November 3, 2008 – The GOP’s attack on the integrity of voters, carried out by party leaders — a sitting president included — on the eve of an election, is unprecedented.
The day after John McCain charged the community-based organization Acorn (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) with planning “one of the greatest frauds in voter history in this country,” Sarah Palin told a boisterous crowd in Bangor, Maine: “In this election, it’s a choice between a candidate who won’t disavow a group committing voter fraud, and a leader who won’t tolerate voter fraud.”
Soon George Bush leaped into the furor over “voter fraud,” asking the Department of Justice to determine whether some 200,000 newly registered Ohio voters should have their identities confirmed. (The Supreme Court had refused that measure; and former Justice Department lawyers claim that the probe requested by the president may violate department policy.)
Meanwhile, Ohio congressman John Boehner, House minority leader, wrote Mr. Bush a letter noting “a significant risk, if not a certainty, that unlawful votes will be cast and counted” in his state, where there are now several lawsuits over the apparent threat of Democratic “voter fraud.”
Election fraud in the U.S. traces back to the beginning of elections. There’s a danger now that eligible voters will be disenfranchised by the thousands, because of efforts to prevent a few unlawful votes. Although the GOP’s barrage of charges is unique, the apprehension of “unlawful votes” is hardly new, recalling fears as old as the republic — or, indeed, even older.
The worry that the undeserving may cast votes recalls the major argument that, in the 18th century, was used to justify strict property requirements for all voters in America. As historian Alexander Keyssar points out in his magisterial “The Right to Vote,” those without property were deemed incapable of voting soundly, since their dependency would cause them to defer to those above them. And yet, as Mr. Keyssar notes, those arguing against enfranchising the poor were just as likely to believe not that the poor have no will of their own, but that the poor have too much will. Give such have-nots the vote, believed John Adams, and “an immediate revolution would ensue.”
In the 18th century, such qualms were largely theoretical, as voting was restricted to white male freeholders (or, a little later, taxpayers) in a land of villages and farms. In any case, those contradictory misgivings soon receded, as, at first, the busy young republic was increasingly committed to an optimistic faith in universal suffrage.
In that homogeneous society, the problem of “unlawful votes” was not a pressing concern — as it would be by the middle of the 19th century, when the nation’s rampant industry produced a new crop of cities, filling up with huddled masses that Americans did not want at the polls. There were increasing hordes of Irish Catholics, Jews, Italians, Slavs, Chinese and other foreign workers crowded into slummy neighborhoods, and they were often muttering of explosive creeds — variants of socialism and anarchism — deeply threatening to the peace and order of the U.S.
Worse, such aliens were getting organized politically, and setting up their own political machines, like Boss Tweed’s Tammany Hall, that had large ethnic numbers on their side. And then there was the liberated South, where millions of black freedmen suddenly enjoyed the right to vote, and so would shortly rule the roost (or so it seemed to many nervous whites). “We have received an almost unlimited immigration of adult foreigners, largely illiterate, of the lowest class and of other races,” wrote an anonymous contributor to the Atlantic Monthly in 1879. “We have added at one stroke four millions and more of ignorant negroes to our voting population.”
Thus many white Americans, native-born, were primed to buy the tales of massive voter fraud in every ghetto — party hoodlums stuffing ballot boxes, people selling votes, etc. — even though such stories were, as Mr. Keyssar notes, “greatly exaggerated.” Such anecdotes persisted through the decades, ultimately helping to create a sort of counter-narrative against the history of the South, where whites had long suppressed the black vote with appalling ruthlessness.
In tacit contradiction to that story, and especially after the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, the old myth of the demonic trickiness of urban voters (i.e., Democrats) now began to serve as propaganda for a GOP intent on courting disaffected whites, according to “the Southern strategy” (which started under Richard Nixon). Such lore has taught us all about dead people turning out to vote, secret wads of “walking-around money” and other tricks allegedly played by the Democrats alone.
That propaganda has been most effective — and a lot of it just happens to be true. For example, “Landslide Lyndon” Johnson stole his first election to the Senate in 1948, gaining his minuscule victory margin, 87 votes, through ballot fraud (an act that his biographer Robert Caro called “brazen thievery”). Chicago’s infamous Mayor Richard Daley ran the elections there with both an iron hand and no regard for civic probity. In 1960 he helped steal Illinois for John F. Kennedy by rigging the election in Chicago — where the turnout was an awesome 89%.
Such offenses were, however, not exclusively a Democratic specialty. That year in Illinois, while Daley was doing dirty work in Chicago for John Kennedy, the GOP in neighboring DuPage County, the state’s top stronghold of Republicans, went even further in its bid to steal the race for Richard Nixon, since that county’s turnout was a staggering 93%. (This comes from county records researched for my book “Loser Take All: Election Fraud and the Subversion of Democracy, 2000-2008.”)
The GOP was also using phantom votes and fake addresses. In 1968, the Federal Bureau of Investigation was looking at voter fraud in Gary, Ind., where Richard Hatcher, a black Democrat, was running for mayor. Agent Robert Craig spent days trying to verify the information written out on scores of voter registration cards filed by Republicans. “Names and addresses of ‘voters’ turned out to be vacant lots where there had never been a house, or the house had been torn down years before the ‘person’ was registered,” Mr. Craig told me in a recent telephone conversation. “The vast majority of the registrations I checked were completely phony.”
While both sides always used such tactics, in this century it is the GOP that’s done most to rig the vote (with little outcry from the Democrats). In 2000, thousands of Floridians were purged illegally from the voter rolls before Election Day, according to the sworn testimony of George Bruder, a vice president of Database Technologies, before the U.S. Civil Rights Commission. The vote count in Miami-Dade County was shut down by a disturbance variously referred to as a “Brooks Brothers riot” or “bourgeois riot,” where several people were pushed and shoved by staffers working for congressional Republicans.
Four years later, in Ohio, ballots were altered or destroyed on a massive scale, making Mr. Bush’s win there questionable, says researcher Richard Hayes Phillips. (Officially, Bush won the state by some 118,000 votes.) The damage came to light through a three-year audit led by Mr. Phillips of ballots from selected precincts in 18 Ohio counties (the research is available in his book, “Witness to a Crime”).
Recently, Acorn’s alleged “unlawful votes” have caused a major stir. Although resonantly charged with “voter fraud,” the group has actually been accused of voter-registration fraud — i.e., the entry of false information on voter-registration forms. In Acorn’s case, the crime was perpetrated by volunteers who, probably for mercenary reasons, filled out the forms with bogus names like Mickey Mouse. Acorn itself discovered the suspicious forms and turned them in to the authorities.
Meanwhile, the very party that is demonizing Acorn has now disenfranchised countless voters nationwide, through a dizzying range of tactics. Voters have been stricken from the rolls through purges nationwide, carried out since 2004 at the behest of the Department of Justice. (Courtrooms throughout New York State are crammed with people trying to reclaim their right to vote.) Others have been dropped from the electronic voter rolls, as USA Today began reporting months ago.
Further thousands have been sidelined through the tactic known as “voter caging”: the targeting of certain voters for disenfranchisement. This tactic usually entails mailing forms to Democratic voters, in the expectation that the addressees won’t fill them out and send them in (the envelopes are nondescript) — and if they don’t, their names are stricken from the voter rolls. And then there are the e-voting machines. Since early voting started recently, worried voters have reported seeing their votes flipped from Barack Obama to Mr. McCain in West Virginia and Texas.
It is not the failure or success of any candidate or party that most matters but the exercise of voting rights, and, through them, our self-government. If either team prevails despite the disenfranchisement of some Americans, that victory will mean all that much less; and if your favorite wins, and then the U.S. doesn’t do anything to fix its voting system (and otherwise restore this faltering democracy), that victory of his won’t matter much at all, since We the People will have lost control for good.