Over the past week, presidential candidate Donald Trump has begun to claim that the 2016 presidential election is rigged. He says that the fix is in for Hillary Clinton, and that the news media handed it to her on a silver platter by ignoring new evidence of corruption during her tenure at the State Department in favor of reporting on his behavior toward women. The news media do certainly exert some power over the national discussion of the campaign and their coverage can persuade voters to accept a different point of view, but neither of these amounts to rigging an election. In light of Mr. Trump’s claim, a brief look at rigged elections can help us understand the difference between partisan reporting and electoral fraud.
Rigged elections likely conjure up images of authoritarian or communist regimes where dictators retain power by falsifying ballots, imprisoning political dissidents, and using their extensive police powers to intimidate voters. Though they may not be the first that come to mind, nations in Central and North America have seen their fair share of fraudulent elections. The most notorious of these by far is the Mexican presidential election of 1988, which turned against Carlos Salinas de Gortari of the dominant Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) before the outgoing president (also of the PRI) decided to throw the election. Technically the PRI formed in 1938, though it was virtually synonymous with a previous party that had held power since 1917. Both grew out of the Mexican Revolution and, between the two of them, held power in Mexico from 1917 until 2000. In 1988, top party officials were flabbergasted that the opposition candidate was winning the election, and rather than reveal the truth and accept defeat they claimed that the computer system being used to count the votes had crashed. They quickly claimed a PRI victory even before all of the ballots had been counted. Several years later Salinas de Gortari’s administration burned the election returns from 1988. In this particular case, the rigging of the election was flagrant, targeted the tabulation phase of the election, and originated in the highest ranks of government and party power.
Readers with some knowledge of 20th century Mexican history might shrug at this—what else could we expect from the PRI, or from a country perennially plagued by political corruption? There is some truth to this point. Mexican politicians and officials, including local police officers, still struggle against (and often succumb to) the bribery and corruption characteristic of a “narco-state.” But rigged elections have taken place much closer to home, right here in the United States.
The most flagrant examples of voter fraud in American history took place in the states of the former Confederacy during the waning years of Reconstruction in the 1870s. Following the Civil War, state governments and local offices that had long been held by Democrats became Republican strongholds as a result of three things:
- Enfranchisement of black men, most of whom were Republicans at that time
- Disfranchisement of some white Southerners who had held official government positions within the Confederacy
- Nonparticipation by eligible white Southern voters trying to express their disdain for the Republican Reconstruction governments
But white Southern Democrats did not sit on the electoral sidelines for long—throughout the South in the 1870s and 1880s, counties flipped from Republican to Democratic, frequently as a result of a small-scale battle between white and black militia companies.
One example of this process took place in Limestone County, Texas in 1871 during a special election for representatives to the U.S. Congress. The Republican state government in Texas was quite unpopular at the time as a result of increased taxes and several embarrassing scandals, so moderate Republicans and Democrats were ready for a change. In one county after another, Democratic men organized into militia or rifle companies that could fight against black militia regiments and the State Police force that guarded the polling places to prevent fraud. The day before the election, the Democrats of Limestone County drummed up a reason to call out the white militia and drove the black State Police officers and black militia into the woods. They subsequently took control of the polling places, stationed armed militiamen there, and “invited” black voters to come over—unsurprisingly they stayed home. The congressional elections of 1871 marked a turning point in Texas, and the Republican party there never recovered. Democrats used this “paramilitary” strategy throughout the state over the next two years, and by 1874 they had retaken the governor’s mansion. Unlike the Mexican presidential election of 1988, the Democratic “redemption” of Texas was decentralized, targeted the ballot-casting phase of several elections, and relied more upon voter suppression than ballot manipulation.
Probably unaware of the startling similarities between his recent idea of “election protection” and the county-level “redemption” of the South, Mr. Trump called on his supporters (overwhelmingly white) to monitor “certain communities” (overwhelmingly black) to protect the integrity of the election. The Trumpsters who choose to follow his instructions likely pose no real threat to this year’s election, but his call and their response demonstrates a dangerous lack of knowledge and sensitivity about our nation’s very real history of race-based electoral fraud.
Mr. Trump’s participation in this talk about “monitoring” the election is itself closer to electoral fraud than the journalistic decisions of the news media. He claims that their biased reporting is interfering with his campaign yet sees no problem with the Russian-Wikileaks hacks that are actually interfering in Hillary Clinton’s campaign. The hacks against the Democrats are part of a new and growing problem of campaign interference that, while it is not technically electoral fraud, can easily become so. For instance, a Columbian man named Andrés Sepúlveda claims that his digital interference in a number of Latin American campaigns, including the 2012 campaign of Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto, directly affected those elections and amounted to electoral fraud. It is downright hypocritical for Mr. Trump to take advantage of this new and real threat to our electoral process on the one hand, while simultaneously complaining about media bias and interference on the other.
One final thought: Mr. Trump is ignoring the fact that the news media always goes for the simple and juicy story over the complicated and dry one; this is true of the candidates themselves as much as their scandals! On top of that, the Trump surrogates and supporters who malign journalists for choosing sides and remind the world that “the press” has a special, non-partisan role in our democracy clearly lack an understanding of history. Historically speaking, newspapers have been publicly connected to particular political parties. Many even carried party affiliation in their very names—like the Sedalia Weekly Democrat of Sedalia, MO, or the Hastings Daily Republican of Hastings, NE. Thus the media has a much longer history of persuading voters rather than informing them. The beauty of a free press in this country is that the voter has a veritable buffet of opinions and perspectives to choose from—and we must remember to choose wisely.