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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Debunking Bunkum

Felix Walker historical marker

Felix Walker historical marker

On February 25, 1820, Felix Walker rose to address the House of Representatives on the Missouri question: Would the Show Me State come into the Union with slavery undisturbed, or with the institution on the road to extinction? By this point, the House had heard every aspect of the issue dissected at often rancorous and tedious length. Could one more speech hurt that much?

Apparently so. The Annals of Congress, predicessor to the Congressional Globe, report that

the question was called for so clamorously and so perserveringly that Mr. W. could proceed no farther than to move that the Committee rise.

The Committee refused to rise, by an almost unanimous vote.

The Annals of Congress do not preserve Walker’s remarks, only the motion and its rejection. Any good survey of the era or work on the Missouri Compromise will tell you a bit more. Pleading with the House, Walker allegedly said that he spoke not to that body but rather for his constituents back in Buncombe County, North Carolina. In other words, Walker made a speech for the political theater of it rather than out of sincere belief in anything save that he ought to put the right foot forward. Walker’s invocation of Buncombe entered the lexicon as bunkum, eventually shortened to bunk.

Walker gave us the word for it, but politicians the world over have long practiced bunkum in abundance. A particularly cynical person might take from that that we ought to ignore all they say, or even take their spoken word as the opposite of their genuine positions. That can make perfectly good sense, as people in general do lie often enough. We also shade our meanings, exaggerate, phrase ourselves ambiguously, and otherwise craft impressions of ourselves running more to the convenient and appealing than earnest. Nor do we have the good decency to make clear just when and to what degree we do so, as that would give the whole game away. As such, we must parse things closely, looking to deeds, circumstances, and personal consistency as much as to the letter of a text. This holds true as much for the nineteenth century as any other time.

Go around the internet long enough and you’ll discover that neo-Confederates come in different flavors. They all end up in the same place, but arrive there by many roads. The low rent sorts will content themselves with denials and expressions of ancestral resentment. Yankees have always had it out for the South, hating the section for its virtue and seeking ever to degrade and debase it. The Union Army came through and stole everything not nailed down. (Especially the people.) Sherman burned every stick of upright wood between Atlanta and Savannah. (And would you like to tour one of our lovely antebellum mansions?) Grant incinerated whole regiments by exhaling over his cigar. (No one else ever drank a drop.) The North (never the United States) fought the Civil War as part of some black magic ritual to destroy states’ rights. A rendition of one’s ancestors martial prowess, real or imagined, soon follows. Though repulsive, the remarkably ignorance one finds in these types can at least make for some unintentional humor.

The clown car takes on passengers from more sophisticated environs too. Here you hear more about tariffs and very abstract talk about ways of life. Some of these people have even read period documents, which puts them in a bit of a bind:

Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery– the greatest material interest of the world.

We affirm that these ends for which this Government was instituted have been defeated, and the Government itself has been made destructive of them by the action of the non-slaveholding States. Those States have assume the right of deciding upon the propriety of our domestic institutions; and have denied the rights of property established in fifteen of the States and recognized by the Constitution; they have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery; they have permitted open establishment among them of societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace and to eloign the property of the citizens of other States. They have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes; and those who remain, have been incited by emissaries, books and pictures to servile insurrection.

For the last ten years we have had numerous and serious causes of complaint against our non-slave-holding confederate States with reference to the subject of African slavery. They have endeavored to weaken our security, to disturb our domestic peace and tranquility, and persistently refused to comply with their express constitutional obligations to us in reference to that property

The controlling majority of the Federal Government, under various pretences and disguises, has so administered the same as to exclude the citizens of the Southern States, unless under odious and unconstitutional restrictions, from all the immense territory owned in common by all the States on the Pacific Ocean, for the avowed purpose of acquiring sufficient power in the common government to use it as a means of destroying the institutions of Texas and her sister slave-holding States.

Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition.

Alexander Stephens

Alexander Stephens

I could go on. White southerners agreed in remarkable volume and right up until the spring of 1865, that they fought a war to save slavery. They only changed their minds afterwards. Neo-confederates familiar with these texts, and others confronted with them, will often cry bunkum. Southern politicians, they tell us, indulged in fiery proslavery rhetoric entirely to please the rubes back home. They actually had other motives which arose from constitutional abstractions, as everybody knows that one adopts constitutionalisms out of perfect disinterest rather than as a means of achieving policy goals. Conversely, they will also invoke bunkum to explain away antislavery rhetoric on the part of Northern politicians. Those fiends had some kind of vision of an industrial, centralized United States which everyone clearly hated so they had to dress it up in more appealing terms. Put these two sets of bunkum together, as some historians have, and you find a pack of irresponsible, reckless, blundering politicians who drove the country into a needless war.

That argument appeals to some people still. A few historians, mostly getting on in years, still defend at least limited versions of it. More will defend a version of bunkum projected back further into the Antebellum. Sean Wilentz has described Federalist antislavery rhetoric as simple partisan positioning, dismissing it in short order so he can write his epic story of the Democracy as freedom’s greatest champion. An old Whig turned Republican did the actual emancipating, but he somehow embodied the true Jacksonian faith. In making that claim, Wilentz largely follows Jefferson and others of his time who imagined the Missouri controversy as a cynical play by old time Federalists to regain power on the national stage. Quite how they would have done so while not contesting the presidential race, adopting a policy that would do them no good anywhere in the South and little good in the West, and by rallying around the proposal of one of Jefferson’s own Republicans, I have no idea.

Set that aside for a moment. For the sake of argument, grant that antislavery and proslavery politicians did make bunkum speeches on the subject. They must have at least some of the time. Occasionally they kindly left us private misgivings or words to the effect of how they didn’t much care about this issue or that but chose a side in the interest of Southern honor or solidarity. The Lower South largely did this when it came to the Fugitive Slave Law. Much of the South, aside Missouri, did the same on Kansas. On the antislavery side we might cast the belief in the slave power conspiracy as something on the same order. In fact, we could stipulate that the politicians on both sides endorsed the positions and uttered the rhetoric that they did entirely to deceive. That oversells the case very badly, more so than any serious blundering generation scholar would probably support, but we may as well go all the way. Even if all of that holds true and the United States achieved in the nineteenth century the Platonic ideal of bunkum, does it really change our understanding of the sectional conflict?

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

I don’t think so. Any discussion of bunkum that limits itself to politicians and their speeches has missed the most important thing about it. Felix Walker and others like him might have made speeches in bad faith. They may have lied to their constituents and posterity in the name of their personal gain. But Walker’s constituents in North Carolina, James Tallmadge’s in New York, and all the rest wouldn’t settle for just any bunkum. Few voters in Massachusetts would swoon and toss the proverbial panties on stage for Charles Sumner, had he told them about the wonders of slavery. Nor would their countrymen in Mississippi do the same if Jefferson Davis spoke about its evils.

For bunkum to work at all, it must speak to the general interests of the relevant voting public. It must reflect their fears and hopes. As such, any successful use of bunkum indicates that, whatever a cynical politician or latter-day historian might thing, the speaker has hit on a genuine sentiment. Maybe the elected official doesn’t believe every word, but the people back home believe enough for it to matter. Insincere bunkum and genuine belief feed into one another. A practitioner of bunk helps frame the debate and set expectations for the voters, but those voters have their own active role to play in shaping the content of bunkum and thus the policies it drives. Neither party passively accepts what the other offers, but rather voters and politicians inevitably work in conscious partnership.

Did politicians indulge in proslavery and antislavery bunkum? Sometimes they must have, as we all do about any subject. We should ask the question as part of our normal interrogation of sources. Who, when, and to what degree will always remain open to interpretation. But if we stop there we write the voters out of the story, reducing the beliefs and interests of millions to the status of generic minions for the class of men that get buildings named after them. Including the millions who supported the politicians makes for a less tidy narrative, but one which tells us far more about the past than the characters of famous men. That broader story naturally implicates us as much as any historical figure, who we might otherwise imagine ourselves detached from. We produce and consume bunkum ourselves, our preferences for it speaking to our natures as much as the habits of past actors speak to theirs.