These 10 High Stakes Elections in America Were Bought, Rigged, or Stolen

These 10 High Stakes Elections in America Were Bought, Rigged, or Stolen

Larry Holzwarth - December 10, 2017

America’s first presidential election was held when the Electoral College unanimously selected George Washington to become president in February of 1789. Washington again won in 1792. In those days, whomever had the second highest number of votes among the electors became Vice President, with John Adams receiving that honor, which he found dubious, on both occasions. Neither election was controversial, largely due to the overwhelming national popularity of George Washington. It seemed to all that the electoral process defined in the Constitution worked as its founders had intended.

That confidence did not last through the third presidential election, which was the first to truly be contended by opposing candidates. The emergence of political parties, shaped by regional factions and the debate over whether America should be an agrarian or industrial society, with a strong federal government or dominated by individual states, changed the nation and led to changes in the manner by which it elected its government. Since then many American elections, local, state, and national, have been controversial. There have been allegations of stolen elections, corrupt deals, stuffed ballot boxes, illegal votes being cast, bribery, and virtually every other sign of elections being “rigged” – to use a term in vogue – ever since.

These 10 High Stakes Elections in America Were Bought, Rigged, or Stolen
No controversy surrounded the election of the first president. Presidential campaigns and elections have been controversial ever since. MOMA

The American people’s right to elect their leaders by casting votes is the cornerstone of their government. Here are ten instances when that right may have been less sacred than you would think.

These 10 High Stakes Elections in America Were Bought, Rigged, or Stolen
John Adams was the first incumbent President to run for reelection and lose. The White House

The Presidential Election of 1800

Under the Constitution prior to the passage of the Twelfth Amendment, electors from several states were permitted to cast two votes for candidates eligible for the presidency. The prevailing theory behind the two votes was that one would be cast for President and one for Vice President. When the process was created during the Constitutional Convention established political parties did not exist. Nor were they anticipated by the Founders. By the end of George Washington’s terms of office party factions dominated American politics.

These parties were the Federalists, led by John Adams and Alexander Hamilton, who favored British policies and centralization of federal government. Adams and Hamilton, while of the same party, were bitterly divided on most issues. The opposing party was the Democratic-Republican party, who believed in a decentralized form of government, supported the French over the British, and were led by Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr.

Of the 16 states then extant, only six used popular vote to select its electors. The rest were elected by the state legislators. The two Democratic-Republican candidates – Burr and Jefferson – were from New York and Virginia respectively, relatively populous states. Although Burr was the party preference for the office of Vice President, the vagaries of the two electoral votes per elector system resulted in Burr and Jefferson being tied with 73 electoral votes each. John Adams, the leading Federalist, received 65.

Under the Constitution, the election was to be decided by the outgoing House of Representatives, which voted as states, with one vote for each of the 16 states. The House voted for a week, holding 35 different votes, without being able to select between Jefferson – who had dominated the popular vote where it had been cast – and Burr. Federalists in the House were opposed to Jefferson, many for personal reasons as well as political. Federalist Alexander Hamilton wrote dozens of letters persuading Federalists to vote for Jefferson, referring to Burr as a dangerous man – one of the sources of the animosity between Burr and Hamilton which would lead to their famous duel.

In the end, Jefferson won on the 36th ballot when several Federalists submitted blank ballots, rather than vote for either candidate. The incoming House of Representatives took action to correct the flaws which allowed for the tied election – and other inconsistencies in the electoral voting process – by passing the 12th Amendment to the Constitution, which was ratified in 1804. Among other changes, it specified that separate and distinct votes for President and Vice President were to be cast by electors.

These 10 High Stakes Elections in America Were Bought, Rigged, or Stolen
Andrew Jackson won the popular vote and held a substantial lead in the Electoral College but lost the election in the House of Representatives. US Senate

The Corrupt Bargain of 1824

There were four candidates for President in the election of 1824, and all of them were from the same party – the Democratic-Republicans. The Federalist Party was all but dead, in the preceding election of 1820 James Monroe, a Democratic-Republican, had run for re-election unopposed. In 1824 there was no popular vote for president in six of the 24 states.

Andrew Jackson of Tennessee won the popular vote in the states where it was cast, over John Quincy Adams of Massachusetts, Henry Clay of Kentucky, and William Crawford of Georgia. Jackson’s margin over the other candidates was substantial in the popular vote, but was a plurality rather than a majority of the total.

None of the candidates achieved the required majority in the Electoral College, and under the Twelfth Amendment, only the top three candidates in terms of electoral votes were presented to the House of Representatives, who would decide the contest in a contingency election in 1825. Henry Clay, the presiding Speaker of the House, was left out. Clay, embittered by his loss, personally detested Jackson.

Jackson had won the popular vote and was the leading vote winner in the Electoral College, which naturally led him to believe that he would prevail in the House election. He underestimated the power of the position of Speaker. Clay used his influence and his ability to reward members of the House with a favorable legislative calendar to build support for Adams. Jackson lost the election in the House when Adams carried thirteen states. Jackson carried seven, Crawford four.

When the incoming President Adams named his cabinet, he selected Henry Clay to be his Secretary of State. Four consecutive presidents, including Adams, had served as Secretary of State prior to being elected, thus Clay’s appointment was seen as elevating him to the most favorable position to succeed Adams. Jackson, armed by the knowledge that no man had won more votes for the office than he, immediately labeled the election of John Quincy Adams as a “corrupt bargain.”

These 10 High Stakes Elections in America Were Bought, Rigged, or Stolen
Rutherford B. Hayes lost the popular vote and was losing in the Electoral College when a supportive House made him President. Library of Congress

The Presidential Election of 1876

By 1876 the two leading political parties in the United States were the Republicans, who had dominated presidential elections since the Civil War, and the Democrats, who had risen in strength in Congress as Reconstruction brought more former Confederate states back into the Union. The presidential election of 1876 became the most controversial in American history, at least until the mid-twentieth century. Republican candidate Rutherford B. Hayes lost the popular vote to Democrat Samuel Tilden, and trailed in the Electoral College. But he won the Presidency.

The preceding year Ulysses S Grant gave serious consideration to running for a third term, but opted out after the House passed a non-binding resolution recognizing the two-term tradition as a protection against tyranny. Several smaller political parties influenced the election, including the new Prohibition Party and the Greenback Party, which pushed for the issuance of greater amounts of paper money in the money supply. There was no popular vote in Colorado, which had not been able to establish a state-wide voting system in time, as it had too recently been admitted to the Union.

The Greenback and Prohibition candidates received popular votes which amounted to less than 1.5% of the total, which was won by Tilden with over 50% of the votes cast. Hayes, a former congressman from and Governor of Ohio, trailed by more than 200,000. In several southern states including South Carolina, Louisiana, and Florida, Republican-dominated electoral commissions questioned the results and refused to certify the election. Questionable tactics to award Oregon’s electoral votes were used as well. By the time the shenanigans were over Hayes held an Electoral College lead of one vote, enough to win the election.

Because of the manner in which Electoral votes were counted – by the President of the Senate (then a Republican) in the presence of both Houses, and the objections of the solidly Democratic House of Representatives to a Republican likely counting disputed votes, Congress created a Commission of fifteen members, five from the House, five from the Senate, and five from the Supreme Court, to settle the election by resolving the issue of the disputed votes.

The Commission may have resolved the issue via the Compromise of 1877, which was an informal and unwritten agreement that the new President Hayes would remove the remaining Federal troops in the South, allowing Reconstruction to end and giving the Democrats a solid political base there. All of the disputed electoral votes in the South were then awarded to Hayes, who became president. The compromise was never publicly admitted, but Democrats dominated presidential elections in the deep South for the next fifty years and beyond.

These 10 High Stakes Elections in America Were Bought, Rigged, or Stolen
According to numerous reports, Richard Daley’s machine found votes for Kennedy in graveyards, among other sources. Wikipedia

1960 Presidential Election in Chicago

In 1960, the presidential election was between young Democratic Senator John F. Kennedy and the Vice-President of the outgoing administration, Richard Nixon. The race was close, divisive and often dirty. Although there was little mud-slinging done by the two candidates, who maintained at least a semblance of decorum, their campaigns and supporters were less concerned with professional courtesy and polite discourse.

Following Kennedy’s narrow victory accusations of voter fraud were immediate and widespread, particularly in Texas – where Kennedy’s running mate Lyndon Johnson had a long history of questionable political practices – and in Chicago, home of the Daley Democratic political machine.

In Chicago alone, Kennedy eventually carried by a margin of more than 450,000 votes, enough that the New York Herald-Tribune (which was pro-Nixon) “…claimed to have discovered sufficient evidence of vote fraud to prove that the state was stolen for Kennedy.”

Subsequent rumors that the election was stolen on Kennedy’s behalf by organized crime figures such as Sam Giancana have long been repeated and never proven, often linked to rumors of Joseph Kennedy maintaining ties to the mob since his own bootlegging days. Joseph Kennedy Sr. has never been evidentially linked to either bootlegging or the mob, but that has done nothing to stop the rumors.

What has been established evidentially is the power of the Cook County Democratic Party – then run by Richard Daley – and its ability to get out the vote and to alter its results. Daley didn’t release the results of the Chicago area balloting until late morning of the following day, after the number of votes needed to overcome the results of the voting in the rest of the state was known.

New York Herald-Tribune reporter Earl Mazo later investigated in Chicago using voter registration rolls and found registered names on the rolls of people who had voted which matched names found on tombstones in Chicago cemeteries. Daley later responded to the accusations of voter fraud by accusing several Republican counties in the southern part of the state of doing the same thing for Nixon. These accusations were found by the same reporter to have been true, but on a lesser scale than what had occurred in Chicago. How the people of Illinois actually voted in 1960 will likely never be known.

These 10 High Stakes Elections in America Were Bought, Rigged, or Stolen
Voting irregularities in Texas followed LBJ throughout his political career. Wikimedia Commons.

1960 Presidential Election in Texas

While it is generally acknowledged that John F. Kennedy loathed Lyndon Johnson, the election of 1960 was too close to risk losing the State of Texas, and Johnson on the ticket with him would help ensure a Kennedy win. In this judgment, Kennedy was relying not so much on Johnson’s popularity but on his knowledge of how to manipulate the electoral machinery in Texas. As the election unfolded and the results were analyzed it became clear that Johnson had delivered.

Kennedy carried the state by a margin of 46,000 votes, achieving a majority in the state, which defenders have long cited as evidence that there was little, if any, voting irregularity. They have contended that the margin of victory was too large to have been from illegal votes. Kennedy defeated Nixon in Texas by 51% to 49%. It should be remembered that if Nixon had carried the electoral votes from both Texas and Illinois he would have won the presidency.

In several Texas counties, later analysis revealed that there had indeed been questionable vote totals. Fannin County in 1960 contained 4,895 registered voters. Fannin County’s returns for the 1960 election counted a total of 6,138 votes for President. About 75% of the ballots cast were for Kennedy/Johnson. In one district of Angelina County where only 86 registered voters were on the voter rolls, 187 votes for Kennedy were counted against 24 for Nixon.

Johnson’s long-established political base in Southern Texas centered around Duval County was notorious throughout the 20th century for delivering large numbers of illegal votes, many from Mexicans brought in from across the border, and the region, as expected, went solidly for the Democratic ticket. Republican demands for a statewide recount were thwarted by the Democratic-run State Board of Elections’ rapid certification of Kennedy as the winner, supported in their view by the size of his victory margin.

Richard Nixon announced three days following the election in 1960 that he would not contest the results with recounts, a decision no doubt influenced by reports of irregularities in numerous Republican-carried districts in many states. The 1960 election may be remembered as the one stolen by Kennedy and Johnson, but it is clear from the efforts of dozens of scholars and historians that both sides used illegal means to build their vote totals, with the real loser being the American voting public.

These 10 High Stakes Elections in America Were Bought, Rigged, or Stolen
While Benjamin Harrison preached of the sanctity of the voting process his campaign purchased thousands of illegal votes. The White House

1888 Presidential Election in Indiana

The practice of voting fraud is an old and well-established process with its own vocabulary. A “repeater” for example is a voter who votes several times in one district, usually at the behest of party operatives who help find the way to the polls. A floater is a voter who, like a repeater, visits more than one polling place in a given election and is compensated for his services by the party for which he votes. In areas where no voter registration exists, floaters and repeaters flourish, as they did in the state of Indiana in 1888.

Floaters and repeaters were aided by the practice of local political party offices pre-printing ballots which contained the names of their candidates. A floater carried the ballots for insertion into the ballot box, rather than filling out a ballot at the polls. The ballots were large enough that poll workers or other interested observers could see how a particular voter voted, and then bribe other voters accordingly, to either offset or supplement the vote.

In 1888, Republican Candidate Benjamin Harrison was running against Democratic President Grover Cleveland. Harrison was aware of the president’s popularity with voters, and his strategy included defeating Cleveland in his own home state, New York, as well as carrying Indiana, Harrison’s home state. To do so required him to engage in fraudulent voting practices which the voting laws of the two states made practicable.

In Indiana the Republicans not only planned to buy votes using floaters, but they put the plan in writing. While the Republican candidate extolled the virtues of legal votes from the campaign pulpit, his supporter William Dudley implemented plans to purchase votes, instructing campaign workers to “…divide the floaters into blocks of five, and put a trusted man with necessary funds in charge…” Despite the instructions and the entire plan being revealed in newspapers nationwide prior to the election, the Republicans went ahead with it during the election.

Grover Cleveland won the popular vote nationwide, but Benjamin Harrison carried Indiana and through similar approaches to voting in New York, carried that state as well. Harrison won the Electoral College, carrying 20 of the 38 states. Harrison never admitted being aware of Dudley’s vote buying, nor did he ever deny knowledge, but after securing the presidency he never contacted his long-time friend again.

These 10 High Stakes Elections in America Were Bought, Rigged, or Stolen
Despite carrying the Commonwealth’s popular vote for vice president, Virginia’s electors refused to vote for Richard Johnson of Kentucky. Wikipedia

1836 Presidential Election in Virginia

A member of the Electoral College who for whatever reason breaks with and does not vote for the candidate for whom they are pledged to vote is a faithless elector. For the most part members of the Electoral College have kept faith with their pledged candidates for president and vice president but there have been exceptions. In 21 states there is no legal requirement for the electors to follow the dictates of the party and vote for their pledged candidate.

There have been 179 electors who have deviated from their expected vote and voted faithlessly. On two different occasions, the candidate to which electors were pledged died before the Electoral College voted. In one instance in 1872 Democratic candidate Horace Greeley won 66 Electoral Votes in the general election but died before the Electoral College voted, leading his votes to be divided among other candidates.

Almost always faithless electors have acted alone, risking censure or party retaliation, as well as potential criminal penalties in 29 states. To do otherwise would be to eliminate the will of the people as expressed in the popular vote. So when all the electors of a state act faithlessly it would be a clear defiance of popular will as expressed at the ballot box, an obvious negation of the right of the people to be heard through the polls.

But it happened, in 1836, and it affected not who would win the presidency, but who would serve as his vice president. In the election of 1836, Martin Van Buren was the Democratic nominee for President with Kentucky congressman Richard M. Johnson his running mate. The opposing Whig party ran four candidates, hoping to prevent Van Buren from winning an Electoral majority through regional favoritism, allowing the House to then decide the election. Van Buren and Johnson won the popular vote and should have won enough electoral votes as well.

The entire Virginia contingent of the Electoral College supported Van Buren for president, but refused to cast ballots for Johnson as vice president, which left him short of the number needed to win the office. Their objection to Johnson was his well-known relationship with a racially mixed woman (then known as an octoroon). The vice presidential election was sent to the Senate, which elected Johnson to the office.

These 10 High Stakes Elections in America Were Bought, Rigged, or Stolen
George Washington in the uniform of the Virginia militia, as he appeared in the 1750s. Wikipedia

George Washington’s election to the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1758

As noted earlier, George Washington won the office of the presidency unopposed, with unanimous support in the Electoral College, a feat he accomplished twice. But it wasn’t so easy in the early days of his political career, before he led a revolution and achieved a reputation of integrity which remains unrivaled. Washington’s first political forays were in local politics, always rough and tumble, and in those days a candidate for elected office was expected to provide liquid refreshment to voters if he wanted the support of their votes.

In his first attempt at election to the Virginia Burgesses, Washington was appalled at the practice of providing drink to voters, and he made his opinion known. As a 24-year-old candidate, he protested, refused to serve alcohol at the polls, and lost by a whopping 271 to 40. As he would in other defeats then still in his future, he learned from the experience.

In 1758, with his reputation enhanced due to his military experiences, Washington ran again for the Burgesses. This time his campaign expenses included the purchase of over 144 gallons (some sources say 160) of beverages which included hard cider, rum, beer, and a popular fortified wine called Madeira. In this campaign Washington won office with 331 votes, averaging a bit less than a half-gallon of drink per vote.

At that, he was concerned that he wasn’t spending enough to lubricate the sensibilities of potential supporters. He wrote of his concern to his close friend holding the position now known as campaign manager wondering if he had spent enough, as he waited for the results to be tallied. Alcohol and its influence on voters were used to buy support at the polls for decades, and laws still exist restricting the sale of alcoholic beverages while polls are open in many states.

They began in 1811, when Maryland passed a law which prohibited candidates from buying drinks for voters on Election Day. Candidates have ever since sought means to circumvent the law, and every other subsequent law (such as donation limits), to ensure the sanctity of the vote is inviolate.

These 10 High Stakes Elections in America Were Bought, Rigged, or Stolen
Although many others challenged the results in 2004, Democratic candidate John Kerry did not. Wikipedia

Presidential Election of 2004

In 2004, Republican George W. Bush and his running mate Dick Cheney won reelection by defeating Democrat John Kerry and John Edwards. Bush carried 31 states in the popular vote, leading to a total of 286 electoral votes, sixteen more than he needed to win. After the controversy over the preceding presidential election, the incumbent president needed a clear-cut victory and his supporters rapidly claimed the election was the mandate he needed to confirm his presidency.

Within days of the votes being counted, numerous cries of foul arose. The Kerry campaign did not challenge the election results, but Green Party candidate David Cobb and Libertarian Party candidate Michael Badnarik called for and received a recount in Ohio, which did not alter the results. In 2007 two elections officials in Ohio were convicted of rigging the 2004 recount and both were sentenced to 18-month terms.

Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, who had also served in the Bush Reelection Campaign, was castigated by a Judiciary Committee Report for failing to comply with his duties in relation to investigating voter fraud and other irregularities. Blackwell also refused to allow international observers in Ohio, claiming that Ohio law precluded them.

More than 30% of all votes in the 2004 election were cast on Direct Recording Electronic machines, which did not retain paper records of the votes. At the time there was not an individual federal agency responsible for regulation of the voting machine industry.

In the 2004 election, George W. Bush won the popular vote with the smallest margin of victory ever recorded by an incumbent president. Investigations into irregularities in precincts where electronic ballots replaced paper continued well into his second administration in several states, including California, Ohio and Florida, and despite numerous questions being raised in several precincts, the election was never seriously challenged.

These 10 High Stakes Elections in America Were Bought, Rigged, or Stolen
In 2000 Americans learned what chads were. They also learned that chads could hang, be dimpled, be pregnant, and swing. US News

Presidential Election of 2000

This is the big one in recent times, the election which still causes arguments among partisans on each side. To those who supported George W. Bush, the election was clearly open and aboveboard, certified by the Supreme Court. To those who supported Al Gore, the election was clearly stolen by the Republicans in Florida, an argument which was fortified when additional questions arose following Bush’s reelection on other states.

It was the election in which the nation learned that the little tab of cardboard which is pushed through a punch card to signify a choice has a name. Gore supporters often lament that the Supreme Court awarded the presidency to his opponent, strictly speaking, that is incorrect, although the Supreme Court did end the recount in Florida which effectively limited Gore’s legal challenge to the result, and he conceded a second time.

The 2000 presidential election was the closest in US history, with Gore winning the popular vote by over 500,000 votes although Bush prevailed in the Electoral College by one vote. Numerous recounts over time by analysts have reached differing opinions on what the result would have been had the Supreme Court allowed the hand count requested by Gore to have been completed.

Because of the difficulties encountered during the election, in which both sides still claim they really won years after the two Bush administrations, several efforts were initiated to ensure that the discrepancies encountered in the 2000 election would not recur.

One such effort was the passing of the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) which required states to upgrade voting systems and provided financial assistance for them to do so by purchasing or upgrading electronic voting and vote recording systems. Many of these systems installed by the states led to perceived discrepancies, some still unresolved, which occurred in the next presidential election in 2004.