner. My opponent was an elderly gentleman who did virtually no campaigning. I not only went door to door but stood outside the precinct all day greeting my friends and neighbors as they came to vote. That evening I went down to Washington’s Shoreham Hotel to watch the count and, to my chagrin, found that I had lost the morning count, 86%-12%. I figured I not only had to get out of politics but out of the neighborhood as well. But first I hurried over to where the afternoon ballots were being counted and watched them one by one. Those I won 79% to 21%. With consummate gall, I went up to the director of the Board of Elections, Norval Perkins, and said, “I’m going to have to have a recount” and told him about the conflicting results.



Norval replied, “Well, Sam, it looks like you just have more afternoon friends than morning ones.” But the votes were recounted and it was quickly discovered that all my morning votes had been given to my opponent and vice versa. The next morning, I opened the Washington Post only to find the vote tally changed again. It turned out that the elections board had added the incorrect morning vote to the correct one and then added the afternoon tally. That’s when I learned to watch the count and distrust paper ballots.

Chicago style: Illinois Voters TV and Alida Weber provide this picture of voting Chicago style: Voters in the suburban areas surrounding Chicago tend to vote against the Chicago’s ruling party in both local and statewide elections. To combat the efforts of Chicago’s ruling party to steal votes, the other party generally has the good luck to have one of the ballot-counting computers break down.

 Creative counting Alexander Callow, The City Boss in America: “Fraud during election hours was one thing, but it did not end with the closing of the polls. When election officials counted the votes, the laws of mathematics were subject to political necessity.” False counts were so prevalent in Boss Tweed’s operation that the more religious members of the machine forsook the Bible and took their oath on a copy of “New Method for Learning to Read, Write and Speak French.”


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