Voter Fraud: A History
Voter fraud refers to any practice within a democratic society that is designed toward preventing the actual popular sentiment within an election, as reflected by vote counts, from being recognized in the final results of the election. The purpose of the present sample essay, part of the custom writing services provided by Ultius is to explore and discuss the history of voter fraud within the United States. The essay will have four main parts. The first part will consider the political principles underlying voter fraud. Then, the second part will discuss voter fraud during the Colonial era, while the third part will consider voter fraud during the Reconstruction era. Finally, the essay will reflect on voter fraud today and the actual magnitude of the problem within the contemporary United States.
Principles behind voter fraud
In order to understand why voter fraud is in a fact a problem within a democratic society, it is important to grasp the ideological principles underlying the practice of legitimate voting itself. These principles were perhaps most clearly formulated by political theorists of the Age of Revolution, such as John Locke; and some of the main ideas here would be:
- Fair representation
- Having one’s voice heard
In a democratic society, the leaders are to be selected by the people of the society themselves, and those leaders are supposed to be accountable to the people who elected them. This is very different from, for example, the idea of divine mandate that underlies most monarchies, according to which the legitimacy of the king is held to come not from the people but rather from God himself. Voting is the primary mechanism through which a democratic society ensures that the leaders remain accountable to the people of society: without winning the vote, the leader cannot be a legitimate leader.
Types of voter fraud
In this context, voter fraud can be understood as an illegitimate attempt to tamper with the electoral process in such a way that the results produced by elections are not in fact reflective of the actual will of the people. There are several possible mechanisms through which voter fraud can take place:
- Preventing certain groups or classes of people from being able to vote in a direct and effective manner, effectively, a violation of civil rights.
- Tampering with the vote counting machines and such and thereby make the actual reported numbers unreflective of the actual votes that have been cast in the election.
- Artificially inflating the vote counts for certain candidates—for example, by registering false names that are not reflective of actual persons within society, or attempting to cast votes on behalf of dead persons.
What all of these mechanisms have in common is that they disrupt the correlation between the actual votes cast by the citizens of society on the one hand, and the reported results of the given election on the other.
Voter fraud in the colonial era
In the Colonial era of the United States, only white, male property owners were legally eligible to cast votes in elections. This allowed for the perpetration of a kind of voter fraud that could be called specific to this kind of legal arrangement. As Shafer has written:
To swing local elections .. . corrupt campaigns would arrange for the landless to gain title to property in return for their vote, after which the land would be returned. The purchasing of votes was so popular in Rhode Island that the practice became known as “Rhode Islandism.” (paragraph 5)
That is, the corrupt political campaigns of the day attempted to create a situation in which either certain citizens would qualify as voters according to the letter but not the spirit of the law, or in which voters simply cast their ballots not in accordance with their own convictions but simply in order to secure some form of material gain.
Legislative contribution to voter fraud
The suggestion could perhaps be made that the highly restrictive voting laws of the Colonial-era United States themselves constituted a kind of voter fraud, at the societal level, impeding American voting rights. For example, MassVOTE has indicated that:
- In 1790 people of Asian descent were barred from becoming citizens
- In 1807, women were formally banned from voting within the nation
- Several states had laws restricting voting rights on the basis of one’s religion
Politically speaking, this cannot be called voter fraud per se, insofar as these were the laws of the land, and fraud must generally be defined relative laws regarding what is in fact legitimate voting practice. From a more idealistic perspective, though, it may be possible to define fraud—morally, not legally—as any restrictions on voting rights that prevents a nation from developing into a fully democratic society, in which all people are treated as equal under the law and given an equal right to political representation.
Voter fraud in the reconstruction era
The Reconstruction era in the United States was what followed the Civil War; and this era was characterized by significant voter fraud, especially fraud targeted at the newly free Black population. As Shafer has darkly put the matter:
every instance of conventional voter fraud recorded pales in comparison with the murderous rampages that followed black suffrage in the South following the Civil War. Vigilantes, mobs, Klansman, and law officers killed hundreds and possibly thousands of African-Americans who voted or otherwise attempted to exercise their civil rights. Hundreds of thousands were brutalized and intimidated from voting. (paragraph 7)
This was clearly voter fraud according to even the most technical definitions of the term, insofar as such intimidation was an extra-legal attempt to block a large number of people from actually making their sentiments heard and reflected in the results of elections.
Legal means to block black voters
Moreover, this kind of violence and intimidation were generally buttressed by more legal efforts to block minority populations from exercising their civil rights and voting in elections. For example, several states in the South established laws such as literacy tests and poll taxes that essentially barred less educated or less wealthy citizens from effectively voting in elections—many of which citizens were, of course, Black and/or belonging to some other minority demographic group. This would seem to have been almost a throwback to the Colonial era, when it was commonly accepted by the law that only a rather small group of American citizens should actually have the right to vote. In any event, much of the voter fraud that occurred during the Reconstruction Era was specifically geared toward subverting the spirit of the Amendments passed in the aftermath of the Civil War and preventing Black people from actually exercising their rights as citizens through Jim Crow legislature and open racism.
Voter fraud today: A problem?
Turning to the present day, allegations of voter fraud are still quite widespread. For example, such allegations can be seen in the Democratic primary race for the presidential candidacy that is currently underway between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. As Damme has written:
Allegation of voter irregularities in favor of Clinton began with the nation’s first vote, Feb. 1, in Iowa. Clinton had to win Iowa. A loss in Iowa would have been devastating to her campaign. . . .Clinton was declared the winner by the slimmest of margins (only four votes statewide), even though multiple reports of election rigging were claimed. (paragraphs 4-6)
The context of the election results have thus been seen by many commentators as deeply suspicious and possibly reflective of an effort by the Democratic Party to lock the outsider Sanders out of the race and instead favor the in-house candidate.
Allegations of voter fraud in the place of reality: The Sanders campaign
It is worth noting, though, that the very context that makes allegations of voter fraud seem probable should also cause skepticism regarding such allegations. This is because from the perspective of Sanders’ supporters, they would of course be a great deal of emotional satisfaction in claiming that voter fraud has occurred displacing him in favor of Hillary Clinton, as opposed to being forced to admit that he lost a given election fair and square. As Levitt has pointed out,
voter fraud makes a popular scapegoat. In the aftermath of a close election, losing candidates are often quick to blame voter fraud for the results. Legislators cite voter fraud as justification for various new restrictions on the exercise of the franchise. (“The Truth,” paragraph 1)
This last point warrants closer independent attention.
Conservative actions propagating voter fraud
In essence, the situation is such that allegations of voter fraud could in fact provide the foundations for the perpetration of actual voter fraud. Historically, conservatives who have wanted to suppress the vote and keep it restricted to a smaller group of citizens have in fact cited voter fraud itself as a primary reason why such restriction are necessary (see Donohoe). For example, in a moral sense it can be understood as a form of actual voter fraud by effectively locking many American citizens out of the vote by the establishment of:
- Literacy tests
- Poll taxes
- More stringent voter registration laws
However, conservatives have often argued that such measures are in fact necessary in order to ensure that voter fraud does not occur. The argument would run that stricter voter registration laws are necessary in order to ensure that each citizen is only allowed a single vote. It can thus become unclear whether a given proposition to regulate voting is a necessary corrective in order to prevent voter fraud, or if that initiative would constitute a kind of voter fraud in and of itself.
Exaggerated accounts of voter fraud
In contemporary times, within the United States, anyway, the evidence would seem to suggest that allegations of actual voter fraud have been greatly exaggerated. In the recent presidential election, Donald Trump has continued to make unfounded claims of voter fraud during his campaign, claiming that the election was “rigged”, despite have to seemingly won the election. As Levitt has indicated on the basis of long experience within this subject:
So far, I’ve found about 31 different incidents . . . [of voter fraud] since 2000, anywhere in the country. . . . To put this in perspective, the 31 incidents below come in the context of general, primary, special, and municipal elections from 2000 through 2014. In general and primary elections alone, more than 1 billion ballots were cast in that period. (paragraphs 9-10)
Such evidence would suggest that people—mostly conservatives—who call for more stringent voter regulation laws are perhaps acting on ulterior motives. Within the context of the history of the United States, such ulterior motives would be nothing new: ever since the Colonial era, there have been stakeholders within the nation who have tried to limit the vote. Again, from an idealistic moral perspective, the argument can be made that such initiatives are not in fact meant to prevent voter fraud but rather in themselves constitute a particularly virulent form of voter fraud.
In summary, the present essay has consisted of a discussion of the history of voter fraud within the United States. After introducing the principles behind the practice of voter fraud, the essay proceeded to consider voter fraud within the Colonial era, the Reconstruction era, and the contemporary era of the United States. A key conclusion that has emerged here is that throughout American history, voter fraud has been used in order to prevent the actual sentiment of the full American citizenry from being accurately reflected in the outcomes of elections. Calls have been made for the abolishment of the electoral college claiming it contributes to this problem and is not representative of the will of the people. Moreover, the point has been made that allegations of voter fraud can themselves often act as covers for the perpetration of voter fraud. When taking efforts against voter fraud, then, it would probably be important to keep a close eye on the actual evidence.
Damme, Darin. “Allegations of Voter Fraud Follow Hillary Clinton Campaign Across Nation.” KTAR News. 20 Apr. 2016. Web. 11 May 2016. .
Donohoe, Kevin. “REPORT: From Poll Taxes to Voter ID Law: A Short History of Conservative Voter Suppression.” ThinkProgress. 27 Mar. 2011. Web. 11 May 2016. .
Levitt, Justin. “A Comprehensive Investigation of Voter Impersonation Finds 31 Credible Incidents Out of One Billion Ballots Cast.” Washington Post. 6 Aug. 2014. Web. 11 May 2016.
Levitt, Justin. “The Truth about Voter Fraud.” Brennan Center for Justice. 9 Nov. 2007. Web. 11 May 2016. .
Locke, John. Second Treatise of Government. Seaside, OR: Watchmaker Publishing, 2011. Print.
MassVOTE. “History of Voting Rights.” n.d. Web. 11 May 2016. .
Shafer, Jack. “Stolen Elections—As American as Apple Pie.” Slate. 21 Oct. 2008. Web. 11 May 2016. .