On Stealing Elections

If all goes according to plan–and despite Mother Nature doing her damnest to introduce climate change as a campaign issue–the United States of America is going to have a presidential election next Tuesday. According to professional polling prognosticator Nate Silver, while Barack Obama is tied or even a little behind in national polls, he is comfortably ahead in the swing state polls and looks to have close to an 80% chance of a second term. Not bad for a guy who barely seemed to be awake in Denver a few weeks ago.

The accuracy of that prediction, however, is contingent on a number of factors:

  1. Whether the polls are unbiased and representative of the population at large;
  2. Whether a similar sample of the population turns out to vote on Election Day;
  3. Whether their votes are counted properly.

The media has devoted quite a bit of attention to the first two factors, with the right wing alleging polling bias and the left wing alleging voter suppression, but not so much to the third factor. This despite the fact that Mitt Romney’s former partners at Bain Capital, as well as his son, Tagg, have business connections to the private firm responsible for operating some of Ohio’s electronic voting machines. Incidentally, these are some of the same machines that can be hacked by an eighth-grader for about eleven bucks in parts. Some of these machines produce paper receipts; others do not. The 2002 Help America Vote Act specified a minimum standard for voting machines, but implementation has been left up to the states, resulting in an ugly hodgepodge of machines and procedures.

Would other developed countries stand for this level of disorganization and vulnerability? No. In fact, even some developing countries have more secure elections than the United States, particularly those that have been subjected to dictatorships in the past.

The United States has no history of dictatorship, but it does have a rich history of stolen elections at every level of government. Historian Tracy Campbell wrote a wonderful little book about it, Deliver The Vote, outlining exactly how many of our elections have been stolen, bartered behind closed doors, or otherwise distorted. It’s not a pretty picture on either side of the aisle.

One of the more prominent examples includes the election of 1876, where Republican Rutherford B. Hayes was handed the Presidency despite a loss in the popular vote and Electoral College in a straight-up quid pro quo; Hayes got to be President, and in exchange, he and the congressional Republicans agreed to withdraw federal troops from the South and end Reconstruction.

Remember this guy?

Another famous example was the election of 1960, when John F. Kennedy appears to have benefitted from a little of that ‘ol Chicago magic, courtesy of machine politician Richard Daley. Lyndon Johnson’s command of local politics in Texas may have proved decisive as well.

And there there is the 2000 election, where George W. Bush won Florida by 537 votes. A Mexican friend of mine  recently asked me how the country could possibly accept that margin of victory without a full recount, let alone a runoff or revote of some kind.

The proximate answer is that the Supreme Court told us to, albeit in a straight party-line vote, and Democrats acquiesced. The underlying and much more interesting reason is that by virtue of institutional design the United States values stability above all else, especially the strictly democratic “will of the people.”

This ethos is most famously codified in The Federalist No. 10–which muses extensively on the dangers the unpropertied masses would pose to “personal security and rights of property” if they ever gained direct control of the state–and continues through the two-party system, the Electoral College, the way Representatives are elected, the Senate’s supermajority rule, and, most importantly, the procedures necessary to amend the Constitution itself.

So the United States, in truth, has never been a democracy in the technical sense of the word, but it has been a very effective limited government, with the key power holders switching like clockwork every four to eight years. It has been a government designed not to give the people what they want (at least not immediately), but what is generally good for them, by eliminating volatility in government to the greatest extent possible.

Suppose that George W. Bush had been a Fascist and Al Gore had been a Communist. Any suggestion that Bush had stolen the election would have probably resulted in blood running in the streets. Instead, Bush was a Republican and Gore a Democrat, and their policy positions were similar enough for Democrats to grin and bear it when Bush won under questionable circumstances.

The real danger would have been an extended interregnum where it was not clear who was legitimately in charge of the country, giving factions an opportunity to mobilize. This happens frequently in the developing world (consider the recent case of Lopez Obrador’s shadow government in Mexico) and can result in very serious problems, up to and including civil war. As far as stability goes, accusing others of cheating is as dangerous as cheating yourself.

No matter who wins on Tuesday, and by what amount, I expect a winner to be declared and a loser to make a very public concession speech as quickly as possible, safeguarding the legitimacy of our institutions. Going forward, however, I am troubled by the ever-increasing polarization between our two parties. The distance could eventually result in one party or the other deciding not to accept the other entering power.


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