America’s Inglorious Tradition of Election Fraud: Any Cure in Sight? Part 1

L. Scott Smith


Zbigniew K. Brzezinski, Johns Hopkins University professor and leading national security advisor to President Jimmy Carter, once suggested that, as a partial cure for what ails the country of Syria, the United States and other world powers consider supervising elections there.[1]  This recommendation is curious, for one of the most unspeakable truths in America is that election improprieties have undermined its national democratic ideals since the dawn of the Republic.  Does it really take a Donald J. Trump or any other brave political warrior to remind us of this fact? Stealing and manipulating elections is as American as apple pie.  One may chuckle at Louisiana Governor Earl Long’s request to be buried in Louisiana so as to remain active in politics.[2]  Senate Majority Leader and later President Lyndon B. Johnson was fond of evoking laughter at Washington dinner parties when he mimicked, in heavy accent, a Mexican boy’s sorrow upon discovering that his father, deceased for ten years, had neglected to pay him a visit although having obviously returned from the dead to vote for Johnson in the 1948 Texas Senatorial primary.[3]  One may even raise an eyebrow at Tammany boss William M. Tweed’s aphorism that the counters, not the ballots decide an election.[4]  Lurking beneath the surface of these humorous, tongue-in-cheek remarks lies, as Sigmund Freud would have suggested, the dark reality of subverted elections in American democracy.

How to cure the problem is a topic which has been bandied about by politicians,  academicians, election officials, and pundits for years.  One usual, underlying assumption in these discussions is that instances of election fraud are isolated and, while serious, can be overcome and do not pose a major threat to the nation’s democratic integrity. In this article, I beg to differ with that assumption.  I will, first, seek to illustrate that election improprieties have generally characterized American democracy.  Acts of dishonesty and illegality have pervaded the electoral system to an extent that they may be understood as common occurrences.  This shameful fact, however, is only the first and most obvious part of the story.  There are other parts which deserve highlighting as well.  The second is the way in which election fraud has gradually eroded citizens’ democratic spirit by heightening their sense of disempowerment and crippling their desire to participate in the electoral process.  The third and perhaps most significant part is that a cure for this malady appears remote.  The American citizenry lacks the moral stamina necessary to surmount the challenge of fraud at the ballot box and so, contrary to other times perhaps, may now be defenseless against it.

  1. Strolling Down Memory Lane 

The term “election fraud,” as used in this essay, encompasses a wide and diverse multiplicity of ways in which one can subvert the integrity of an election.  As one pundit correctly notes, “There is no one way to steal an election in the United States.”[5]  The methods used depend upon the opportunities relative to the historical moment in question.  George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, for example, dispensed gallons of liquor on election day to voters.[6]  James Madison was disgusted by the practice and maintained that “swilling the planters with bumbo” was “a corrupting influence.”[7]  Corruption, unfortunately, did not stop with the distribution of liquor during colonial times.  Since only propertied White men were privileged to vote, a well-to-do candidate for office would purchase freehold estates for landless men to be returned immediately after the election.[8]  Buying votes was also a popular practice, most notably in Rhode Island, since “Rhode Islandism” became synonymous with vote-buying.[9]

The Gold Standard for Election Fraud.  As ubiquitous as election fraud has been in America, the phenomenon still has its gold standard. New York City’s Tammany Hall, especially during the heyday of “Boss” Tweed,[10] was and remains the paragon of political corruption.  There was no depth to which Tweed and his cohorts would not sink in order to deliver the vote. The apparatus of sleaze was carefully engineered and crafted.  “Stuffers,”[11] as their name suggests, shamelessly stuffed ballot boxes with fraudulent votes.  ”Repeaters”[12] were those who voted more than once in the same precinct.  ”Floaters”[13] voted in various precincts.  “Colonizers”[14] were non-residents of the city or even the state, who would inflate New York City’s registration rolls on election day in order to tilt the outcome of an election. “Thugs”[15] were used to intimidate citizens into doing the machine’s bidding, and “wreckers”[16] had the specialized task of vandalizing polling places favored by the opposition. Paying for votes was commonplace as well; the poor were provided money, clothing, and liquor in exchange for their support.[17]  During one of Tammany’s typical elections in 1844, even prior to the advent of the Tweed regime, 55,000 votes were recorded in New York City, while only 41,000 residents were actually eligible to vote — an impressive turnout by any standard![18]

Most of these appalling feats were accomplished by Tammany with the help of European immigrants, who as James Bryce described them were “practically strangers to America . . . with no sense of civic duty to their new country nor likely to respond to any appeals from its statesmen . . . not realiz[ing] that the increase of civic burdens would ultimately fall upon them as well as upon the rich.”[19]  Because the machine was heavily dependent upon the ignorance of immigrants, naturalization was effected in huge numbers and “was conducted with unexampled and indecent haste.”[20] Tweed himself remained astonishingly philosophical concerning these heinous shenanigans, reflecting retrospectively that “I don’t think there was ever a fair and honest election in New York City.”[21]

A Monumental Theft in 1876.  As the magnitude of corruption in the Big Apple continued and became so abysmal that citizens could no longer remain completely lethargic in the face of it, Samuel J. Tilden, the state chairman of the Democratic party and a state assemblyman, became the standard-bearer for reform in New York.[22]  His efforts met with considerable success as the Tammany machine suffered far-reaching setbacks. Tweed himself was eventually incarcerated.[23] Tilden was rewarded with the governorship of New York, and in 1876 was nominated by Democrats to be President of the United States. His Republican opponent was Rutherford B. Hayes of Ohio.

After the election, it was clear that Tilden had clearly won the popular vote, but remained one electoral vote shy of a majority.  The 20 combined electoral votes of  three states dominated by Republicans in the Reconstructed South — Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina — were still in play, since the popular vote totals in each of them evidenced razor-thin margins of victory and were also sharply contested by allegations of fraud from both political parties.

Congress took on the responsibility of adjudicating the disputed election, although  a strongly partisan Republican Senate and Democratic House proved impotent in making much headway. Congress made the decision to turn the matter over to a specially appointed electoral commission, consisting of ten members of Congress (five from each party) and five members from the Supreme Court (two from each party and the fifth named by the other four justices).  The fifth justice was Joseph Bradley, a Republican, who, needless to say, voted against Democratic claims to victory in all three states, thereby catapulting Hayes to the presidency.[24]

The new president would never, during his administration, escape the opprobrious circumstances of his election and became widely known as “Rutherfraud B. Hayes” and “His Fraudulency.”[25]

The Pilfered Popular Vote of 1888.  During the next century, election fraud did not rise to this level of national prominence, but was hardly dormant.  The Benjamin Harrison-Grover Cleveland race for the White House in 1888 involved egregious acts of dishonesty, although probably not a stolen election.[26] Harrison won the electoral vote, but lost the popular count by 60,000 votes. Cleveland’s margin of victory in  West Virginia was a paltry 500 votes out of over 159,000 cast. Curiously, there were 12,000 more votes counted in the state than there were eligible voters.  Even in Indiana, Harrison’s home state, he barely avoided a loss.  Democratic colonizers and floaters almost succeeded in stealing it from him.  Harrison managed to win there by a mere 2,376 votes.[27]

Vote Counting in the “Show Me” State.  Around the dawn of the twentieth century, Jim Pendergast, an alderman on Kansas City’s city council, began schooling his younger brother, Tom, in the fine art of machine politics.[28] By 1925, Tom Pendergast and his minions had gained full control of Kansas City’s government.  Although indisputably corrupt and ruthless, the Pendergast machine commanded loyalty because it was the fountainhead for city contracts and jobs. Its political hold on Kansas City was felt throughout the state of Missouri.

In order to retain control of the western portion of the state, Pendergast had to control Jackson County, the seat of which was Independence. The instrumentality he targeted was the county court, which annually distributed  approximately six million dollars in contracts for road construction and around one million dollars in salaries.  The county’s purse strings was a political prize of significant and substantial magnitude, since the sums in question were enormous for that day.[29]

Pendergast needed a low-profile county court judge who was a team player.  His nephew, James M. Pendergast, knew Harry S. Truman well, having served with him during World War I.  Aside from being the younger Pendergast’s friend, Truman had other assets as well: he was a Mason, a Legionnaire, and a Baptist, with deep roots in Independence.[30] As fate would have it, he was also the partner in an unsuccessful men’s clothing store and happened to be searching for gainful employment.[31]  He received the nod for the job, and the most corrupt political regime in the history of Kansas City found itself a new county judge.[32]

In this position, Truman vigorously utilized his skills of organization and administration to the machine’s advantage, and regarded doing so as nothing more than the political spoils system in action.  Time after time he awarded contracts to Pendergast’s friends, although he cultivated a reputation for refusing to take bribes or otherwise dealing in graft.[33]  He won an appreciable political following as a man who could be trusted.  His judgeship soon became a stepping stone to other political opportunities.  In 1934, Boss Pendergast was scavenging for a candidate to run for the United States Senate.  After asking two of his regulars to do so, both declined.  Truman, a third choice, readily embraced the opportunity.[34]

The ensuing election was hard-fought, but the man from Independence emerged victorious.  The once failed haberdasher enjoyed a 40,000-vote margin of victory over his opponent John Cochran from St. Louis.  The Pendergast machine accounted for at least 70,000 ghost votes in Truman’s favor.[35]  Missourians’ moral outrage was mitigated somewhat by the fact that Cochran’s candidacy had been supported by an equally corrupt St. Louis machine, led by the city’s mayor Bernard F. Dickmann. The election, as one historian put it, was “between the Kansas City and St. Louis politicians to see who could create the most votes.”[36]

Truman’s political stock continued to rise in the Senate,[37] and he was chosen to be President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s running mate in 1944.[38]  The Missourian’s star finally scaled the heights when it settled over 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue following Roosevelt’s death.

Go to Part 2


[1] “Brzezinski: Syria Should Have Supervised Elections,” Real Clear World Video, June 21, 2012,   http://www.realclearworld.com/video/2012/06/21/brzezinski_syria_should_have_supervised_elections.html

[2] Blaine Gorney, “My Turn: Take Closer Look at ‘Voter Fraud,’” Salisburypost.com, July 30, 2012,  http://www/salisburypost.com/Opinion/083012-edit-my-turn-gorney-qcd.

[3] Robert A. Caro, The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Means of Ascent (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), 399.

[4] Tracy Campbell, Deliver the Vote: A History of Election Fraud, an American Political Tradition — 1742-2004  (New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers. 2006), 20.

[5] Andrew Gumbel, Steal This Vote: Dirty Elections and the Rotten History of Democracy in America  (New York: Nation Books, 2005), 14.

[6] Campbell, Deliver, 5.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 6.  See Colonial Dictionary,  Colonial Sense,  http://www.colonialsense.com/Society-Lifestyle/Colonial_Dictionary/Main.php, and Edward Porritt, The Unreformed House of Commons: Parliamentary Representation Before 1832  (London: Cambridge University Press 1903), 22-4,  http://www.archive.org/stream/unreformedhouse00porrgoog#page/n49/mode/2up. 

[9] Jack Shafer, “Stolen Elections — as American as Apple Pie,” Slate , Oct. 21, 2008,  http//www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/press_box/2008/10/stolen_electionas_american_as_apple_pie.html.

[10] Viscount James Bryce, The American Commonwealth  (New York: Cosimo, 2007) (Orig. pub. 1897), 2:383-95.

[11] Gumbel, Steal, 73-4.

[12] Ibid., 74.

[13] Campbell, Deliver, 19.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Gumbel, Steal, 74.

[17] Campbell, Deliver, 19.

[18] Ibid., 20.

[19] Bryce, American Commonwealth, 391.

[20] Ibid., 385.

[21] Ronnie Dugger, “Counting Votes,” New Yorker, Nov. 7, 1988, at 46 (quoting Tweed).

[22] Bryce, American Commonwealth, 393.

[23] Ibid., 394.

[24] The Disputed Presidential Election of 1876, Digital History, http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/database/article_display.cfm?HHID=139.

[25] Robert McNamara, “Inaugurating ‘His Fraudulency,’”  19th Century History, About.Com, March 3, 2011,  http://history1800s.about.com/b/2011/03/03/inaugurating-his-fraudulency.htm.

[26] “The Campaign and Election of 1888,” American President: A Reference Resource, Miller Center (University of Virginia), http://millercenter.org/president/bharrison/essays/biography/3.

[27] Campbell, Deliver,  94-5.

[28] Ibid., 193.

[29] Lyle W. Dorsett, “Truman and the Pendergast Machine,” https://journals.ku.edu/index.php/amerstud/article/viewFile/2200/2159, at 16.

[30]Ibid., 17.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Ibid.  (explaining that Truman won the nomination for the post in 1922 and, thereafter, the general election the same year).

[33] Id. at 18.

[34] Id. at 19.

[35] Campbell, Deliver, 194.

[36] Alonzo L. Hamby, Man of the  People: A Life of Harry Truman (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 102-3.

[37] Merle Miller, Plain Speaking: an Oral Biography of Harry S. Truman  (Berkeley Publ. Corp. 1974), 169 (noting that Truman received a standing ovation in the Senate upon his re-election to that body in 1940).

[38] Ibid., 183 (quoting Robert E. Sherwood on Harry Hopkins’s view of why Truman was chosen to be Roosevelt’s running mate: “The Truman Committee record was good — he’d got himself known and liked around the country — and above all he was very popular in the Senate.  The President wanted somebody that would help him when he went up there and asked them to ratify the peace.”)

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