How to Steal An Election

The Howard Committee

The Howard Committee

Gentle Readers, you don’t have to poke around the internet for long to find people very concerned about vote fraud. They believe that it taints our elections, undermines the legitimacy of our democracy, and just coincidentally results in their preferred candidates losing. As a person who studies Bleeding Kansas, where vote fraud absolutely took place, I know a bit about it. So let me tell you how to steal an election, nineteenth century style.

It does no good to only steal an election a little bit. You have to go large if you want to purloin the polls. Contrary to what they might tell you in Government class, one vote almost never decides any election of consequence. Just how many people you need depends on the size of the local electorate, but you can’t know the actual number until the time comes. A prudent thief will plan for that. You want the difference between the votes necessary to win and the votes you expect to get from people who would side with you fair and square, plus a buffer. Almost anywhere this side of small town local government posts, this will kick the number into the thousands.

There are no photo IDs or standardized forms of identification in the middle nineteenth century. They had poll books with lists of qualified voters. You would go up to the window on election day and tell your name. They would check the list, find you, and accept your ballot. But people do get missed by the census, more into the jurisdiction after it, and so forth. If you wanted to vote anyway, they would let you if you could convince them that you had a right to. That could mean just having an election worker vouch for you from personal knowledge or that you swore an oath that you had a legal right to vote there. Either way you get to cast your ballot. If you’ve voted recently, some of this probably sounds familiar. When I started, my precinct had printouts on computer paper with the perforated edges still on. Now it’s on a laptop.

So you, my dear enemy of democracy, must get together at minimum hundreds and ideally a few thousand people. They need to go to the polls. As they could vote legally if they lived in the area, they’ve got to cover some distance. Moving that many people in for election day doesn’t go unnoticed. When they appear, they will all have to swear oaths or carry off pretty good lies to convince election workers to take their illegal votes. This makes them more conspicuous still. Even in Kansas, just having its very first elections, everybody, their kids, their household pets, the local wildlife, and probably the more perceptive trees spotted that a mile off. You just can’t hide it at all. You might get away with a few votes, or even a few dozen, but not enough to make the whole effort worthwhile. All that work also requires coordination and communication that put up further signs still. You could see this all from space. The Howard Committee found it all out from numerous sources in the summer of 1856.

Today we have somewhat more robust identification systems, but the essentials haven’t changed that much. Though we might miss the coordination of a fraud operation thanks to the privacy of email and phone calls, many someones still have to show up and cast all those votes. Privacy goes right out the window then and, by the act’s inherent nature, everyone gets to see.

This happens near to never. However often Americans might think someone swipes an election, confessions of the deed happen with roughly the same frequency as claims of alien abduction. A conspiracy skilled enough to manage a fraud on the necessary scale without anybody noticing would already have the skills necessary to seize the government by far more subtle means.

With the exception of the Kansas-specific details, I can’t have told anybody anything they didn’t already know. If you understand what the words mean, and how to count, you have it down. As a practical matter, most everybody of voting age gets it.

But there’s another way to steal an election: make it hard to vote. Study up on what your opponent’s constituencies can do. If they must work long hours, ensure that not enough polling stations exist to serve the likely demand. If they have trouble getting around, locate the polls somewhere far from anywhere they’d normally go. Or just go full-on Jim Crow with it. Since the gutting of the Voting Rights Act, states have fallen over themselves to do just that. Unsurprisingly, not all have gotten on board. In one of the most predictable developments in American history, the states looking to steal elections by way of denying legal voters their right have focused on non-white voters.

Everybody knows that too, but often enough courts have played dumb to the fact in just the same way they did when Jim Crow got off the ground in the first place. Restrictions that place an uneven burden on the poor and minorities but appear ostensibly neutral or dedicated to an acceptable end, like preventing voter fraud, go up. It becomes instantly, these days, gauche to point out just how they operate or what their architects intended.

But sometimes the real election thieves leave their burglar’s tools out where anybody with a subpoena could find them. North Carolina did that (PDF):

the State argued before the district court that the General Assembly enacted changes to early voting laws to avoid “political gamesmanship” with respect to the hours and locations of early voting centers. As “evidence of justifications” for the changes to early voting, the State offered purported inconsistencies in voting hours across counties, including the fact that only some counties had decided to offer Sunday voting. The State then elaborated on its justification, explaining that “[c]ounties with Sunday voting in 2014 were disproportionately black” and “disproportionately Democratic.” In response, SL 2013-381 did away with one of the two days of Sunday voting.  Thus, in what comes as close to a smoking gun as we are likely to see in modern times, the State’s very justification for a challenged statute hinges explicitly on race — specifically its concern that African Americans, who had overwhelmingly voted for Democrats, had too much access to the franchise.

If you want to really steal an election, and make sure it sticks, you steal it before the polls open. White Americans have known this for a very long time. The Klan operated on the theory, true enough, that a dead man would cast no vote. The North Carolina Republican Party, fallen as far as it can from the days of Lincoln, chose different methods than the Klan. We might count that as progress, but the lynchers wearing sheets only ever constituted the paramilitary and terrorist arm of the movement.

Don’t take my word for it:

Before enacting that law, the legislature requested data on the use, by race, of a number of voting practices. Upon receipt of the race data, the General Assembly enacted legislation that restricted voting and registration in five different ways, all of which disproportionately affected African Americans.

The North Carolina General Assembly didn’t accidentally work to disenfranchise the black Americans it purports to represent. They did their homework and made damned sure to do just what they meant, leaving a copious paper trail along the way:

prior to and during the limited debate on the expanded omnibus bill, members of the General Assembly requested and received a breakdown by race of DMV-issued ID ownership, absentee voting, early voting, same-day registration, and provisional voting (which includes out-of precinct voting). This data revealed that African Americans disproportionately used early voting, same-day registration, and out-of-precinct voting, and disproportionately lacked DMV-issued ID. Not only that, it also revealed that African Americans did not disproportionately use absentee voting; whites did. SL 2013-381 drastically restricted all of these other forms of access to the franchise, but exempted absentee voting from the photo ID requirement.

freedmen votesThe legislators knew what kinds of identification African-Americans held in greater numbers than whites did and systematically removed those from the list of things you could use to prove your bona fides for voting. It doesn’t say, in so many words, that the polling place would operate as a whites-only establishment. Maybe, as we live in a fallen world, come black people would still cast votes. But they clearly intended to do all they could:

In sum, relying on this racial data, the General Assembly enacted legislation restricting all — and only — practices disproportionately used by African Americans.

The appeals court caught North Carolina out and struck down the laws, just as courts have done similar for in other states. But courts need not always do so; they have played dumb before in defense of white power. They surely shall again. What does one call a political organization which, as a matter deliberate policy, seeks out and enacts methods to ensure as few black Americans vote as it can possibly manage? It cannot be any less than white supremacist.

We all knew that already too. We pretend otherwise often enough, but I have told no deep secrets today. Every politically aware American knows that black Americans vote overwhelmingly for the Democrats and against the Republicans. To explain that we either need to pretend they can’t make their own political decisions and so are fooled by the Democratic party, in itself a claim solidly on the side of white power through its embrace of racial theories of intelligence, or we need to admit the truth. If we do the latter, we have to confront what that says about us.


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