Voter Fraud is as American as Pecan Pie
Conspiracy theories about President-elect Joe Biden's victory are false -- but they dredge up unpleasant truths about real election fraud
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Update: A caring reader has pointed out the Julia Ward Howe wrote the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” not Francis Scott Key as I originally wrote.
Today we celebrate the hard work of Georgia politician and organizer Stacey Abrams. We celebrate the armies of volunteers in Georgia and around the country, many of them also Black women, that have won a Senate seat for the Democrats and are expected to yield a second at day’s end. To quote Martin Luther King and Julia Ward Howe: Mine eyes have seen the glory.
But we should also expect, as we look to the beginning of the Electoral College vote count this afternoon, that the false charges of voter fraud will not only remain but will also expand to include the two seats won by the Reverend Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff that will give Joe Biden a Senate he can work with.
Long after today’s Electoral College circus is over, baseless accusations of election fraud promulgated by the Trump campaign and its army of internet trolls will shoot out into the world like a tee-shirt cannon at a basketball game. Someone unfamiliar with United States history (this would be at least a third of all American citizens according to one recent study) would imagine that the haphazard, amateurish methods for “stealing” the Georgia election are absurd. Others would argue that Ben Raffensperger and his band of Merry Georgia Republicans know that the presidential election wasn’t stolen because they have done it before with voter purges, not agents showing up with suitcases full of ballots during a fabricated water main break.
Voter fraud was ubiquitous in the United States in the 19th century as political parties manipulated and coerced voters with drink, jobs, and cash on election day. But in Georgia and other former Confederate states, once African-American men were enfranchised, voting fraud was institutionalized as a technique for maintaining white minority rule. We are most familiar with suppressing Black votes through violence, literacy tests, poll taxes, and purging the election rolls. But the kinds of techniques Trump and his crew are fulminating about were also critical to winning elections by disenfranchising white voters through the stuffing, or losing of, ballot boxes.
Mastering these ballot manipulation techniques was a key political skill, and because Republicans had already been fully disenfranchised in the Jim Crow South, Democrats focused on disenfranchising other Democrats. One of the first examples of this that sprang to mind as I was reading the full transcript of Donald Trump’s hour-long telephone call to Ben Raffensperger published by the Washington Post on January 4 was a 1948 Democratic primary runoff election for the Senate seat vacated by W. Lee O’Daniel. The candidates were then-Congressman Lyndon Johnson and Texas Governor Coke R. Stevenson, who had never lost an election.
A screenshot from a campaign spot for Lyndon Johnson’s successful 1948 Senate campaign against Coke Stevenson. It advertised him as a “Sound Sensible Straight Shooter!” The full video is available at Wikimedia Commons. The original is at the LBJ Presidential Library.
As Robert Caro tells the story in Means of Ascent (Vintage Books, 1990), 1948 was Johnson’s second attempt to make the leap from the House of Representatives to the Senate. In 1941, LBJ lost the primary to O’Daniel by .23% of the vote or 1,321 ballots. By the 1930s, with most African American and Mexican voters having been either stripped from the voting rolls or never permitted to register in the first place, actual voter tallies were massaged by political operatives during the counting process. Candidates could not fully control voters' decisions, but those with greater influence in the state party could control what was in the ballot boxes. Thus, as tallies began to arrive from across the state, late reporting precincts could balance legitimate votes cast elsewhere with votes that they “found” during the counting process.
Johnson was well on his way to declaring victory in the 1941 Senate primary when suddenly, it appeared. His people had lost sight of the ballot boxes in a single county. When they reappeared, the votes they contained pushed O’Neill over the top.
Johnson would never make this mistake again. As Senate majority leader, Johnson was famous for his obsessively accurate vote counting as he moved legislation: he always knew how many votes he had, how many he needed, and who needed to be strongarmed to get them. But what Johnson learned in 1941 was that he would never get to the Senate in the first place without being able to function in an electoral system where voter fraud was the rule, and the winning candidate would be the one who did it best.
In 1948, Johnson embraced the modern. Even though Texas had few televisions, he made a campaign spot. His runoff strategy featured massive rallies, held at Texas fairgrounds, where the candidate would arrive in a helicopter with “Lyndon Johnson” painted on the side. Johnson was the first candidate to use a helicopter in his campaign. It was uniquely suited to the size of the state and the short, run-off timeframe. Most importantly, it made him seem like a popular candidate because it drew voters who wanted to see the helicopter. Not yet being used commercially in large numbers, most people in Texas had never seen one. And the helicopter allowed Johnson to campaign in between rallies. As he went from stop to stop, the pilot would swoop down over highway crews and agricultural workers, with Johnson bellowing out promises over a loudspeaker and campaign aids tossing handfuls of brochures out the door.
Meanwhile, Coke Stevenson, who was comfortably ahead in the polls, was kissing babies and shaking hands as he always had. On election day, although ballots were still being counted, Stevenson believed he had won. But six days later, workers in Precinct 13 turned up a can of previously unreported votes, which gave Johnson an 87 vote victory. Oddly, the names of the 200 voters added to the can’s tally sheet were written with the same pen, in the same handwriting. During the investigation that followed, many of these “voters” claimed not to have cast a ballot at all.
But it wasn’t just Precinct 13 that revealed the porousness of the Texas electoral system. As Caro describes it, during a federal investigation prompted by Stevenson’s challenge, all the containers were brought into court, where Johnson’s attorney glibly “sow[ed] confusion about which of the twenty tin containers was Precinct 13’s.” That was easy to do since any observer might also have been easily distracted by the haphazard collection of mostly unsecured containers. “Some of the cylindrical, rather battered, tin drums with removable tops…were labeled,” Caro writes, and “some were not. Some of the drums were padlocked, some were padlocked, but with keys dangling from the locks, some were unlocked.”
How did Johnson win the election in the end, an election that set him on the road to the Presidency? Because a full recount and recertification of the vote never occurred, and although the Precinct 13 box was ultimately identified, its contents were never inspected as part of the investigation. Stevenson’s challenge was heard before Associate Justice of the Supreme Court Hugo Black as Texas officials were proceeding with their investigation. Abe Fortas, Johnson’s lawyer, worked to stop them from ever looking inside Precinct 13’s can.
A former Senator from Alabama and rumored to be a lifetime member of the Ku Klux Klan, Black undoubtedly knew exactly what he was looking at: a normal, southern election that, should he intervene for either candidate, would potentially open the door to far broader federal investigations of corrupt Southern Democratic election practices. Black knew this, not just because he was a southerner, but because Johnson’s lawyers, led by Abe Fortas, a Memphis-born and Yale-educated lawyer later appointed to SCOTUS by then-President Johnson, made that exact argument. A federal investigation of the ballot boxes, Fortas warned, would return Texas to the “evil days of Reconstruction” (subtext: when African-Americans voted.)
Black seems to have agreed and ruled in less incendiary language that made the same point. It would, he declared, be “a drastic break with the past, which I can’t believe Congress ever intended to permit, for a federal judge to ever go into the business of conducting what is to every intent and purpose, a contest of an election in a state.” Black issued a stay and referred the matter to be heard by the entire Court, which then refused to hear the case. Johnson won the seat. A disgusted Coke Stevenson became a Republican, at a moment when—prompted by a civil rights plank in the 1948 national party platform— conservatives all over the South were also abandoning the Democratic party.
This brings us back to Georgia, currently completing a run-off for two Senate seats on the day that Republicans in Congress make a futile attempt to overturn the national election. On Saturday, in an hour-long phone call recorded by the Georgia officials and leaked to the Washington Post, Donald Trump told Raffnesperger to “find” 11, 799 votes — one more than he needed to win the state. Raffensperger should do it because, as Trump claimed, he had actually won the state by over 400,000 votes. Besides, he said, African-American organizer and politician Stacey Abrams “is laughing about you,” Trump lied. “She’s going around saying these guys are dumber than a rock. What she’s done to this party is unbelievable, I tell you.”
There are many theories about why Republican Ben Raffensperger defies Trump, but telling a southern conservative that a Black woman is mocking him seems unambiguous. Raffensperger became Secretary of State because of voter fraud: his predecessor, Brian Kemp, defeated Abrams in the 2018 governor’s race by purging over 300,000 mostly black voters from the voting rolls.
One obvious theory about why Raffensperger is defying Trump is that the president and his enablers have no real idea of how to throw an election. They have no evidence, no consistent narrative of how many votes were “stolen,” how the votes were “stolen,” what precincts were fiddled with, or why three recounts have shown Joe Biden to have won by virtually the same margin. Another theory is that Raffensperger is an honest man; or, if you want to give him less credit, someone who isn’t willing to go to jail for an election fraud case that, after three almost identical counts, would be easy to make by a Biden Justice Department.
But there is another theory that we should watch in the coming months. Stacey Abrams’ response to losing the governor’s race was to launch a campaign against the forms of election fraud that have been endemic to the South. If the Georgia Republican party is to stay in power in this purple state, they will have to get a lot better at voter suppression than they have been this year.
And the last thing they need, as they try to recover from the Trumpian attacks that helped to deliver two Senate seats to the Democrats, is a federal investigation of voting practices in the state.
What I’m reading:
Jamelle Bouie examines the thirty-year history of Republican attempts to delegitimize Democratic presidencies. (New York Times, January 5, 2020)
Brian Leiter alerts us to the use of libel suits to combat public attacks on university faculty by other university faculty. (Leiter Reports, January 4, 2020)
Snowflake alert: protesters assembled outside Republican Senator Josh Hawley’s DC home to chant and deliver copies of the Constitution; Hawley claims his wife and child were attacked by Antifa. (Daily Wire, January 4, 2021)
Claire Bond Potter is Professor of Historical Studies at The New School for Social Research and co-Executive Editor of Public Seminar. Her most recent book is Political Junkies: From Talk Radio to Twitter, How Alternative Media Hooked Us on Politics and Broke Our Democracy (Basic Books, 2020).