How to Steal an ElectionRoundup
tags: Jim Crow, Reconstruction, elections, election fraud
Dr. Grinspan is a curator of political history at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.
Around supper time on Election Day, 1880, the poll workers in Bolivar County, Miss., were getting hungry. Someone ran out for sardines and crackers. The officials noshed and counted votes until the “violent laxative” that had been added to the Republicans’ sardines started to take effect. Then they ran for the outhouses while the remaining Democrats counted a suspiciously large majority.
As a historian of American democracy, I used to collect anecdotes like this from the mid-to-late 1800s. They dramatized, with outlandish gall, just how different America’s past was from the square politics I grew up with in the late 20th century. But on the eve of an election the president of the United States has declared might be stolen from him, a fear he promises to counter with an “army” of partisan poll watchers, dirty tricks don’t feel so distant. As our politics have darkened, I’ve shifted away from studying spiked sardines, wondering instead how Americans ever stopped stealing elections.
Such thefts are not cute. They robbed thousands of people of their rights, helped kill Reconstruction, and forestalled political reform. We still suffer from these crimes, over a century later. But in a striving nation dominated by what Charles Dickens called “the love of smart dealings,” crooked politicians often chuckled about their cunning. “Instead of wrath” at stolen elections, the humorist James Russell Lowell complained upon returning from abroad, “I found banter.” When the journalist Lincoln Steffens mentioned a St. Louis trick to a party boss in Philadelphia, the two began excitedly talking shop, “as one artist to another.” Although most elections were (relatively) clean, “majority manufacturers” in teeming Northern cities, racially tense Southern districts and new Western settlements laid out two paths for stealing elections — steal the cast or steal the count.
Understanding how these swindles worked can help shed light on what we should and shouldn’t worry about in 2020.
“Stealing the cast” on Election Day was a lot of work, much of it illegal and confrontational. “Stealing the count” was easier. It required quietly turning power into more power, using local officials to swing state elections with national consequences. The notorious Democratic journalist Marcus (Brick) Pomeroy later bragged about throwing opposition votes into the fire when he worked one election in Wisconsin. Missing ballots sometimes showed up, charred and deserted, on Mississippi roads.
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