Tantrums in the Streets?

David C. Rapoport, professor emeritus at UCLA, is the founder and editor of the Journal of Terrorism and Political Violence. His latest book is "The Democratic Experience and Political Violence."

Ballots, we often say, are substitutes for bullets, because elections provide ways to settle issues that might otherwise produce violence. The saying makes sense, but ballots can produce bullets too, a fact usually ignored. Sometimes election violence comes from outsiders, as did the terrorist attacks in Madrid in March. Our government has repeatedly warned that Al Qaeda might attack here during our election cycle.

Violence from the outside is a possibility, but it is internal tensions that normally generate election strife. Obviously, fear of violence from abroad could be part of that tension. The very suggestion that election violence might happen this year may sound odd. Our recent elections have been so peaceful that we think ourselves immune from the scourge, associating it with the less-developed world. When election violence occurs there, it is usually connected to electoral fraud; even when manipulated results do not produce strife immediately, tensions often erupt later. This explains why so many countries regularly use international monitors to help assure the authenticity of the voting, which reminds us of last week’s warning from former President Carter, who has organized many such monitoring efforts. “Some basic international requirements for a fair election are missing in Florida,” he wrote.

For the record:

12:00 AM, Oct. 10, 2004 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday October 10, 2004 Home Edition Opinion Part M Page 2 Editorial Pages Desk 0 inches; 33 words Type of Material: Correction
Campaign violence -- An article on U.S. political violence in the Oct. 3 Opinion section said George C. Wallace was a target of an assassination attempt in 1968. It should have said 1972.

Election violence has occurred in every type of state with open public elections and in other kinds of communities as well. Popes used to be elected in election campaigns that produced so much violence that in the 15th century public election campaigns were abolished. No election violence has occurred since.

In the United States, ballots produced bullets many times. Americans are largely oblivious to this fact, partly because the subject is not usually discussed. Violence can erupt even when an election is peaceful. None occurred in 1860, but the South decided that the campaign debates demonstrated it could not live with Abraham Lincoln as president. The resulting Civil War occasioned more American casualties than all our other wars combined.


The 1860 election is a dramatic demonstration that elections can aggravate preexisting tensions. Candidates must emphasize differences to attract voters, and in doing so, they inevitably exaggerate the potential stakes. The military metaphors employed by candidates and media are particularly striking and revealing. Parties wage “campaigns” that employ “strategy and tactics.” Party faithful are called “rank and file,” and areas with many supporters are “strongholds” or “citadels.” President Bush’s biggest financial supporters are called “rangers.”

Campaigns divide us. But a conspicuous conciliation process typically brings us together again after the results are announced. In the U.S., losing candidates give concession speeches, making a public “surrender.” Their supporters must know that the “war” is over. (In the disputed 2000 election, Al Gore went further and presided over a joint congressional session that prevented black members of the House from reopening the issue.) Winners follow Thomas Jefferson, the victor in our first party-driven election, who declared, “We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.” Losers must be assured that the winners will not press their advantages too far. The peace achieved becomes a marriage of sorts, which is why the term “honeymoon period” is often used to describe the months after a completed election.

Violence associated with U.S. elections mostly occurred during campaigns and was precipitated by fraudulent electoral abuses. This typically happened in local elections in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In 1889, one U.S. marshal in Philadelphia said that fraudulent voting and violence were so endemic that “never an election goes by without a riot,” and that killing “regularly occurred in some wards.” A Cincinnati newspaper reported a “quiet election in which only eight people were killed.” The Chicago police in 1894 “kidnapped 25 prominent Polish Republicans the day before the election and held them incommunicado afterward.”

The most interesting national example of a fraudulent election occurred in 1876. Results in four states were dubious, and serious violence erupted in three. A special electoral commission took four months to decide that Rutherford B. Hayes won despite having received fewer popular votes. Fearful of more violence, President Grant mobilized the Army, and Hayes was sworn in secretly. Finally, the “corrupt bargain of 1876" was struck when Hayes, a Republican, accepted Democratic recommendations to withdraw federal troops from the South, where the Army had protected the right of blacks to vote. For nearly a century afterward, Southern whites used violence to keep blacks from participating in elections.


Our most recent violent presidential year was 1968. Two presidential aspirants were victims of assassination: Robert F. Kennedy was killed, and George C. Wallace seriously wounded. Anti-Vietnam War demonstrators tried to disrupt the Democratic National Convention. And after Richard M. Nixon was elected, the Weather Underground, a terrorist organization, was formed because the election did not provide the group’s solution for the Vietnam War.

What meaning do these experiences have for our current situation? They suggest that close elections can be frightening, especially when the election process does not seem fair. Still, violence did not occur in 2000, when many Democrats believed (and still do) that Gore won. But will they again be so passive if the circumstances are repeated?

To avoid this possibility, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act to aid states in acquiring better voting equipment, creating more accurate voting rolls and preventing eligible voters from being turned away. But few think that all the reforms will be in place by Nov. 2 or that the changes will be for the better. Many states have new equipment or electronic voting machines, but no one knows how secure or reliable they are. They certainly would be seriously challenged in the emotional atmosphere close elections generate. Some closely contested states, like Ohio and Missouri, still use the paper punch-card ballots that caused so many problems in 2000.

With respect to voter rolls and registration, the situation may be much worse. Reuters reported last month the complaints of civil rights and legal experts: “Millions of U.S. citizens, including a disproportionate number of blacks, will be blocked from voting ... because of legal barriers, faulty procedures and dirty tricks.” Soldiers stationed overseas who want to vote by e-mail or fax will have to waive their right to a secret ballot. University students are finding that some local communities are making it particularly difficult for them to vote, and states will have difficulties processing a record number of absentee ballots.


When an election is close, the integrity of the candidates and officials becomes critical. But that is precisely when they are most tempted to bend the rules. Both parties are gathering legal teams to question voting procedures in various states; will those challenges end potential controversies this time or intensify them?

The 1968 presidential campaign was fought in the context of the unpopular Vietnam War, which made the campaign’s language more abusive. We are steadily moving in that direction again. The hatred each side has for the other’s candidate is extraordinary. Dirty charges abound. The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth advertisements, for example, capriciously and unjustly attacked John F. Kerry’s Vietnam record. On the other side, we witnessed an amazing inability of a major news network to acknowledge that it was using false documents to attack George W. Bush’s National Guard service.

Republicans are pursuing a strategy of fear. Vice President Dick Cheney and other Republican leaders are repeatedly saying that if Kerry becomes president, Al Qaeda is more likely to strike us again. Democrats regard those claims as “despicable” efforts to make voters so personally insecure that they feel ashamed to vote the “wrong way.” Women with children seem to be especially affected.

Unfortunately, there are signs that Democrats feel obliged to adopt the same strategy. In a recent speech, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) said, “A mushroom cloud over any American city is the ultimate nightmare.... The war in Iraq has made the mushroom cloud more likely, not less likely, and it should never have happened.”


Even if all the voting reforms that Congress mandated cannot be implemented in time for the election and even if the Iraq war becomes more divisive, this election could end peacefully, as most U.S. elections have. But there are troubling signs: We have never had a close election whose outcome might appear fraudulent in a time of war when we could be struck by outside forces within our borders. We know what the problems are, and that should stop us from making them worse. Whatever happens, both candidates will have to make unusual efforts to bring the country together again after the election. Otherwise, the terrorists, wittingly or not, will have achieved their purpose.