How to Steal an American Election
From Alexander Hamilton to Richard Nixon and More: Meddling, Fixing, Rigging, Fraud, and Violence
The 2020 election wasn’t stolen. Full marks for trying, though: the incumbent president and some of his Republican supporters gave it their best shot. That phone call to Georgia was but one example exposing the effort at chicanery. Systemic obstacles to voting, in many states, show it more generally.
Still, in 2020, their best shot wasn’t good enough. The president was defeated, and he failed, through both legal and illegal efforts, to overcome that fact.
So here are a few tips for more effectively messing with elections, based on the experiences of earlier American politicians.
Election Theft Tip 1. Collude with foreign governments that will actually do what you want.
One way Trump tried to swing the 2020 election his way was by offering a deal to President Zelensky of Ukraine, a key U.S. ally. Trump suggested to Zelensky that he would release security funds, congressionally approved for Ukraine’s military support against Russia, which Trump had put on hold, solely for the purpose of proposing this very deal. In exchange, Zelensky was to come up with dirt on Trump’s probable opponent Joe Biden. It didn’t work, partly because the offer came to light and led to Trump’s (first) impeachment.
But also, Zelensky didn’t do it.
In 1968, when he was running for president against Vice President Hubert Humphrey, Richard Nixon had a far more reliable foreign ally to collude with: South Vietnam. In the waning days of the election, the race was getting close. Meanwhile, President Lyndon Johnson was also getting close—to brokering a deal for peace in the War in Vietnam. The prospect of peace might have put Humphrey well over the top at the last minute.
Nixon and his campaign manager, John Mitchell, were ready for that. Via a cut-out go-between, Anna Chennault, a prominent GOP contributor and China lobbyist, they got a message to South Vietnam’s U.S. embassy, and from there to the country’s president, Nguyễn Văn Thiệu. The message was if Thiệu would wait until after the election to agree to peace talks with North Vietnam, South Vietnam would get a better deal under a Nixon administration than under a Humphrey administration. (Some have said there was similar signaling toward North Vietnam, though not direct contact.) Thiệu abruptly backed out of the talks. The war went on. Nixon won the election. Thousands more people died.
There are all kinds of oddball wrinkles in that story. One of them is that Johnson found out about Nixon’s move, considered it treason, but didn’t do anything; when he left the White House, he took with him some FBI wiretap evidence of Nixon’s treachery. Nixon knew there was evidence out there somewhere, but he didn’t know where it was. He spent a lot of time trying to find it, and to find out who knew about it, and how much they knew. Hence, in part, the program of break-ins that led to his resignation in disgrace in 1974.
Election Theft Tip 2. Cross the t’s and dot the i’s.
The first U.S. presidential election was fixed. Or at least a fix was attempted, and it was attempted by none other than Alexander Hamilton. The fix was unnecessary: George Washington’s victory was inevitable, as the election was uncontested, but johnny on the spot jumped in to ensure the outcome anyway, because he feared that the Constitution’s electoral college system, which he’d raved up in Federalist 68, was full of holes.
And the system really was pretty silly. Each elector voted for two candidates, in no order of preference. Whoever got the most votes was president, whoever got the second-most was vice president. Of course, in 1788, every elector was planning on voting for Washington, and also voting for one of a number of other candidates—but what if some electors didn’t get how it worked? what if they screwed up? That kind of thing kept Hamilton up at night.
The expected runner-up was John Adams. Hamilton rightly saw him as fervently hoping for a strong second-place showing, maybe even actively lobbying for it. So there was a highly unlikely scenario in which Washington’s election wouldn’t be unanimous, or, even more highly unlikely, Adams might somehow sneak ahead, just on user error.
So Hamilton wrote to some electors and asked them to cast their second votes for anybody but Adams. That would have the effect of spreading the non-Washington votes around among the various favorite-son-type runners-up, diluting Adams’s support. The electors would have assumed the request came tacitly from Washington himself. They complied.
Washington’s election as president was indeed unanimous, as it almost certainly would have been anyway. And Adams did win the vice presidency, but by a smaller margin than he’d yearned for, and because Adams got wind of the scheme, Hamilton made a vicious enemy in his own party. Twelve years later, the party of Washington would go down in flames, thanks in part to this rift at its beginning.
Election Theft Tip 3. Don’t wait till you’re running for president to do the fraud.
Presidential elections are pretty high-profile. So they can be harder to steal than down-ballot elections, and you can get in a good position to do big things later by committing the crime earlier in your career.
In 1964, when he ran for president against Barry Goldwater, Lyndon Johnson won fairly—and by a landslide. Yet he wouldn’t have been there at all if he hadn’t stolen his U.S. Senate seat, in Texas, in 1948. That was in a Democratic primary, which was all that mattered in one-party Texas, and it was hard-fought, leading to a runoff. Such elections in Texas were routinely fraudulent.
Johnson, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, had been robbed of a Senate victory in ’41. He wasn't about to let it happen again.
There’s a neat trick involved in this move. You get your allies among the county bosses to hold back votes in certain precincts until the statewide totals are announced, at like 96% reporting. Then your cronies can “find” just enough fake votes in their precincts to give you an edge over the frontrunner. If the other side responds by trying the same thing, too late: now they look like the fraudsters.
In the ’48 runoff—it was between Johnson and Coke Stevenson, a former governor—the count took a week, and during that time Johnson and his people did just what Trump tried to do in Georgia: conjure enough votes to slip ahead. When I heard the Trump phone call, I thought, “I bet old LBJ didn’t obsessively assure people he’d really won; I bet he just said ‘find me the damn votes.’” I was wrong. Part of the trick is to say things like “you know I really won,” and “for God’s sake, don’t commit fraud.” That way, your cronies can testify later that you never asked them to commit a crime. Still, I bet LBJ was better at it than Trump.
Johnson’s key ally in the scheme was boss George Berham Parr, “the Duke of Duval,” wielding iron-fisted control over nearly everybody’s lives in multiple counties. Parr held back vote totals; then, just as Stevenson was starting to celebrate what looked like a victory, Parr released blatantly absurd results, from precincts in two counties, giving Johnson landslide wins.
Stevenson armed up for a fight—literally. With hands on their pistols, he and a Texas Ranger buddy came striding down the street at one of the county seats to seize the tallies, people running inside like in a western movie. In one of the precincts, 200 voters were listed in alphabetical order in the same handwriting. Dead people had voted. That kind of thing.
So even as Johnson was declared the winner by fewer than 100 votes, and the party certified the result, Stevenson got a restraining order for the certification by awakening a friendly federal judge at dawn on vacation. No go: Johnson’s lawyer, Abe Fortas, scored a private argument before Supreme Court justice Hugo Black, then in Texas on the circuit. Black ruled that the federal government had no right to interfere in Texas voting.
And that’s how LBJ got the sarcastic nickname “Landslide Lyndon.”
Later, as president thanks to a real landslide, he appointed Fortas to the Supreme Court. In ’68, he tried to make him Chief Justice, but that move was filibustered, partly on the basis of ethics concerns. Johnson, already struggling, was further weakened, and he didn’t seek reelection.
Election Theft Tip 4. When opting for violence, choose guys in suits and ties as your rioters.
The Capitol insurrection of January 6, 2021, failed to overturn the 2020 election. Maybe that’s partly because the target was just too big. The rioters got much farther than they should have, but an outright attack on the legislative branch was never going to stand.
Maybe it’s also because the rioters weren’t well-enough connected and wore weird outfits.
In 2000, the Republican Party overcame the popular-vote victory of the Democratic candidate Al Gore, and assured the electoral college victory of George W. Bush, by a more varied and multifaceted approach: superior legal efforts combined with more carefully targeted violence, carried out by a better-dressed group. On November 22, in all-important Miami-Dade County, Florida, an all-important hand recount of a very close tally was going on under intense deadline pressure; the recount was likely to help tip the Florida vote to Al Gore. GOP Dirty trickster Roger Stone—former Nixon man, later Trump man—organized and paid a bunch of party operatives to riot, with the goal of shutting down the recount.
The rioters rushed the office of the supervisor of elections, punching, kicking, and trampling. The sheriff’s department prevailed over the rioters, but the recount was in fact shut down by the violence, which caused delay, so the deadline now couldn’t be met. Because the rioters were middle-aged white dudes in suits—some soon got jobs in the Bush administration—the event became known as the Brooks Brothers Riot. Classy!
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As we can see from those examples, “election” and “fraud” have all too often been redundant terms. The 2020 election, by contrast—and against many challenges, posed by the incumbent president—was one of the most secure in our history.