This is the second in a series of four articles exploring the history behind, problems with, and solutions to the flaws of the United States electoral system. Part one focused on the history of the electoral system, and part three will focus on the Electoral College.
Over the lifespan of the U.S., there have been numerous methods and countless instances of voter fraud in our nation’s electoral system. One of the earliest forms of fraud that was prevalent throughout the 19th century was cooping, in which gangs of men would coerce or physically assault individuals into voting multiple times. The perpetrators in these scenarios were often employed by political candidates, such as the Chicago Outfit led by Al Capone executing a series of voting line raids on behalf of a friendly mayor in 1925.
Other methods of voter fraud include buying votes, ineligible voting, altering the vote count, and false registration, among others. One of the most infamous perpetrators of all of these forms of fraud was William “Boss” Tweed, the leader of the New York City Democratic Party political machine Tammany Hall and, more covertly, the Tweed Ring. Tweed and his cronies stuffed ballot boxes, bribed and arrested election inspectors, paid people for cooping, and used gang violence to intimidate potential voters.
Tweed was one of many bosses of the various political machines that operated all around the country. These institutions organized voters, allocated government jobs through a system of patronage, and, in many cases, perpetrated voter fraud. Tweed’s record is the most prominent display of the corruption inherently facilitated by this political machine system and one of the first noteworthy actors to display its flaws.
Ultimately, Tweed died in jail in 1878 after being imprisoned in 1873, and with him died some of the most blatant instances of American voter fraud. However, his legacy prevailed at least until the latter half of the 20th century, as fraudulent voting continued to be an issue in small scale primary elections that could be easily influenced by a mere thousand extra votes, due to low voter turnout.
Such abuses of the electoral system were particularly prevalent in the Gilded Age of the 1890s. This was an era of stark wealth inequality dominated by monopolists, often referred to as Robber Barons, whose political and economic clout allowed them to buy ballots, intimidate voters, and perpetrate fraud in elections all around the country. To combat this rampant fraud, the secret ballot — also called the Australian ballot — was introduced in this period. While it might seem foreign to modern Americans, keeping one’s vote a secret was extremely difficult and in some cases impossible until the 1890s at the earliest, and, at the latest, 1950 in South Carolina.
In spite of the secret ballot, electoral manipulation continued throughout the twentieth century, although less frequently and more indirectly. One of the most notorious instances of voter fraud was the Box 13 Scandal in which a ballot box in the small town of Alice, Texas, was stuffed with 202 fraudulent votes to secure Lyndon B. Johnson’s victory in the 1948 senate election with only an 87 vote margin.
This scandal was one of the final, infamous cases of voter fraud before the political machine finally died out in the 1950s, according to some 20th century historians. However, not all agree that the death knell for political machines and their corruption was sounded in the twentieth century; some argue that this occurred as late as 2018, with prominent scandals taking place as recently as 2000.
Many still believe that while political machines in their traditional sense may have died out, the nebulous “establishment” that governs affairs in Washington D.C. is merely an evolution of the same system. This belief has galvanized voters towards populist politicians promising change in recent years. Most notable among these are former President Donald Trump, who infamously vowed to “drain the swamp,” and Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who many believe was robbed of the 2016 and 2020 Democratic primary nomination in the presidential election by forces in the Democratic National Convention friendly to more mainstream politicians.
The 2020 Presidential Election
Directly connected to underlying fears of establishment corruption is the heated question of election integrity and allegedly fraudulent ballots in the 2020 presidential election. Former President Donald Trump has since claimed that he was robbed of victory by corrupt Democrats across the nation who rigged the election in favor of current President Joe Biden through widespread voter fraud.
This claim, bolstered by figures such as Steve Bannon, a former White House chief strategist to Donald Trump, and Rudy Giuliani, Donald Trump’s former chief lawyer, was repeated numerous times by the former president alongside the words, “We’re going to walk down to the Capitol.” This occurred at a rally hours before a violent mob stormed the United States Capitol in an attempt to force legislators to decertify the results of the election on Jan. 6, 2021. Although Trump did clarify to his supporters that their march to the Capitol building should be done “peacefully and patriotically,” the chaos that followed showed that his words were only selectively heeded.
In the following months, former President Trump’s election fraud claims were soundly dismissed by election officials, news outlets, Democrats, two-thirds of the American populace, and, initially, the vast majority of Republicans. However, increasing numbers of Republican politicians have begun to speak out in favor of Trump’s election fraud campaign in part due to the former president’s sustained levels of overwhelming popularity amongst Republican voters and his resolution to only support candidates running for congressional office who back his claims.
The Trump campaign also filed dozens of lawsuits to contest the results of the election, more than 50 of which were dismissed by state and federal judges. One lawsuit against the Philadelphia County Board of Elections was settled partially in favor of the Trump team, although the impact of this lawsuit was simply to allow more partisan poll watchers to be present during vote counting sessions for Democrats and Republicans alike. The Trump legal team eventually brought five other cases before the Supreme Court, all of which were dismissed.
However, those who believed the claims of election fraud were persistent and arranged forensic audits, an examination and evaluation of election results seeking to detect irregularities, in several key states such as Arizona, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Texas.
The first and most notable election audit that took place in Arizona was met with mixed opinions. Ordered by the GOP-controlled Arizona Senate, conducted by an organization that the Arizona Senate picked, and funded by five pro-Trump organizations, the audit was thought by many to be simply a partisan endeavor by the GOP. However, despite these signs of potential bias in favor of Trump, the official results actually showed that Joe Biden received 99 more votes than originally listed while Donald Trump received 261 fewer. Cyber Ninjas, the company that administered the audit, claimed that theirs was “the most comprehensive and complex election audit ever conducted,” and that “there were no substantial differences between the hand count of the ballots provided and the official election canvass results,” which is important because “the paper ballots are the best evidence of voter intent” and “there is no reliable evidence that the paper ballots were altered to any material degree.”
In spite of the results of this audit, influential Republican pundits, such as the aforementioned Steve Bannon, posited that the “true” results of the audit — which allegedly reveal 50,000 fraudulent ballots — were covered up by nefarious actors working to perpetuate the alleged voter fraud. It is also worth noting that although Cyber Ninjas found no evidence of fraud, they still recommended that the Arizona State Legislature pass election security legislation such as prohibiting the connection of tabulators to the internet, linking voter roll registration to changes in identification, and creating an election audit department to dispel any future claims of election fraud in their infancy.
The audits in three other key states that have been conducted similarly support Joe Biden’s victory. In Wisconsin, no evidence of fraud was found despite some seemingly unfounded indictments of the Wisconsin Elections Commission that were ridiculed by Republicans and Democrats alike. In Michigan, “no evidence of intentional misconduct of fraud…was discovered,” although certain recommendations similar to those made by Cyber Ninjas in Arizona were given. Finally, in Pennsylvania, two audits have thus far been conducted certifying the results of the 2020 election, but the Republican-controlled Pennsylvania Senate has ordered a third audit to be conducted in 2022 by Envoy Sage, a company with no prior election audit experience.
Nevertheless, the continued insistence from former President Trump that the election was stolen, the veritable war chest of donations he has accrued supposedly for funding election audits (although the money has not been used for this purpose thus far), and the rallying cry of Steve Bannon for Trump’s supporters to help decertify the results of the 2020 election “village by village…precinct by precinct” sustain the efforts to uncover alleged voter fraud. The continued insistence of such claims from the likes of Donald Trump seems now to be simply a politically powerful way to energize the MAGA Republican base, who still hold great adoration for former President Trump.
Thus, given the lack of authentic evidence around voter fraud in the 2020 election, continued claims of such only serve to bolster the “establishment” that runs Washington by providing certain career politicians, corporate lobbyists, and those who participate in the “revolving door” of politics with easy ammunition against “fringe” groups who would seek to challenge their vice grip on power. By galvanizing anti-establishment voters in the wrong way, figures like Donald Trump do not only fail in rooting out corruption but also perpetuate, knowingly or unknowingly, the very “swamp” that Trump had used as rhetorical fuel time and time again on his road to the White House.
How to Bolster Security in Elections
Despite the lack of evidence for widespread voter fraud in the 2020 election, states can still make a change to expedite the dismissal of future fraud claims of fraud: instituting a non-strict voter identification requirement in each state. The term “non-strict” means that if a potential voter does not have access to any form of photo identification, they may instead sign an affidavit of identity that is verified by poll workers or, if done through an absentee ballot, by election officials. Currently, 24 states have non-strict voter ID laws in place: 13 Republican, nine Democrat, and two swing states
Non-strict voter identification stands in contrast to strict voter identification, in which voters without an acceptable photo identification must vote on a provisional ballot and take extra steps after voting to ensure that their vote is counted. Non-strict laws are preferable to strict laws because, according to a 2006 study jointly conducted by political scientists from multiple universities, strict voter ID laws disproportionately negatively impact minorities, given the decreased likelihood of minorities to have the prerequisite documents necessary to acquire a form of identification. The failure to address this issue or institute a nationwide identification campaign leaves open the possibility of suppression — intentional or otherwise — of minority votes.
Were this disparity in access to identification to be solved, then strict voter identification laws would be perfectly acceptable. However, given the verified security of recent elections, non-strict voter identification requirements seem to be a reasonable compromise in preventing future fraud as, ultimately, the voter’s identity must be verified in some way during the election process.
An example of how not to properly bolster election security lies in Georgia’s Election Integrity Act of 2021. Although certain tenets of the law — making it a crime to improperly influence voters by passing out food and water to those waiting in line to vote, expanding early in-person voting, and increasing voting stations, staff, and equipment in previously overburdened voting locations — are positive, the act is largely detrimental to both voter participation and, in certain ways, election security.
The law decreases the total number of ballot drop boxes, significantly lowering the viable locations where a potential voter can go to vote, and institutes a strict voter identification requirement. Most importantly, it gives the Georgia General Assembly, Georgia’s state legislature, majority control over the State Board of Elections. This latter provision grants the partisan legislature the ability to replace any county election board members who fail to disqualify certain ballots or decertify results that the legislature deems invalid. In a state like Georgia with significant Democratic and Republican populations, this sets a worrying precedent in already tightly contested elections and leaves the door open to fraudulent election results, the very thing the act allegedly aims to prevent.
Ultimately, there are ways in which election security can be improved across the country, whether that be through non-strict voter identification requirements or some other means that do not compromise vibrant voter participation for potentially better security. Unfortunately for Americans, however, this issue, like most issues today, has become incredibly partisan; Republicans seem to be the “election security” group while Democrats have taken up the mantle of championing “election participation.”
The sooner Americans realize that these two issues are not mutually exclusive and can be tackled together to ensure a fairer and freer nation for all, the sooner things will actually start getting done.
Categories: Domestic Affairs