There’s a curious debate going on in this country, and I’m here to settle it.
Republicans are worried about voter fraud. Democrats are worried about voter suppression. Both topics are all through the news right now, and they’ll continue to be trumpeted through the election. If we asked them, most people would say that at least one of these subjects ought to be a matter of blazing headlines, followed by investigations, prosecutions, and convictions.
They say a lot of people in this country don’t vote. I’d say that, for non-voters, we Americans take the subject pretty seriously.
But that’s beside the point.
Let’s look at voter fraud. That’s the easy one to understand, so we’ll tackle that first. Basically, we’re talking about someone in a back room filling out thousands of ballots, then sneaking them into the official count somehow. Sometimes this takes place right on site; more often, it’s absentee ballots filled out by non-citizens or, proverbially, in names taken from tombstones.
I’ve written about this before, but for the sake of discussion I’ll give you a couple of the stories. Bear in mind that there’s no real debate about whether these actually happened; they most certainly did, and in living memory.
The Battle Of Athens: In 1946, soldiers returning from the War found an entrenched and highly corrupt political machine in charge of McMinn County in Tennessee. There was widespread voter suppression of the Jim Crow variety, and the voter rolls were stacked with graveyard names, but the one thing that motivated the G.I.s the most was that local sheriff’s deputies were targeting them in order to levy fines on people carrying their mustering-out pay.
The boys met in private and appointed a non-partisan slate of candidates of their own — three Republicans, two Democrats. Then, anticipating resistance from the sheriff and his men (“armed thugs”, according to Bill White; there’s an absolutely compelling interview with him you simply have to read), the former soldiers armed themselves and guarded polling places alongside the deputies, making sure fair play ensued. The evening ended with a pitched battle at the jail over possession of the ballot boxes.
(This wasn’t the only such event that year; it’s merely one of the most dramatic.)
The Presidential election of 1960: In the linked article, Edmund Kallina argues that the thousands of confirmed fraudulent ballots found in Chicago precincts after the election weren’t enough to sway the election results. Others disagree with his conclusion, and convincingly. But there is no dispute that ballot boxes were stuffed by the thousands by the Daley political machine and with the assistance of mob boss Sam Giancana.
In 1961, prosecutor Morris Wexler oversaw a massive investigation into the election, focusing on allegations in Chicago. The Wexler investigation led to contempt charges being levied against 667 election officials — most thrown out by a single very connected judge. There were, as best as I can tell, only three convictions and about eight thousand confirmed fraudulent ballots — but Kennedy won the state by a margin of only 8500.
I’m not going to get into all the details here, but there’s reason to believe that the Texas results were likewise corrupt, and that would have been plenty to swing the election. The most convincing counter-argument about the Illinois results is, ironically, that the Republican machine in the southern part of the state stuffed their own ballot boxes as well, and that the number might have been enough to balance out Daley’s efforts.
Chicago voter corruption is legendary — and it’s ongoing. A non-partisan report from the 2016 election showed hundreds of people voting from beyond the grave. Historically, 50% of outgoing aldermen are convicted of fraud or graft charges. You just can’t make this stuff up — and you can’t dispute it.
I could go on and on with examples just from the 2016 presidential race — from the evident yet oft-denied rigging of the DNC primary to the convictions on voter fraud — but I’ve made the point. This sort of thing has happened before; it happens today. There can be no reasonable and intelligent argument against this point.
Now, I want to be clear: There have been studies showing this sort of abuse is statistically quite rare, particularly over the past couple of decades. But if you point to these, a partisan voter might object that the folks stuffing ballot boxes these days are professionals, very good at being undetectable. It’s tough to debate that; there’s no reliable logic about disproving the invisible. On the other hand, the statistics are pretty convincing.
But what about voter suppression? I hear you ask.
I’m not going to go into it here; there’s no need. I think we can all accept that it happens; the impact is the same as physically stuffing ballot boxes, and it’s harder to prove. If folks are motivated enough to send absentee ballots from beyond the grave, we can be certain they’d try other methods less likely to be detected. So let’s just accept for the sake of discussion that it happens.
What really stands out, though, is the partisan divide over which form of election manipulation is more prevalent, more important, and more worthy of investigation. Republicans focus on stuffed ballot boxes; Democrats fear intimidation and artificial disenfranchisement. But given that both have been practiced by both parties (okay; by corrupt individuals not necessarily representing their parties), why the divide?
Most of the people who are concerned about voter fraud are Republicans. More than not are male, and they don’t identify with any minority group. They have no direct visceral connection to the Jim Crow laws. They don’t relate to Elizabeth Cady Stanton. They do, however, know about stuffing ballot boxes; the tale of the Battle of Athens could have been written to appeal specifically to this demographic (including the bit about Tom Gillespie).
As long as their concern is valid — even if, as some studies suggest, there’s precious little substance to them — their worries need to be addressed in order for them to consider the results of an election valid. Given that there’s a fair number of these folks, I think we can all agree that if they dispute the validity of an election, we’re going to have a real problem.
This is the same fundamental truth that, turned around the other way, makes it absolutely essential that someone take a good hard look at Georgia after the upcoming mid-terms. And Dodge City. And the other places where voter suppression is… I won’t say “where it’s happening.” I could get into legal trouble for that. Instead, let’s go with “where widespread voter suppression is being convincingly alleged.”
(Sure. The lawyers can’t argue with me on that one.)
And — mark my words! — we are going to have a real problem.