President Trump set a pretty high bar Thursday when he said expanding mail-in voting during coronavirus pandemic would lead to the most inaccurate and fraudulent election in history.
There have been 58 presidential elections held so far and for the most part they’ve been remarkably free of fraud complaints at a level that could have shifted the outcome. But that doesn’t mean there haven’t been some doozies along the way.
When election fraud is raised, this is the contest that most often raises its hand.
John F. Kennedy won Illinois by 8,858 votes, but backers of Richard Nixon, then the sitting vice president, saw signs of vote-rigging in Democratic-dominated Cook County, home of Chicago. Analysts have debated the matter over the ensuing 20 years without reaching a consensus on whether the rigging, if it did occur, was the margin of victory.
The results in Texas, home of Kennedy’s running mate, Lyndon B. Johnson, were also questioned, with elections regularly being swung by political operatives able to deliver votes.
If Nixon carried both states he would have won the Electoral College.
“That was probably the most disputed election in American history when it comes to the voting,” said Marc Schulman, editor of HistoryCentral.com and author of the History of American Presidential Elections.
Some of Nixon’s backers wanted him to pursue a recount, but he accepted the results.
Mr. Trump complains that mail-in voting will lead to an “inaccurate” election. It’ll be tough to top the George W. Bush vs. Al Gore battle that kicked off this century.
Much of America spent Thanksgiving with one eye on football games and the other watching as elections officials in Florida, with magnifying glass in hand, studying ballots for divots, hanging chads and other markings, trying to devise what voters really intended.
Because of the way ballots were printed in Palm Beach County, thousands of people who intended to cast ballots for Mr. Gore may have actually cast them for Reform Party nominee Patrick J. Buchanan.
A legal battle went to the Supreme Court, which halted the recount, effectively giving the state — and a national electoral majority — to Mr. Bush.
Larry J. Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, later bought one of the voting machines responsible for the possible mismarked ballots.
He said that one machine alone accounted for enough ballots to make up the difference between Mr. Bush and Mr. Gore, which was 537 votes in a state that saw 6 million ballots cast.
“It’s seen as a corrupt election even though it really came down to one of the most poorly designed ballots,” Mr. Sabato said.
America’s most contested presidential elections are often not about fraud, but about the role of the Electoral College. Five times the popular vote winner has failed to win the Electoral College, including that 2000 election and Mr. Trump’s 2016 victory.
But the most striking instance was 1876, when Samuel Tilden, the Democrat, won the popular vote and appeared to be leading in the Electoral College, though 20 electoral votes from four states, including Florida, were contested.
Congress created a commission to hear the dispute and the panel, despite evidence suggesting Tilden won Florida, delivered that state’s votes to Republican Rutherford B. Hayes. The three other states were also awarded to Hayes.
Democrats in Congress protested but ultimately accepted the outcome as part of an understood deal that Hayes would remove remaining federal troops from the recently defeated Confederacy, effectively ending Reconstruction.
“The Southern states decided they would much rather have troops withdrawn from their states than have Tilden as president,” said Mr. Sabato.
Some Tilden supporters urged him to mount an army, march on Washington and seize the government, but he reaffirmed the importance of abiding by the system.
“It’s a good precedent,” Mr. Sabato said.
It wasn’t a presidential contest, but the most notorious fraud in a national election is likely a Democratic Senate primary race in Texas between then-Rep. Lyndon B. Johnson and former Gov. Coke Stevenson.
As recounted by super-biographer Robert A. Caro, Johnson appeared to be losing as the votes came in, and only one region of the state was still outstanding — an area where, in a previous head-to-head, Stevenson had swamped Johnson.
Yet this time, Johnson cleaned up. In one county, he outdistanced Stevenson 4,195 to 38. Another county went 2,908 to 166 in favor of Johnson.
Johnson was still down as election night ended, but the next day officials in one of those counties discovered another 427 votes they said they missed the previous day. Johnson won all but two of those votes.
Johnson would win the primary by fewer than 90 votes out of nearly 1 million cast. The race earned him the nickname “Landslide Lyndon.”
‘America’s greatest strength’
Mr. Schulman said the relative lack of fraud claims in presidential elections speaks to the endurance of the system.
“History has shown that we’ve had a remarkable history of elections that have taken place on time, without any large degree of fraud,” he said. “That has been America’s great strength over the years — almost all of the politicians over the centuries have believed in the system.”
He said in the modern world there are dangers to elections that arise from dependence on electronic voting systems. But he said ballot fraud isn’t really a danger.
“The amount of fraud we would need to change the outcome of an election, and assume it’s not going to be caught, it’s almost science fiction,” Mr. Schulman said.
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