Some scenes from the madness as we enter the final days before the 2016 presidential elections:
- In Des Moines on October 27, a 55-year old woman named Terri Lynn Rote was charged with first-degree election misconduct after deliberately casting a second vote for Donald Trump. She said she was worried that her first would be changed to a vote for Hillary Clinton. “The polls are rigged,” she explained to Iowa Public Radio, echoing the constant refrain of her pumpkin-faced hero.
- Early in October in Mike Pence’s Indiana, state police raided and shut down a voter registration office. The raid occurred shortly after Hoosier Secretary of State Connie Lawson announced that “nefarious actors are operating here in Indiana,” claiming that “thousands of dates of birth and first names” had been changed in the online voter database. Responded the shuttered organization: “Hundreds of thousands of Indiana Voter File records are inaccurate, duplicative, outdated, erroneous, invalid, inconsistent, and/or clearly the product of poor data management by Republican Secretary of State Connie Lawson”—who has donated $2,250 to Pence’s gubernatorial campaign. Lawson then admitted the alleged irregularities could have been legitimate corrections made by voters.
- In Beaufort County, North Carolina, this week a 100-year-old black woman named Grace Bell Hardison is in danger of losing her right to vote after her registration was challenged by a local Republican who complained that a 2015 political mailing to the house where she has lived her entire life was returned as undeliverable—a technique known as “voter caging.” Mrs. Hardison points out that she never got the letter because for her entire century on earth her family received their mail at the post office. North Carolina is the state where Republican Party Executive Director Dallas Woodhouse sent a memo telling local election boards that “Republicans can and should make party line changes to early voting.” He added, “We are under no obligation to offer more opportunities for voter fraud.” In all, 138 registered voters were challenged in the same caging operation that snared Hardison; 92 were black and registered Democrats.
- In Wisconsin, Department of Motor Vehicle workers have been providing erroneous information to residents of the state who lack birth certificates, sabotaging their ability to obtain IDs they are entitled to that would qualify them to vote.
- In Pennsylvania, Republicans filed a last-minute suit on First and Fourteenth Amendment grounds to allow out-of-county poll watchers in cities like Philadelphia.
- In Florida, a federal judge convened a hearing to examine why the processing of voter registration applications has “slowed dramatically.” As of October 28, Republican Governor Rick Scott’s state employees had not verified the applications of 25,000 Floridians awaiting the completion of the registration process.
- On Wednesday, October 26, the group known as “Oath Keepers” announced “Operation Sabot 2016.” Law enforcement officers join this seven-year-old organization, which also calls itself “Police and Military Against the New World Order,” by pledging to disobey unconstitutional orders such as “forcing American citizens into any form of detention camps under any pretext.” Now, Oath Keepers is calling upon “retired police officers, our military intelligence veterans, and our Special Warfare veterans” to “apply their considerable training in investigation, intelligence gathering, and field-craft” to fight the Democrats’ alleged “well-orchestrated campaign of criminal vote fraud on an industrial scale.”
Most of these fevered efforts are aimed at preventing people from pretending to be someone else at the polls, in order to vote more than once, or to cast a vote in the name of some dead or otherwise debilitated individual. As are the laws, passed in profusion in more than 30 states like Wisconsin and North Carolina, requiring voters to present identification at the polls, laws that have had the effect of disproportionately disenfranchising black voters like Mrs. Hardison. But an extensive canvass conducted by Assistant U.S. Attorney General Justin Levitt (while he was a law professor at Loyola Law School, Los Angeles) found only 31 instances of in-person voter fraud out of more than 1 billion votes cast nationally between 2000-2014.
The Republican elephant never forgets.
Smoking-gun evidence like the email from the North Carolina Republican Party official has piled up to prove the partisan intent of the “vote fraud” scares. At the same time, there is plenty of evidence that ordinary Republicans are sincere in their belief that scouring polling places to spot Democratic perfidy is a patriotic act: they think they’re preserving democracy. Add these two phenomena together and what you get is a racket—one guaranteed to disenfranchise many times more (mostly Democratic) voters that could ever conceivably be attempting any fraud.
Like so many stories that seem novel in this strange election year, there’s nothing particularly new about the voter fraud scare. This particular myth dates back to 1960, where it all started in my very own hometown of Chicago, borne of the legend that John F. Kennedy only won the presidency because of the chicanery of Mayor Richard J. Daley. The Republican elephant never forgets.
The Chicago Vote Hustle
The legend was borne out of some truth.
“Once we got beyond the old days of paper ballots, which had numerous ways of cheating, and we got to the old-fashioned machines where you pulled down the lever, the bottom line was that they could steal by my calculations about 100,000 votes in the city. The cheating did affect one or two major races.”
The speaker is my friend Don Rose, the legendary liberal Chicago campaign consultant. If anyone knows how election cheating really worked in Chicago, it’s Don, who had a hand in just about every campaign fighting Daley’s corrupt Cook County Democratic machine since the 1940s. He was kind enough to run down for me how the old tricks operated. The most prevalent, he said, was illegal assistance, where an election judge pulled the lever for hordes of supposedly debilitated, but actually able-bodied, voters. The rule that was supposed to prevent this particular practice required the presence of both Republican and Democratic election judges at each polling station. But “you have to remember that in a tremendous number of precincts, usually in the black neighborhoods, the alleged Republican judges were really Democrats.”
There was mechanical tampering: “Many’s the time,” says Don, working as a poll watcher on the morning of an election, “that I opened up a machine and there were votes already registered.” And a trick using rubber bands: when a voter tried to pull down one of the smaller levers to register Republican exceptions to a straight Democratic ticket, “the lever bounded up.” There was vote buying, with “everything from turkeys to nylon hose.” Also threats to throw dissident voters out of their apartments: “Everyone who’s in public housing is violating some rule.” And this simple expedient: “the false count, where the so-called Republican judges and Democratic judges, they just called in the wrong totals downtown.” In one instance he’s aware of, that call downtown happened at gunpoint.
It was then, and only then, that Don came to the rarest scam: voter impersonation, including the infamous “cemetery vote.” That’s the stuff Republicans are most terrified of now—practically the only one you hear about. Don says it never was all that common—“10 or 15 percent of the total steal.”
So in Cook County, Illinois, back in the day, crooked elections were not just a Republican fantasy: they were real. Just not, Don thinks, a factor in the 1960 presidential election. “It was my understanding that when the Republicans finally put their count in, Daley gave them a legitimate count. I would say, personally, I can’t prove it, that Kennedy actually won Illinois narrowly.”
And if you know Chicago politics, and the 1960 elections, that’s not surprising. Kennedy won the black vote overwhelmingly, thanks to his last-minute intervention decrying the incarceration of Martin Luther King Jr. for an Atlanta department store sit-in, advertised via millions of flyers distributed in black churches the Sunday before the election. So there wouldn’t have been many Republican votes in the suspect precincts to steal. Any that were would likely have been canceled out anyway, according to an ancient formula in Illinois statewide politics: for every dead person who votes Democrat in Chicago, a cow votes Republican downstate.
“But there’s always that question, because nobody really knows,” Don allows.
There was no such doubt within the Republican National Committee, which, convinced the election was stolen, in 1961 launched a “ballot security program” strikingly like the ones flourishing now. A pamphlet that year published by the RNC’s Women’s Division, full of unsourced scare stories, advised: “Place poll watchers, armed with cameras, outside polls.” Or, conceivably, armed with arms: “Extra Security. In areas where there is an unusual amount of fraud, it is not enough to have polling officials on duty in the usual numbers. They must be augmented by an extra staff trained to give the added security and protection necessary to combat the fraud history of the area. Hire trained investigators, if necessary.”
By the 1962 congressional elections, the operation had a catchy name, “Operation Eagle Eye,” and a fire-breathing right-wing go-getter to run it: Charles Barr, the assistant to the president of Standard Oil of Illinois and an activist in the cabal working to draft Barry Goldwater for the Republican nomination. The national effort was, naturally, headquartered in downtown Chicago. Its recruiters were especially active in Chicago’s Republican suburbs where volunteers—including, according to the Arlington Heights Herald, “some 25 northwest suburban physicians,” who “preferred to remain unnamed,” and the campaign manager of a suburban Congressional candidate named Donald Rumsfeld—flocked to Republican offices to be trained in single two-hour evening sessions. The effort relied, according to the right-leaning Chicago Tribune which covered Eagle Eye heavily and with hearty approval, “on the cooperation of business and industry in giving a day off with pay to employees who want to combat vote frauds.”
The volunteers from the suburbs turned their attention to the city’s Democratic precincts. On Election Day, Congressman Roman Pucinski asked a doctor why he wasn’t out watching polls out in his own area instead of harassing the Congressman’s Polish-born constituents. None were needed, came the answer. “Our people are honest.” Barr later reported that “2,500 workers discouraged or successfully challenged 50,000 illegally registered voters”—or, in other interviews, less circumspectly, “a conservative estimate showed we saved 50,000 votes that otherwise would have been stolen.”
Vote Fraud Racket in Arizona
Stolen how? Precisely what Republicans were afraid of became more evident in 1971. That was the year when a certain distinguished jurist from Phoenix, Arizona, was nominated to be an associate justice of the Supreme Court, and America learned that for at least some Republicans “stolen” was the functional equivalent of “the wrong people voted.”
Arizonans had pioneered the “vote fraud” racket as far back as 1954, when Republicans exploited a literacy requirement in state election law. (Such literacy tests were outlawed by the Supreme Court in 1966.) Poll watchers forced black and Latino voters to read aloud a passage of the Constitution printed on a notecard. In 1958 they also sent out 18,000 caging letters. Then came 1962. In a letter to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman James Eastland regarding William Rehnquist’s pending confirmation hearings, a federal judge named Charles Hardy described what he witnessed that year, when Rehnquist was in charge of Operation Eagle Eye for Maricopa County:
The Republicans had challengers in all the precincts in this county which had overwhelming Democratic registration. At that time, among the statutory grounds for challenging a person offering to vote [was] . . . that he was unable to read the Constitution of the United States in the English language. In each precinct every black or Mexican voter was challenged on this latter ground, and it was quite clear that this type of challenging was a deliberate effort to slow down the voting. . . . In the black and brown areas, handbills were distributed warning persons that if they were not properly qualified to vote, they would be prosecuted. There were squads of people taking photographs of voters standing in line to vote and asking for their names.
Another Eagle Eye principal that year was Arizona Republican chairman Richard G. Kleindienst. Under Richard Nixon, he would become Attorney General of the United States.
In 1963 a Republican official complained that the first Operation Eagle Eye “was not organized well enough. We need 15,000 trained watchers as Republican judges who will not be intimidated.” So Charlie Barr got the band back together, bigger than ever before. “The volunteers work for the cause of good government by promoting the voting obligations of all citizens,” he said in a June 1964 recruitment message. Another recruiter—Ronald Reagan—explained, “Its fundamental purpose is to restore public confidence in this country’s voting processes.” An organizer in New Jersey asserted there to be “an average manipulation of 3 million ballots in the 1960 presidential election.” An organizer for Eagle Eye in the suburban Lake, Boone, and McHenry Counties of Illinois implored, “How would you feel right now if you knew that your vote in November would be taken away by vote fraud?”
When it comes to “ballot security,” Republicans were on a war footing. And truth is the first casualty of war.
Rehnquist needed no such persuading. He was just coming off a campaign for a local ordinance allowing segregation in public accommodations in Phoenix—an issue mooted that July by passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which he had successfully lobbied his friend Barry Goldwater to vote against. Now Goldwater was the Republican nominee. In 1986, when Rehnquist was up for chief justice, a lawyer and civil rights activist named Lito Peña told a story to The New York Times, which was confirmed in its exact particulars by several witnesses. When Rehnquist forced blacks to read those note cards printed with a snatch of the Constitution (“containing a lot of big and difficult words,” another witness said)—and then to interpret it—Peña warned him that examining voters was the sole authority of election officials. Rehnquist “raised a fist as if he was fixing to throw a punch.” (You can read all about Rehnquist’s denials of these charges in both his 1971 hearings to become associate justice and his 1986 confirmation hearings to become chief justice, and a presentation of convincing evidence he lied, in this definitive 2004 report on Republican ballot security programs from the Center for Voting Rights and Protections.)
Democrats had seen it all coming as the voter-suppression plan unfolded across the country. In an October 27 press conference DNC chairman John Bailey cited the evidence: documents from Minnesota explaining, “Your job is partisan,” and specifically directing workers to stall lines in Democratic precincts while keeping them moving for Republicans; a booklet explaining that “all sheriffs in the state of Louisiana, except one, are sympathetic with Senator Goldwater’s election. We should take full advantage of this situation.” In the week before Election Day, press reports documented smoking gun after smoking gun. An official in an unidentified Southern state told The Wall Street Journal that Eagle Eyes were advised to bring cameras to the polls: “even if the poll watchers don’t know how to use the cameras, potential Democratic wrongdoers might be frightened off.”
In Philadelphia, efforts were led by a former president of the Jaycees who ignored pleas by local officials that the city already had a widely respected bipartisan ballot-security group. In New Mexico, a former FBI agent ran the show. In Southern California, Eagle Eyes promised a presence at all 12,600 Los Angeles County precincts—no matter that under California law citizen voting challenges were illegal. The District of Columbia’s GOP chairman, announcing “we will not have a Cook County election here,” hired 40 private detectives to help out in Baltimore, and told a meeting that well-dressed people would not be challenged, only “the kind of guys you can buy for a buck or a bottle of booze,” or “people who look like they don’t belong in the community or are not the kind of people who would register and vote.” He said special focus would be placed on those voting for the first time—of which, as in the current election, there were many. Barry Goldwater, after all, was the Donald Trump of 1964.
Vice Presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey gave a press conference denouncing what he dubbed “Operation Evil Eye.” RNC chair Dean Burch, undeterred, countered, “Contrary to [DNC Chairman] Bailey’s unfounded and desperate charge, the diligent Republican effort to prevent a repeat of Democratic vote fraud is designed to help and encourage all voters, especially those of the nationality groups.” Which was a dog whistle, 1964-style: “nationality groups,” also known as white ethnics, was the term of art for the largely Catholic Eastern European immigrants at the cutting edge of the anti-civil rights backlash.
All told, the RNC sent out about 1.8 million caging letters nationwide—to the entire registration lists in 15 cities including Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit, and St. Louis. On election eve, reports came in from California of anonymous phone calls to blacks and Mexicans warning voters who moved since they had registered. From Texas, handbills in black neighborhoods from the “Harris County Negro Protective Association” (there was no such organization) warning of categories liable to arrest for voting, such as those “Questioned by police for any offense,” and “Voters who have not appeared as witnesses or defendants in criminal or civil matters.”
In New Jersey, where the Essex County Superintendent of Elections found evidence that Republicans intended to challenge literally every voter in Newark, a Democratic spokesman complained, “the advance publicity is scaring hell out of a lot of people who are not certain of their rights.” Eagle Eye even stationed what The Indianapolis Star described as “a pert Republican housewife” in a certain precinct in Austin, who “looked on silent and unsmiling” as Lyndon Baines and Lady Bird Johnson dropped their ballots in the box.
The outcome, naturally, was a fiasco. The GOP county chairman in Houston had alleged more than a thousand “fictitious” or ineligible registrations. The Austin American checked it out—finding only “simple clerical errors in either the writing of the original tax receipt or in transferring the address to the poll list.” A black college instructor from Long Beach learned he was on an Eagle Eye list of eight allegedly ineligible voters. He called the police to complain. “Seven of the eight on the list were just as eligible as can be,” a newspaper reported, “including the instructor.” A circuit court judge in Miami enjoined Citizens for Goldwater for “Illegal mass challenging without cause, conducted in such manner as to obstruct the orderly conduct of this election.” Said a Dade County supervisor, “Poll watchers seem to be vying with each other to see who can create the most disturbances.”
In Oshkosh, Wisconsin, the Eagle Eyes proved so obnoxious people called out the police. And in St. George, South Carolina, voting officials wearing Goldwater buttons were systematically challenging every third black voter in line.
And back in Cook County, Illinois, voting for Lyndon Johnson in certain precincts was about as easy as cracking Fort Knox. One black newspaper reported, “A man on the far side of 60, accompanied by his wife, marched into Edward Moore’s 30th ward Republican headquarters, 4715 Madison to complain of being refused his right to vote.” The old man’s walk across the West Side was over a mile. “‘I’ve lived in the ward for four years,’ said John Pilat, 4052 West End. ‘I’ve voted in every election and I re-registered back in 1961 when we all had to. Now they tell me my name isn’t on the list or in the binder.’”
In fact, in Chicago, the corruption claims Goldwaterites used to justify the creation of Eagle Eye had already been mooted. Weeks before the election, the Illinois election board had sent challenge notices to 141,000 registrants, striking 139,000 voters from the lists. Eagle Eye stationed a staggering 5,000 poll watchers in the city anyway—by whom, Charlie Barr lied, “no challenges will be made to anyone who is legally entitled to vote.” In the end, Republicans were able to claim a mere 500 irregularities—compared to God knows how many LBJ votes that were not cast because of the voter-suppression program. In Cleveland, the Cuyahoga County Democratic chairman was convinced Operation Eagle Eye cost them as many as 10,000.
Which, in the topsy-turvy world of wingnut electioneering, could only be counted as a smashing victory for democracy. When it comes to “ballot security,” Republicans were on a war footing. And truth is the first casualty of war.
The vote-fraud myth had long since floated up into the Empyrean realms of fact-free Republican lunacy, alongside death panels and the grass hut in darkest Africa where Barack Obama was born, right down the way from Saddam Hussein’s WMD.
The following year, the California Legislature, weighing a post-campaign Republican bulletin describing the mass challenges in Los Angeles as a masterful bluff to scare off Democratic voters whether they were eligible or not, outlawed voter caging. (If only lawmakers were so responsive now.) Illinois Republicans revived Eagle Eye for the 1966 Congressional elections. Then in 1968, it again went national, this time under the supervision of John Mitchell, Richard Nixon’s campaign manager and the future felonious attorney general of the United States. “They aren’t going to steal Cook County,” Nixon told a journalist aboard his campaign plane a few days before the election. “We have Operation Eagle Eye watching them this time.”
How did that work? The story that Chicago insurance millionaire W. Clement Stone paid the Blackstone Rangers street gang a million dollars to graffiti the ghetto with messages like “A Vote for Humphrey Is a Vote for the Man” may be apocryphal—though Rangers chieftain Jeff Fort was invited to Nixon’s inaugural. And we do know that 10,000 caging letters were mailed free of charge using Senator Everett Dirksen’s franking privileges, with his Capitol Hill office as return address, returned envelopes ferried to Eagle Eye HQ in Chicago. The national program was run by the retired former number two man in the FBI, Louis B. Nichols, whom touts were predicting as Nixon’s choice to replace J. Edgar Hoover. That was until a 1969 Associated Press article investigation alleged that Nichols was laundering money on Hoover’s behalf, but not before Nichols published an article in Reader’s Digest describing his 1968 work in defense of the sanctity of the ballot as a “powerful ‘psychological warfare’ campaign.”
Eagle Eye continued into 1970, when the tarnished name was retired after a black Republican leader pointed out its “disastrous effects” on the party’s efforts to recruit minority voters. The racket, however, endured, with even more vaulting ambitions. “By 1972,” the Center for Voting Rights and Protections documented, “Republicans were pushing for much more: one poll-watcher for each machine and for each ballot box.” Efforts were stymied, however, by a certain inconvenience. As the polite law professors who wrote the 2004 ballot security report put it, “Many volunteers needed encouragement because they were assigned to precincts outside their home district,” in “core city areas where Republicans did not have a core constituency.” With crime rates skyrocketing, pert Republican housewives and bright-eyed young business executives now feared, according to an October 12, 1972 RNC memo, being “deserted in a strange place.”
It hardly mattered, at least in Chicago, that old-school election fraud had gone the way of the Whigs. In 1968 reporters from the Chicago Daily News (a Democratic paper) and investigators from the city’s Better Government Association documented machine pols registering residents at a flop house for $1 each “as fast as they could write.” By 1972, a joint effort of Republicans and reform Democrats called Project LEAP (“Legal Elections in All Precincts”) ended practices like paying phony Republican election judges, and a series of judicial decrees outlawed political activity by city workers. The reforms marked the effective end of the Daley machine. “By 1974,” Don Rose remembers, “the whole thing had been pretty much quashed.” And now we know from the work of Loyola’s Justin Levitt, the same has been true nationwide since 2000.
As if Republicans could care. The vote-fraud myth had long since floated up into the Empyrean realms of fact-free Republican lunacy, alongside death panels and the grass hut in darkest Africa where Barack Obama was born, right down the way from Saddam Hussein’s WMD. As the half-witted conservative pundit Hugh Hewitt wrote in a 2004 book If It’s Not Close, They Can’t Cheat: Crushing the Democrats in Every Election and Why Your Life Depends on It, “Democrats will want to cheat in 2004, 2006, and beyond. It’s in their blood. It’s in their genes.”
No, it’s in their genes. A final coda to the ignoble reign of Operation Eagle Eye: in 1975: its author, Charlie Barr, was caught padding contracts for public relations work for the Illinois Board of Elections with $189,237 in phony fees and reimbursements, in cahoots with an old buddy on the board who had served as Operation Eagle Eye’s lawyer.
Now, at long last, the Republican National Committee is terrified that out-of-control ballot security vigilantes will cause problems for the party. On October 19, an RNC lawyer sent a panicked letter to committee members imploring them not to encourage or engage in the “ballot security” techniques that led to a 1982 consent decree stemming from a New Jersey election where the GOP sent out off-duty cops in “National Ballot Security Task Force” arm bands, wearing their guns openly, and systematically challenging black voters who were sent postcards returned as undeliverable.
Since 1982, that is to say, parties associated with the official Republican Party have been forbidden to undertake “any ballot security activities in polling places or election districts where the racial or ethnic composition of such districts is a factor in the decision to conduct, or the actual conduct of, such activities there and where a purpose or significant effect of such activities is to deter qualified voters from voting; and the conduct of such activities disproportionately in or directed toward districts that have a substantial proportion of racial or ethnic populations shall be considered relevant evidence of the existence of such a factor and purpose.”
It never really stopped, of course. Only now, just like this year’s transformation of the old racist Republican dog whistle into a bullhorn, it took Donald Trump to turn the old racket up to eleven, again putting the party at risk.
“You are encouraged not to engage in ‘ballot security’ activities even in your personal, state party, or campaign capacity,” a letter to RNC members read. “If you elect to do so, please be aware that the RNC in no way sanctions your activity.” That’s because the consent degree is set to expire on December 17—but can be renewed through 2025 if the RNC is found to be in violation.
But the RNC ain’t the Oath Keepers. “Watchdog Alleges Virginia Prepping to Accommodate Mass Voter Fraud,” their website announced the Tuesday before the election. On the Saturday before that they advised volunteers to conduct their own exit polls on Election Day, to “prove” that the steal by a “rouge [sic] political party” is on. Wrote one Oath Keeper “life member”: “I seriously doubt any of us are devious enough to even think of the methods that these demon infested parasites can come up with. What is important to remember is that they are animals; predators; wolves, intent on devouring the sheep and hunting down the sheepdogs. It is also important to remember that cornered animals are the most dangerous.”
Cornered animals, dangerous indeed. Keep your eagle eyes peeled. And remember: if it’s not close, they can’t cheat. Or so we can hope.
Rick Perlstein is The Washington Spectator’s national correspondent.