Despite the current debate over sources exerting undue influence on elections in America, and regardless of one’s level of outrage over reports of such influence, the use of less than savory activities to sway voters is been as American as cherry pie, as history plainly recounts. Means which were legal, quasi-legal, or clearly illegal have all been recorded in American history. Some political figures have used such means to launch their careers in public service, others to cap them, and still others have found their actions spelled the ends of elected glory. Politicians have relied on the votes of the dead. They have relied on their supporters to vote early and often. They have purchased votes, with cash through agents, or with liquor at the polls. And they have, through much of American history, gotten away with it.
Some of the questionable elections of American history have been the handiwork of political machines, which at one time dominated America’s larger cities and in some cases smaller counties. Political bosses selected hand-picked candidates for public office, their victories foreordained. Ballot boxes have vanished during the counting process, with them the political hopes of candidates and the voters which supported them. Recounts have revealed votes being cast by the dead, by absent soldiers, and by non-existent people. In short, despite protestations to the contrary, disputed elections are well-woven into the fabric of American history, which explains the extent to which many jurisdictions must go to assure an increasingly skeptical public that their vote does indeed count. Here are 10 examples of subversion of the electoral process in American history.
10. George Washington’s election to the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1758
In 1757 George Washington stood for election to the House of Burgesses representing Frederick County, Virginia. To put it plainly, he took a pasting, winning only 40 votes out of more than 580 cast by the male landowners of the jurisdiction, an embarrassing defeat for the young veteran of the Battle of the Monongahela. According to his close aide and political advisor at the time, his defeat was caused, in part, by his failure to provide suitable liquid refreshment to voters, an oversight which his opponents took advantage of readily. Washington, who had publicly avowed that he would never stoop to such underhanded tactics, reconsidered his position during the election of 1758. He directed his friend and advisor, Colonel James Wood of the Virginia Colonial militia, to ensure potential supporters were better treated.
Washington, on Wood’s advice, purchased rum, whiskey, wine, beer, and hard cider, according to Washington’s own account books, spending the equivalent of about $9,000. His supply included nearly 50 gallons of beer, a like amount of wine, three full barrels of rum (just over 100 gallons) and a half-pint of brandy, presumably for his own consumption as he sweated out the vote count. In winning he received nearly 400 votes, though the exact count varies depending on the source, and his alcohol supply ensured there was at least a half-gallon of libations for each Washington supporter available at the polling site. He never again lost an election, though he never again needed to ply his supporters with liquids to achieve success. It should be noted that juicing the voters was a common practice in the 18th century, and one reason why sales of alcohol were for many years in America proscribed while the polls were open.
9. The New York gubernatorial election of 1792
The election of the governor of New York in 1792 was conducted under the rules established by the Constitution of 1777, which required the votes accumulated by county to be canvassed by committees from the state legislature, with six members each from the state senate and the state assembly. In several New York counties the sheriff, who was responsible for collecting the votes and delivering them to the committee, was serving in a temporary role, his term having expired. New sheriffs and other functionaries were to be determined by the results of the election being held. In the case of three counties, ballots were delivered to the committee by individuals delegated by the sheriffs. The term “chain of custody” did not yet exist, but questions over that procedure brought the gubernatorial election into doubt. It was decided that New York’s senators – who were from different political factions – would decide the outcome of the election.
Unsurprisingly the Senators, Aaron Burr (Democratic-Republican) and Rufus King (Federalist) couldn’t agree either. Burr wanted to accept the votes from one of the three counties in question, King supported counting all three. With the Senators also deadlocked, the canvassing committee from the legislature, after ascertaining who the winner would be if the three counties were allowed, rejected all of them, making George Clinton the winner and thus Governor of New York. The popular vote count had made John Jay the winner, but the popular vote was of no consequence to those in power. By rejecting the three counties Clinton held a 108 vote lead over his opponent. Despite his questionable election, or perhaps because of it, he later served as Vice President of the United States, under two different Presidents.
8. The Presidential election of 1824
In the Presidential election of 1824 multiple candidates and a sharply divided country ensured that the election of the next President (it was the tenth such election in American history) would be decided, for the first and thus far only time, by the House of Representatives as prescribed by the Constitution (12th Amendment). William H. Crawford, Andrew Jackson, John Quincy Adams, and Henry Clay all stood for the office of President. John C. Calhoun withdrew his candidacy early, standing instead for the office of Vice President. In the election, Jackson clearly won the popular vote (41% to 31% over Adams, with no one else close), though he achieved a mere plurality rather than a majority of votes, the first time in American history a candidate for the office did not win a majority.
With the election in the hands of the politicians in Congress, the will of the American voter was quickly subjugated to the political aspirations of the contenders and their allies. Henry Clay, America’s consummate political operator of the time, maneuvered to cast his support behind Adams, with the promise of receiving the position of Secretary of State in return. Clay’s finish in the popular election did not garner him enough votes to allow his consideration for the office under the terms of the 12th Amendment; he thus advanced his own interests and those of Adams at the expense of the will of at least 40% of the people, expressed through their support of Jackson. Adams became President, Calhoun Vice President, and the nation was pushed further down the road of sectional divide between the eastern establishment and the south and emerging west.
7. The Presidential election of 1876
In 1876, as the post-Civil War period of Reconstruction continued, Rutherford B. Hayes (Republican Governor of Ohio) and Samuel Tilden (Democratic Governor of New York) vied for the Presidency. In the election itself, Tilden carried the popular vote by a significant margin, and after the first count led in the Electoral College by a count of 184 to 165. Victory required 185 electoral votes, and twenty votes were undecided, or rather disputed, following the initial count. With the Republicans in power in both houses of Congress the twenty votes, which were from four states, were quickly the target of machinations by both parties. The four states which held the disputed votes were Oregon, Florida, South Carolina, and Louisiana. In all four states (three from the former Confederacy) both political parties declared their respective candidate to be the winner. Oregon shifted its position after deciding that one elector had voted illegally.
With the nation’s business at a standstill as a result of the impasse, Congress and the political bosses of the states in question took steps to resolve the dispute. Rather than reassessing the results of the election by counting the actual votes cast by the populace, Congress chose to resolve the issue by political compromise. Democrats had long been demanding the withdrawal of federal troops from the South which were there in part to enforce the voting rights of recently emancipated blacks. Republicans agreed to withdraw the troops, effectively ending Reconstruction and opening the door to Jim Crow laws in the South, in return for Hayes being awarded the twenty disputed electoral votes. The twenty votes gave Hayes 185, sufficient for victory. Tilden, who had achieved an outright majority in the popular vote, which included the highest voter turnout by percentage in American history, faded into obscurity.
6. Bleeding Kansas and fraudulent votes in 1854
In the tense decade which preceded the Civil War, as new territories sought to enter the Union the dispute over whether they would do so as slave or free tore the nation apart. In the early 1850s the administration of President Franklin Pierce was pro-slavery, and territorial authorities, which were appointed by the President, were selected based on their effectiveness supporting the President’s views. The officials in Kansas supported and encouraged an influx of pro-slavery voters, regardless of whether they were legally allowed to vote in the territory. The pro-slavery groups used intimidation to prevent anti-slavery voters from visiting the polls, as well as voted illegally to ensure that Kansas allowed slavery within its borders. In the 1854 elections in Kansas, out of 2,843 votes cast, 1,729 were determined to have been illegal by a Congressional committee a year after the election, though the results of the same election were allowed to stand.
In one Kansas precinct alone, 604 votes were cast, though only 20 by legal residents of Kansas, all of whom had voted against slavery in the territory. The pro-slavery contingent carried the precinct. Northern abolitionists attempt to countermand the influx of illegal voters by encouraging likeminded settlers to relocate to the territory, and Kansas soon degraded into a battleground, which became known in the eastern newspapers as Bleeding Kansas. When a free-state legislature was elected outside of the regularly scheduled electoral process, protesting the legality of the legislature elected by mostly illegal votes, President Pierce refused to recognize it. Pierce went so far as to designate the free-state legislature as “insurrectionist” in a message to Congress despite the clear illegitimacy of the existing Kansas government.
5. Voters convicted of exercising the franchise illegally
How far the illegitimacy of some votes extends was demonstrated in Adams County, Ohio, in the early 20th century. Adams County was and is relatively sparsely populated, mostly rural, with few large towns and no major cities. Nonetheless in the 19th century it saw the emergence of political machines which used force and fraud to ensure that voters saw things their way. Political leaders with national connections soon learned that the easiest way to obtain votes in cash-poor Adams County was to simply buy them. When Rutherford B. Hayes ran for Governor of Ohio his party – the Republicans – found in Adams County plentiful numbers of voters willing to sell their ballot. The practice began in the 1860s and was still commonplace in the early 1900s.
In 1910, 26% of the registered voters in Adams County were charged with selling their votes, by then to representatives of both major political parties. One thousand, nine hundred and sixty voters were arrested, charged, tried, and convicted for the crime, which was known amongst its practitioners as “boodling” (from 1896 to 1936 Adams County was considered a bellwether county in Presidential Elections). Votes could be purchased for $25 around the turn of the century, and there was little inclination to conceal the practice. As a bellwether county in a bellwether state, carrying Adams County could easily determine which candidate carried Ohio and its critical electoral votes as the American system turned further and further away from the popular vote. During Presidential election years, vote buying in Manchester, a river city in Adams County, was its leading industry.
4. The Senator from Pendergast
Big city political machines were once as common as big cities themselves, with some becoming nationally famous, and others remaining local phenomena. One such machine, relatively unknown outside of Missouri but there near legendary for its success, was the Pendergast machine of Kansas City. Tom Pendergast used his influence to dominate local politics, always ensuring that he helped the common people in order to retain their good will. Famed news anchorman Walter Cronkite wrote of his being picked up by the police and taken to the polls to vote, after they provided him with a slip of paper which told him under what name he was to vote, during his time as a writer in Kansas City. He voted as directed several times in one day, always under different names.
Pendergast used his influence to have the governor appoint a young county judge under his control to a vacant seat in the United States Senate. After the newly appointed Senator arrived in Washington he found himself referred to by colleagues and the press as the Senator from Pendergast. When it was time for him to run for re-election Pendergast ensured that he ran virtually unopposed, and made sure he received a suitably impressive voter turnout. The Senator, Harry S Truman, eventually became both Vice President and later President of the United States, though his political career was born out of less than the straightforward support of his peers as envisioned by the Founders in the Constitution. Had it not been for the Pendergast machine and its manipulation of Missouri votes, the world would likely have never heard of Harry Truman, and may instead have had to deal with President Douglas MacArthur.
3. Landslide Lyndon and the election of 1948
In the Presidential election of 1964 incumbent Lyndon Johnson won over Republican Senator Barry Goldwater in one of the greatest landslides of American history. The victory was undoubtedly especially sweet for LBJ since he had since first arriving in Washington in 1948 been referred to derisively and usually behind his back as “Landslide Lyndon”. The sobriquet was learned after he scored an improbable narrow victory in the Congressional election of 1948. It was a victory which was later determined to have been clearly stolen, a theft of the public trust which launched LBJ’s political career. Once Johnson achieved political office, he used the patronage at his disposal to ensure he never lost it, and though grumblings over his illegitimacy dogged the rest of his career, he was able to ignore them.
In the 1948 election (a runoff between Johnson and fellow Democrat Coke Stephenson), six days after it was clear that Johnson had lost, a ballot box was discovered in Alice, Texas, containing 202 ballots, 200 of which were votes for Johnson. An investigation revealed that the 200 ballots all contained handwriting which was markedly similar. A Johnson friendly judge, Abe Fortas, led the investigation into possible improprieties. How the investigation turned out can be ascertained by considering that Johnson later appointed Fortas to the Supreme Court (Fortas eventually resigned over ethics issues). The mysterious 200 votes gave Johnson a victory margin of 87, which led to his being known as Landslide Lyndon amongst his peers. Coke Stephenson celebrated his “lost” election by changing allegiance, joining the Republican Party.
2. JFK, Joe Kennedy Sr. and the election of 1960
Since the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960, one of the closest presidential elections in American history, rumors have persisted that his father arranged through Chicago mobsters for his son to carry Cook County and thus the state of Illinois. Like many tales about Joe Kennedy, including his alleged bootlegging activities, there is no empirical evidence to support the accusation, which is based largely upon innuendo from convicted mobsters, uttered to present themselves as no worse than the Kennedy’s. Kennedy’s bootlegging and vote buying activities have been debunked repeatedly by historians and scholars, but anti-Kennedy hatred ensures that the rumors will never be erased by presentation of fact. Indeed, the rumors worsen over time, supported by further innuendo.
The Republican candidate – Richard Nixon – repeatedly claimed voter fraud in Illinois, orchestrated by mobster Sam Giancana, as well as in Texas and in nine other states. Nixon and leading Republicans demanded recounts in multiple jurisdictions, none of which revealed any improprieties. Years later Giancana and other mob leaders claimed to have swayed the election to Kennedy, though the war on organized crime prosecuted by the Kennedy’s which punished Giancana and other leading mob figures, as well as leading union leaders such as the Teamster’s Jimmy Hoffa, indicated there was no alliance between JFK’s backers and the Mafia. Did Kennedy steal the election as so many conservatives continue to believe? Maybe yes, maybe no, but there has yet to be revealed hard evidence that he did. Nonetheless, many of the far right continue to consider Kennedy an illegitimate President, elected through criminal means by organized crime stealing votes on his behalf.
1. The “Popular Vote” hasn’t always meant much in American history
Beginning with the election of 1824, which was decided through the political maneuverings of well-placed officials in the nation’s capital, there have been five instances when the winner of the popular vote has failed to be inaugurated President of the United States. Blaming the quirks of the Electoral College is not enough when considering how popular sovereignty has been subjugated to political infighting. In 1824 the House of Representatives – not the Electoral College – ensured that the popular vote winner did not enter the White House. In 1824 electors were appointed by state legislatures in six states, thus removing the will of the people from the decision entirely, and allowing political party leaders and their financial allies to decide who would become President of the United States.
Since that lamentable example of the pitfalls of the American democratic process, the winner of the popular vote has been the loser of the election four times: in 1876, 1888, 2000, and most recently in 2016. Only in the latter did the electoral winner declare that his vanquished opponent had benefited from “millions” of illegal votes. While no evidence of illegal votes in the 2016 election has been presented, there is no question that safeguards of the American voting system, both against foreign intrusion and against manipulation by the candidates themselves, is a necessary and wise precaution. There is a well-known axiom that truth is the first casualty of war. It is also the first casualty of the American electoral process, and always has been, perhaps explaining why the Father of his Country found it necessary to get voters intoxicated in order to lure them to the polls.