John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson are said to have benefited from it. Dead people are sometimes parties to it. Both Democrats and Republicans have been accused of it.
Voter fraud is a hallowed tradition in American electoral politics. Historically, when races got tight, party leaders could reach into a bag of dirty tricks that make the irregularities alleged this year in Florida, where the final count will determine the next president, seem like child’s play.
Wholesale voter fraud is almost entirely a thing of the past. And the now almost legendary instances would be virtually impossible today. Modern balloting methods and intense public scrutiny make it much harder for politicians to stuff ballot boxes, allow dead people to vote, and abscond with ballots from unfavorable precincts.
Yet so few votes separate George W. Bush and Al Gore in Florida that questions are being raised even about honest mistakes that could determine which one moves into the White House on Jan. 20.
“There is probably a high degree of accuracy generally in vote counts,” said Bob Bauer, a Democratic lawyer. “But there are also, in every election cycle, glitches of all kinds, from the minor to major unanticipated problems and people working under great pressure and with little sleep to solve them.”
The heavy hand of fraud has lightened since the 19th century, when party bosses virtually decreed election outcomes. By the 20th century, powerful politicians such as Huey Long in Louisiana and Johnson in Texas became adept at using local political officials to deliver desired results in specific counties.
“Now, voter fraud is almost an issue of ancient history in the United States, but it was once a very serious problem as long as there were powerful and often corrupt big-city machines, the Curley machine in Boston, the Hague machine in Jersey City, the Daley machine in Chicago,” said Stephen Hess, a political scientist and expert on elections at the Brookings Institution, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington. (The Daley machine allegedly helped Kennedy win Illinois in 1960.)
When the two parties faced a tight presidential vote in 1888, there was a binge of vote-buying and voter fraud that rivaled any in U.S. history. President Grover Cleveland, a Democrat, won the popular vote but Republican Benjamin Harrison won in the electoral college and became president.
“That one was filled with graft and corruption,” said Terry Madonna, a political science professor at Millersville University in Pennsylvania. “Both sides were guilty. They had every little device down. They used floaters--a person paid to vote five or six times in different parts of a city or county.”
Party officials controlled the voting process and easily manipulated names on voter rolls. Moreover, parties printed their own ballots--usually in different colors--and handed them out in advance, Madonna said. When voters turned up at the polls, party leaders would know how they were going to vote because of the color of the ballots they carried.
Irregularities in Senate elections in particular were part of what prompted the adoption in 1913 of the 17th Amendment, which transferred responsibility for electing U.S. senators from state legislatures to the people.
Candidates became more imaginative as time went on. In a 1932 Louisiana Senate race, Long’s lieutenants allegedly promised the families of inmates that their loved ones would be freed if they voted for Long’s choice for Senate.
Johnson, who lost a Texas Senate race early in his career after it was bought by his opponent in the primary, successfully turned to such practices himself in his 1948 race. He won by 87 votes of almost 1 million cast after getting operatives to stuff ballot boxes in a dirt-poor county in the Rio Grande Valley.
The deciding votes were all written with the same pen and in the same hand, according to Robert Caro, author of a Johnsonbiography.