Rigged?: Trump’s Claims of Voter Fraud in the 2016 Election

November 07, 2016, published in Beacon Broadside
A Q&A with Mary Frances Berry

“November 8, we’d better be careful, because that election is going to be rigged.” That’s what presidential candidate Donald Trump said August 1 at a rally in Columbus, Ohio. During this campaign, Trump has alleged that the electoral system is rigged against him, that he will lose because of voter fraud. Additionally, he has claimed that undocumented immigrants will cast their votes, as well as people who died ten years ago. To prevent this act of voter fraud, Trump has encouraged his supporters to act as poll watchers. But is this kind of voter fraud really playing out at the polls as he claims? We caught up with Dr. Mary Frances Berry, historian and author of Five Dollars and a Pork Chop Sandwich: Vote Buying and the Corruption of Democracy, to ask her about Trump’s notion of a rigged election and what’s currently at stake for voters.

trump-electionrigged tweet

Why do you think Donald Trump is putting so much emphasis on losing to voter fraud?

Donald Trump is emphasizing the possibility of voter fraud because if he loses he may want to challenge the election. The most obvious way to do that is to charge fraud. The conventional wisdom that there is little or no voter fraud is not quite accurate. While there is little in-person fraud that can be prevented with ID laws, the more pervasive fraud involves misuse of ballots and other kinds of vote-buying. This is what I call suppression of voter choice on the cheap. Studies and news accounts usually examine only the lack of a large number of prosecutions. The problem is that in most cases of vote buying, local prosecutors refuse to prosecute mainly, I believe, because buying votes is common, and indeed, they themselves—as well as local judges—may have bought votes to get elected. In a close count of electoral votes, this type of fraud in one state could make a difference.

Cheap suppression of voter choice is done most often by campaign ground game operatives who use “street money” or “walk-around-money.” They say they want to increase turnout from the poor, the elderly, nursing home residents and other vulnerable populations, but the operators are in collusion with corrupt voting officials. They use absentee ballots and then pay them a small amount or hand-out fried chicken boxes and beverages for voting the right way. In Louisiana, such voters may get a pork chop sandwich and $5.00 and a cold drink. Before you believe that can’t happen, think about the clerk in Broward County just recently who was opening ballots and counting them in her office, or the Jefferson Parish official in Louisiana who had a private machine in his office for particular people to vote which he personally kept track of without observation.

Are Trump’s claims of a rigged election unique to this season? Have there been other presidential candidates before him who have made the same claim?

There are nineteenth-century examples of corruption claims. However, the charges that John F. Kennedy stole the election from Richard Nixon in 1960 stand out as a twentieth-century example. The most recent case is the Bush vs. Gore 2000 election and the controversy over votes in Florida that led to a Supreme Court decision electing George W. Bush president. Broward County was, during that cycle, one of the places where vote-counting problems occurred.

Early voting is underway and a Black voter like Grace Bell Hardison was nearly denied her rightto vote at the polls in North Carolina. Why is voter intimidation and voter suppression still rampant? 

Voter intimidation and suppression still occur because campaigns want to keep anyone who they think might vote against them from voting, while increasing turnout of their own voters. Candidates know turnout is a problem because many people don’t believe voting improves their lives or don’t care for either candidate. Since Grace Bell Hardison apparently was already on the rolls, there was no reason except how she might vote to prevent her from voting since North Carolina’s photo voter ID law had been struck down by the courts.

Ms. Hardison’s situation recalls that of a clergyman in Tallahassee during the 2000 presidential election  who had voted repeatedly but was denied the right to vote at the polls because he had been purged from the registration list as a convicted felon when the only time he had ever been in a courthouse was to testify in a case. He said he was embarrassed by the experience and felt he had been “sling-shotted back to slavery.”

Trump has encouraged his supporters to act as unofficial poll watchers. What can voters do to make sure their voting experience is safe?

The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law is leading civil rights groups in organizing lawyers and other volunteers to monitor the polls on Election Day for evidence of voter intimidation. They advise voters that if there are no monitors outside their polling place, and they are stopped and questioned by someone before they enter, they should not answer but call the Election Protection hotline: 866-OUR-VOTE (866-687-8683). They should go inside, vote, and notify poll workers of the intimidation.

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Selma, Black Leadership and Presidential Allies

Ana DuVernay’s movie Selma tells the inspirational story of a coalition of activists, young and old, students and ministers, local and national, radicals and “respectables” who, despite their differences came together three times in the spring of 1965 to march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge and confront state police intent on enforcing racial segregation. Viewers and reviewers want to know more about all the people surrounding Martin Luther King: King’s right hand in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference Ralph Abernathy and SNCC’s John Lewis. They want to know about the shooting death of Jimmie Lee Jackson by a state trooper as he was defending his mother from a police beating.  People want to know about women in the movement, about Selma community organizer Amelia Boynton and the young girls who also took part.

So the recent flap over the role of President Lyndon Baines Johnson during this pivotal point of the civil rights movement distracts us not only from the historical truth, but does the further disservice by (once again) trying to make white people the center of the black freedom struggle. Joseph A. Califano, Jr. goes so far as to suggest that LBJ should be remembered as the “white savior” who suggested the march, rather than as a president who tried to stop it as the film portrays. (That dubious honor goes to John F. Kennedy who tried to shut down the 1963 March on Washington.)

President Johnson was neither the hero nor the villain; to characterize him as one or the other perpetuates the racial divisions that King and other anti-racists sought to overcome. The (white) historians interviewed about Johnson’s legacy failed to understand this as well. Johnson had more than three decades of decades of political experience and knew how pressure politics worked. He also supported the movement’s goals of first class citizenship and wanted Congress to pass a voting rights act. And this is where DuVernay misses an opportunity to teach audiences about the political value of protest and the power of the Oval Office.

Selma is of course a film, not a documentary. If viewers want the documentary, Henry Hampton’s magisterial 14-hour series Eyes on the Prize (1987) remains the definitive video; episode six, Bridge to Freedom examines the Selma march. But Hollywood likes to pair its heroes with villains, and depicting LBJ as the baddie was DuVernay’s narrative choice.

Yet in a time of dysfunctional politics and a pervasive belief that government can do nothing good, there were lessons about political strategy and the usefulness of allies that would have been phenomenal. Audiences could have seen a President who is pushed by protesters to use the national mood after Kennedy’s assassination to deploy his legislative moxie and the power of the office to do the morally right thing. We would not have a distracting debate over LBJ as a white savior, but a message about the critical value of political protest in pushing a progressive agenda through Congress.

Passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 required three separate but strategically-related actions. First, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that some of the practices used to deny suffrage were unconstitutional. In addition, the 24th Amendment, abolishing poll taxes, was finally ratified in 1964. Together, these created a legal framework for expanding and protecting citizens’ right to vote.

Rights on paper are not rights in practice. At the center of the struggle for voting rights were the African Americans and white supporters who fought, marched, went to jail and died. To be sure, segregationists’ brutal repression of the movement – and national television coverage of Bloody Sunday – resulted in broad public support for the protestors and their cause.

Pressure mounted on Congress to pass a federal voting rights bill. It was here that LBJ’s work as a movement ally was vital to winning bipartisan support. Johnson knew how to persuade reluctant and defiant Congressmen – many of them fellow Southern Democrats – and more critically, which members were vulnerable to White House pressure. As the long-time Senate majority leader, Johnson understood the legislative minefields he had traversed earlier when Congress passed the tepid Civil Rights Act of 1957, the first since Reconstruction. Johnson was up against die-hard segregationists, most of whom had signed the Southern Manifesto in 1956. Even so, at the signing ceremony for the Voting Rights Act in August 1965, President Johnson knew he was consigning the Democratic Party to years of defeat from white Southern voters.

History is complicated when told in full. With its many leaders and varied activists, Selma tells a magnificent story and the stories of African Americans’ struggle aren’t told often enough. The tale of LBJ and Congress is an inside-the-beltway anecdote and probably would have confused the movie’s narrative. But it would have given us an example of a President who was made to do the right thing.