The 2000 Florida election debacle led many Americans to worry about the integrity of our voting system. They're right to worry: the system is haphazard and sloppy. How sloppy? Well, at least eight of the 19 foreign-national September 11 hijackers had registered to vote in either Florida or Virginia.
Election fraud is expanding. This past March, in just one of many recent cases, Texas representative Ciro Rodriguez, chairman of the congressional Hispanic Caucus, lost a close Democratic primary after a missing ballot box suddenly showed up in South Texas, stuffed with votes for his opponent. Rodriguez charged fraud but could never definitively prove it. The circumstances were eerily similar to those that tipped a 1948 Senate race to Lyndon Johnson. Election officials found ballot box 13 several days after the election. It held 203 votes, all but one for LBJ. Amazingly enough, the voters had cast their ballots in alphabetical order.
With nearly 10 percent of Americans now believing that the election system doesn't count their votes accurately, and with new charges of fraud beginning to swirl around the 2004 presidential election, it's worth taking a look back at the nation's long tradition of electoral shenanigans. It's comic—until you start to wonder just how much of it is still going on.
Nowhere did voter fraud have a more notorious record than in Tammany-era New York. Tammany Hall's ruthless efficiency in manufacturing votes—especially during the zenith of its power in the second half of the nineteenth century—is legendary. At the time, America didn't yet have privacy-protecting voting machines or official government ballots, so Tammany fixers could ensure that voters would cast ballots as promised. Vote riggers would simply give people pre-marked ballots and watch as they deposited them into the voting box.
Practical Tammany pols preferred to deal with "strikers"—wholesale operatives who would guarantee thick bundles of votes, for a price. One New York candidate who hadn't yet paid his strikers made the mistake of visiting the polls on Election Day. The angry operatives swiftly surrounded him, demanding their cash. Historian Mark Summers recounts that "the politician was nearly torn to pieces . . . and as he fled the pack cursed him for 'a mean cuss' and emptied out the ballot-boxes, tearing up every ticket bearing his name."
The immigrants flooding into New York were easy prey for the Tammany pols. Each state then set its own standards for naturalizing new citizens, and New York's were lax. In 1868, The Nation reported that Tammany Hall had set up a "naturalization mill," instantly certifying folks right off the boat as citizens—and Tammany voters. (In 1996, the Clinton administration similarly sped up the naturalization of up to 1 million new citizens so that they could vote in time for that year's election.)
Tammany was so efficient at election fixing that between 1868 and 1871, the votes cast in the city totaled 8 percent more than the entire voting population—"the dead filling in for the sick," as one contemporary wag put it. Historian Denis Tilden Lynch describes how thugs would go from one polling place to the next, impersonating citizens who hadn't yet voted. One such "repeater" posed as the dignified pastor of a Dutch Reformed church. The election clerks asked him his name.
"Jones," shouted the repeater, startling the poll workers with his scraggly beard, unclean face, and whiskey breath.
"What is the first name, Mr. Jones?" asked the election clerk.
"John," snarled the repeater.
"The Reverend Dr. John Jones, pastor of the Dutch Reformed church around the corner?" asked a clerk.
"Yes, you dirty, lousy @$#%%^^**!" exclaimed the repeater. "Who'n else did you thick I was, eh?"
The officials let "Reverend Jones" vote.
After his fall from power, the infamous Tammany Hall leader William Marcy Tweed—Boss Tweed—candidly assessed the conduct of elections in his city. His 1877 testimony before the New York Board of Aldermen remains fascinating for its matter-of-fact explication of how to corrupt democracy:
Q: "When you were in office, did the [Tweed] Ring control the elections in the city at that time?"
A: "They did sir. Absolutely."
Q: "Please tell me what the modus operandi of that was. How did you control the elections?"
A: "Well, each ward had a representative man, who would control matters in his own ward, and whom the various members of the general committee were to look up to for advice how to control the elections."
Q: "What were they to do, in case you wanted a particular man elected over another?"
A: "Count the ballots in bulk, or without counting them announce the result in bulk, or change from one to the other, as the case may have been."
Q: "Then these elections really were no elections at all? The ballots were made to bring about any result that you determined upon beforehand?"
A: "The ballots made no result; the counters made the result. . . . That was generally done to every ward by the gentleman who had charge of the ward."
Q: "Mr. Tweed, did you ever give any directions to any persons, to falsify or change the result of the actual bona fide ballots cast in any election?"
A. "More in the nature of a request than a directive."
Later in Tweed's testimony, this exchange occurred:
Q: "Can you state now, at this time, whether the election which took place in the City of New York at that time  was a fair and honest election?"
A: "I have not the details in my memory."
Q: "What is your best impression?"
A: "I don't think there was ever a fair or honest election in the City of New York."
Tammany's fraud was so all-encompassing, says historian Mark Summers, that "even men who have passed through history with clean reputations thought little of raising a majority that way." Henry Raymond, co-founder and first editor of the New York Times, railed against corruption. But when he ran for speaker of the New York State Assembly in 1851, he asked Senator Hamilton Fish for $1,000, so that he could buy the election. "Truly a pretty suggestion," Fish confided to his diary, "but corruption in connection with these primary elections has become so prevalent that one loses astonishment at its evidence in any quarter."
Boss Tweed died in disgrace, but Tammany Hall flourished into the twentieth century. In 1905, William Randolph Hearst, owner of the New York Morning Journal, decided to take Tammany on and run for New York mayor on the ticket of his own third party, the Municipal Ownership League. Hearst had already beaten a Tammany-backed candidate in 1902, winning a New York congressional seat with a lavish campaign that would have put New Jersey senator Jon Corzine to shame. Hearst spent the equivalent of $100,000 for fireworks in Madison Square Park and offered free trips to Coney Island for every man, woman, and child in his district.
But Hearst bit off more than he could buy in running for mayor—a key position in the Tammany empire. On election day, notes Hearst biographer David Nasaw, "there were instances of voter fraud, of poll watchers being chased away, of delays in reporting returns, of unopened and uncounted ballot boxes mysteriously turning up in the East River." The New York Independent declared it "the most extraordinary election ever witnessed in New York City"—and that's saying something. The New York Times reported that the challenger's poll watchers, having been beaten up and driven off by Tammany goons, "came into the Hearst headquarters last night with bandaged hands. Some carried their arms in slings. At about ten o'clock in the evening a report was received that the returns were being held back from these districts"—presumably as Tammany stuffed the ballot boxes to achieve the desired count. One poll watcher, an R. Little, "had a finger chewed off and his face cut."
While the newspapers deplored the violence, they also expressed relief that incumbent Tammany mayor George Brinton McClellan beat Hearst, by a margin of 3,472 votes out of more than 600,000 "cast." The New York Times congratulated city voters for having "spared the city the humiliation, the trials, and the dangers of a four years' mismanagement of its affairs by a peculiarly reckless, unschooled, and unsteady group of experimenters and adventurers."
Hearst believed that he had won the election as ballots went into the boxes but lost it as they came out. After organizing a blue-ribbon committee to protest the fraud and demand a recount, he held massive demonstrations throughout the city and went to court. But the courts and the state legislature ignored him, and no recount took place.
New York City's corruption, severe as it was, was far from unique. In Baltimore, for instance, vote fixing could get even uglier: a notorious Whig Party organization, the "Fourth Ward Club," hired thugs to seize innocent strangers and foreigners, drug them with bad whiskey and opiates, and send them out to cast multiple votes. (James Harrison, a biographer of Edgar Allan Poe, speculates that when Poe died in 1849, he was a victim of ruthless vote-fraud toughs who kidnapped him and left him drunk and near death on a Baltimore street.) Political scientists estimate that in many urban areas, fixers routinely manipulated 10 to 15 percent of the vote. A 1929 study by the Brookings Institution, looking back on U.S. elections in the nineteenth century, observed: "[I]ndifference, fraud, corruption, and violence have marked the operation of our electoral system."
The corruption influenced national as well as local politics. Both major parties stole votes with abandon in the 1876 presidential election between Republican Rutherford Hayes of Ohio and Samuel Tilden of New York. The race ended in a deadlock, resolved only after a congressionally created commission delivered the presidency to Hayes by a single, disputed electoral vote. At least three other presidential elections—in 1880, 1884, and 1888—proved so close that fraud may have played a role in their outcomes, too.
As the century closed, however, fraud gradually began to diminish, as popular disgust with vote rigging spurred reforms. States began to require voters to register before Election Day. In Massachusetts, Richard Henry Dana III, son of the author of the classic Two Years Before the Mast, persuaded the Massachusetts legislature to adopt the "Australian" ballot—a government-printed ballot that would list all candidates and that voters would cast in secret in a booth. It became a model for reformers elsewhere. As changes spread to other states, voter "turnout" fell precipitously. Historians Gary Cox and Morgan Krause point out that turnout in New York State elections dropped some 15 percent after the anti-fraud measures took effect.
Voter fraud didn't vanish from American politics, of course—jokes still circulate about the late Chicago mayor Richard Daley's uncanny ability to get the dead to vote for him. But first prize for twentieth-century electoral corruption goes to Mayor Frank "I Am the Law" Hague, whose political machine controlled gritty Jersey City, New Jersey, across the Hudson River from New York, from 1917 to 1947. His desk had a special drawer that opened in the front, allowing visitors to deposit bribes that then disappeared inside the desk. On a yearly salary of $8,000, he amassed a fortune of at least $10 million.
Hague's career began inauspiciously, as you might expect. Expelled from school after sixth grade as incorrigible, he became a ward heeler for the Jersey City Democratic machine. In 1908, he entered city employment as a janitor. Ten years later, he was mayor, and, through his control of the Hudson County vote, the leader of the state Democratic Party and the man who could dictate who would become governor or a judge. In 1939, so great was Hague's power that he could order his handpicked governor to appoint his son, Frank Hague Jr., to the state supreme court, even though the young man had never graduated from law school.
The Hague machine turned voter fraud into a science. On the Sunday before an election, the mayor would gather his ward heelers into a Jersey City arena (called the Grotto) and give his orders. "Three hundred and sixty-four days a year you come to me wanting favors. . . . Now, one day in the year I come to you." Hague fielded roughly one worker per 100 voters, and boy, did he get results. In 1937, the Democratic candidate in the First District of the First Ward won 433 votes, the Republican only one. This struck some people as odd, since a short time earlier, the district had recorded 103 Republican votes. An investigation found torn ballots, others with unmistakable erasure marks, and yet others altered by pencil. The single Republican ballot, marked with a red pencil, "could not have been erased without doing definite damage to the ballot," investigators noted.
Reformers were always trying to clean up Jersey City elections, but they faced an uphill fight. In 1935, the Honest Ballot Association sent 245 Princeton students to monitor a city election. Hague's ruffians beat up five of them within an hour of their arrival. Several others, ejected from a polling place, went to see the mayor to protest. "Well, you fellows go back there if you wish, but if you get knocked cold it will be your own hard luck," he told them. Later, Hague explained to Collier's magazine that the roughing-up involved "[a]nimal spirits, that's all. I told my boys to lay off, but it was a pretty dull election, and they couldn't resist the temptation to have a little fun."
In 1937, the Jersey Journal asked in a disgusted editorial: "Where was Election Superintendent Ferguson's 1,300 deputies when the new irregularities now charged occurred last Tuesday?" In response, the superintendent issued a public statement that read, in part: "Where were my deputies? Some of them were locked up in the police stations; some were stuck on corners, with a threat that if they moved from them, a night stick would be wrapped around their necks. . . . The only way to have an honest election in Hudson County under present conditions is with the militia."
Mayor Hague retired from office in 1947, turning over the job of mayor to his nephew. Gradually, his machine lost control of the city, though Jersey's politics remain far from pristine to this day. Nevertheless, Hague's flagrant vote rigging was extreme for post-Tammany American politics.
Yet if Hague's ghost, or Boss Tweed's, took a look at a recent newspaper, he'd smile in recognition. Wholesale vote fraud is on the rise again, almost all of it trying to elect Democratic candidates. The reason that the cheating is happening overwhelmingly among the Dems these days may have something to do with who supports the respective parties, say Larry Sabato and Glenn Simpson in their book Dirty Little Secrets. Republican voters tend to be middle class and not easily tempted to commit fraud, while "the pool of people who appear to be available and more vulnerable to an invitation to participate in vote fraud tend to lean Democratic." Most incidents of wide-scale fraud, agrees Paul Harrison, director of the Center for American Politics at the University of Maryland, "reportedly occur in inner cities."
Barely a day has gone by in the run-up to the 2004 election without another outrageous story hitting the headlines. In Lansing, Michigan, the city clerk's office complained in late September about 5,000 to 8,000 fraudulent voter-registration forms that had recently come in—courtesy, election officials believed, of the Public Interest Research Group, a liberal advocacy outfit. In Racine, Wisconsin, around the same time, election officials discovered that Project Vote, another left-wing advocacy group, had filed scores of applications with phony addresses and other questionable items. The acting city clerk asked the district attorney's office to pursue possible criminal charges. Ohio, Nevada, Iowa—similar stories abounded in states across the country.
Why is such activity proliferating? It flows from the success of Democratic lawmakers in pushing aside clear, orderly, and rigorous voting procedures in favor of elastic and "inclusive" election rules that invite manipulation. A machine for corruption is the 1993 "Motor Voter Act," the first bill that President Clinton signed. The law requires government officials to allow anyone who renews a driver's license or applies for welfare or unemployment to register to vote on the spot, without showing ID or proof of citizenship. It also allows ID-free registration by mail. The law also makes it hard to purge voting lists of those who've died or moved. All this makes vote fraud a cinch, almost as easy as when Tammany Hall handed out pre-marked ballots.
Among the many abuses it has spawned, the Motor Voter law seems to have enabled illegal aliens to vote—for Democrats, evidence suggests. A 1996 INS investigation into alleged Motor Voter fraud in California's 46th congressional district discovered that "4,023 illegal voters possibly cast ballots in the disputed election between Republican Robert Dornan and Democrat Loretta Sanchez." Dornan lost by fewer than 1,000 votes. In 2002, Dean Gardner, a losing GOP candidate for California's state legislature, sent out a survey to 14,000 first-time voters. A total of 1,691 surveys came back. The results were startling: 76 people admitted that they weren't citizens but had voted, while 49 claimed not to have registered at their correct residence, as the law requires. Gardner lost by only 266 votes.
In the 2000 election, as the Missouri secretary of state later discovered, 56,000 St. Louis-area voters held multiple voter registrations. No one knows how much actual fraud took place, but it may have played a role in the Democratic defeats of incumbent Republican senator John Ashcroft, who lost his seat by 49,000 votes, and gubernatorial candidate Jim Talent, who lost by 21,000 votes.
All these stories of potential electoral abuses, Democrats retort, pale beside the Republican shenanigans that helped deliver Florida to George W. Bush in 2000. Media recounts that showed that Bush would have won Florida under any reasonable recount standard are beside the point, they say. Election officials wrongly identified thousands of people as felons, most of them minorities, thus preventing them from voting under the state's election laws. If those votes had counted, Democrats charge, Al Gore would be president today.
But both the Miami Herald and the Palm Beach Post found that, if anything, election officials were too permissive in whom they allowed to cast ballots. A Post analysis discovered that 5,600 people voted whose names matched those of convicted felons. "These illegal voters almost certainly influenced the down-to-the-wire presidential election," the Post reported. "Of the likely felons identified by the Post, 68 percent were registered Democrats."
Democrats think that the ambiguity in election laws will work to their benefit this fall, allowing them to litigate every single close race. Unfortunately, if "anything goes" continue to be the ballot bywords, the nation may soon wake up to a crisis even bigger than the 2000 Florida nightmare. Perhaps then the public will demand to know who subverted the election laws. But wouldn't it be better if we did something about the problem now—even if it's as simple as requiring everyone who votes to show an ID? In 2004, we should be well past the days of Boss Tweed.