Deliver the Vote: A History of Election Fraud, an American Political Tradition—1742-2004
Even before the first absentee ballots arrived, the nation’s legal guns were cocked in anticipation of a volley of lawsuits after this November’s midterm elections. While in most respects there’s nothing surprising about litigious reactions to recent elections, there’s a fresh irony to consider: Many eligible voters are basing their assertions of injustice on overzealous interpretations of state and federal laws passed since 2000 in a supposed effort to eliminate voting fraud. Under the legal guise of such laws as the 2002 Help America Vote Act, several states have thwarted the ability of unions, churches, and nonprofits to undertake voter registration drives. Voting machines purchased with funds provided by the federal act do away with “hanging chads,” but are highly vulnerable to hacking and other security issues (80 percent of votes on November 7 were tabulated by computer). In sweeps of felons and deceased voters from registration lists, eligible voters have been removed as well. It’s hardly fair to seriously expect the government to eliminate all voter fraud, but these unexpected consequences are clear indications of how perverted the interaction of technology, justice, and democracy can be.
If any historian could reasonably disentangle this knot, it would be Tracy Campbell. An associate professor at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, Campbell is the author of the well-received Short of the Glory: The Fall and Redemption of Edward F. Prichard, Jr., a gripping tale of a politician whose career was assassinated by ballot stuffing. In his new book, Deliver the Vote, he provides an exhaustively researched, but often droning, account of election fraud in the United States. Everywhere he looks, Campbell finds fraud, corruption, and scandal. The problem with this otherwise informative book is not with the fraud he finds, but with his unconvincing assertion that it has rotted out the core of American democracy and, relatedly, his failure to place the present mess in more meaningful historical perspective. The Help American Vote Act, for example, gets an obligatory nod on page 326, but only to mention that states did a poor job of spending the money quickly enough. The cursory mention, though, is somewhat emblematic, as Campbell is more interested in compiling than analyzing. Instead of a narrative, we get a laundry list. And a laundry list doesn’t get irony.
Campbell has, by his own account, spent 10 years scaring up cases of election fraud at every level. The effort shows. Scouring hundreds of secondary sources and a smaller number of primary sources, he has compiled cases of the rankest and most galling electoral dishonesty. Campbell assumes a stance of innocence-lost outrage—how could this happen in the Land of the Free?—and the openness and ease with which fraud happened leads him to some overwrought conclusions. He taps his cache of evidence to argue that politics in America “was deeply corrupted and [has] been so for over two hundred years.”
“Deeply embedded” within American political culture is the recognition that “cheating is fully justifiable.” The “culture of corruption” that evidently permeates American politics “has demonstrated an unwelcome civics lesson: Election fraud is a crime that usually pays.” Fraud, he writes on the last page, “is a fundamental threat to our democratic birthright.” The seething claims that fraud pervades elections, pays off, and threatens the fabric of democracy might go a long way toward convincing editors at a commercial press that the book can be profitably marketed. In this case, there’s a hitch: Campbell’s own evidence does not support such muscular assertions.
Part of the problem has to do with Campbell’s unrefined presentation of his ample material. With a ham-handed touch, he states the argument about the pervasiveness (and effectiveness) of electoral fraud and then dumps 10 years of research on us without packaging the data for consumption. Granted, literary elegance is rare in works of political history, but when the only glue binding the evidence is chronology, the narrative and the polemic quickly disintegrate. The reader is yanked across the surface of history from “bleeding Kansas” in 1856 (the colonial and early American periods are basically not included despite the subtitle), to primary elections in the Jim Crow South, to a referendum on the building of the St. Louis Gateway Arch, to the notorious tactics of “landslide Lyndon,” to the Bushwhacking of 2000 without a sense of how these compelling cases reflect electoral life as a whole. As these conspicuous examples of electoral fraud speed by like frames of a film in fast-forward, the realization slowly sets in that this cinder block of a book is little more than a dutiful compendium of election scams. The scams, moreover, might hold inherent individual interest, but they speak to each other through nothing more than tightly turned anecdotes and strings of brash quotations from the mouths of vote-stealing moral reprobates. (“We didn’t steal as many counties as you think… to hell with the Constitution… “[t]o get fifty percent of the vote, you’ve got to buy it.”) In other words, Deliver the Vote is a clip job—one that’s heavy on the examples and meticulous in its documentation, but still a clip job.
Perhaps aware that his material fails to collectively sustain an all-out assault on the foundation of American democracy, Campbell frequently overstates the larger impact of electoral fraud or draws weighty connections that are plausible enough, but lacking in efficient evidence. His discussion of the 1805 New York mayoral race through the lens of local gamblers and their odds, for example, seems peripheral to the larger issue of how money and campaigns interact. His subsequent assertion that attractive long-shot candidates motivated urban thugs (who had their money on the dark horse) to get out their vote through arm-twisting and ballot-stuffing is a reach. Sure, it’s possible that such small-time skullduggery happened, but Campbell’s decision to offer no evidence supporting a connection between gambling odds and voting-day corruption is as surprising as his near-complete neglect of much more apposite issues—like campaign finance.
Unsupported blanket claims appear too often and too casually. When a 1933 general election in Harlan County, Kentucky, turned bloody (with frustrating vagueness, Campbell writes that “countless… people were stabbed or beaten”), the local paper “reported the killings on page four in a single column.” This blurb is enough for Campbell to conclude, “This made clear to what extent violence and even murder had become an accepted part of an election culture in the mountains.” Well, no, it doesn’t. Another example: The presidential election of 2000 notwithstanding, contemporary “vote-buying and vote-suppression” are rarely as blatant as they were throughout earlier periods of American history. This unstated, and slightly inconvenient, point leads Campbell to indict the fact that “the American electorate has been segmented into easily identifiable groups” as the newest source of well-targeted fraud that’s so infectious that “no matter how many reforms are implemented,” the fraud will inevitably persist. Sure, politicians probe special interest group-thought to court the loyalty of voter blocs, but to say this courting is the precondition of inevitable fraud requires—yet again—evidence if the critical reader is going to make the leap into paranoia.
Campbell ends his litany with the exceptional election of 2000. His recounting of Bush’s purloined victory, based largely on Washington Post stories, is riveting, and his insistence that absentee balloting was rife with fraud, as well as the claim that technological “solutions” only spawn more opportunities for fraud, is generally convincing. But once again his conclusion—that “the steady persistence of election fraud helps explain some of the declining participation levels among American voters”—is another disappointing example of the rubber never hitting the road. “If the game is perceived to be rigged,” writes Campbell, “many will opt not to play.” Like so many of the claims made in this book, it sounds reasonable. But without evidence, it falls into an abyss of speculation.
Perhaps the underlying reason that Campbell’s impressive collection of fraud cases fails to do much more than remind readers that a streak of electoral corruption has always run through the democratic process is that his emphasis on conspicuous cases downplays the legal fraud that characterized voting for most of American history. A bunch of bullies stuffing ballots in a small-town election—a recurring theme in this book—seems amateurish next to the fact that throughout most of American history, women and blacks were denied the franchise. If anything cuts to the core of our supposedly democratic heritage, this is it. Campbell’s decision, in a 452-page book, to mention the Voting Rights Act only once and dedicate a mere three pages to women’s suffrage seems to be, in the end, a bit, well, fraudulent.
James E. McWilliams’ new book, Building the Bay Colony, will be published next spring. He is currently working on a book about the history of insect control in the United States.