For nearly 20 years, James M. Thomson was one of the most powerful politicians in Virginia.
Harry Flood Byrd Sr. and Jr. were back-to-back U.S. senators from Virginia and newspaper publishers at a time when that meant raw power. Thomson’s sister married junior and Thomson was the Byrd Machine’s shot caller in Richmond as Democratic floor leader in the House of Delegates.
By the early 1960s, Virginia was beginning to change, but the Byrd Machine was still calling the shots within the Democratic Party and thus in Virginia as a whole. In 1961, Thomson faced a primary against a serious challenger from the growing liberal wing of the party. If he lost the perceived invincibility of the Byrd Machine would suffer a mortal blow.
When the votes were counted on primary night, Thomson’s challenger had won by four votes. Thomson’s managers immediately called for a recount completed later that very night behind closed doors — and Thomson emerged with a one-vote victory. This prompted then-Congressman Joel Broyhill, one of only two Republicans in the Virginia congressional delegation, to observe that “You have to hand it to the Byrd Machine; it’s only as corrupt as it absolutely has to be.”
Thomson, who would forever after be known as “Landslide Jim,” won reelection that year and in subsequent elections for nearly a decade by narrower and narrower margins as the Virginia Democratic base kept moving left until he finally lost his seat in 1971, but will always be remembered by those who knew him as “Landslide Jim.” I knew Jim Thomson, Joel Broyhill and the man who counted the votes and told me what happened behind those closed doors that night.
I think of “Landslide Jim” and Broyhill’s assessment when I hear today’s Democrats claim that there has never been any evidence of “widespread” voter fraud in this country. There was no evidence of “widespread” voter fraud in Virginia in 1961 either; just enough to reelect Jim Thomson and protect the Byrd Machine’s sway in Richmond.
Dozens of local, statewide and congressional races have been decided by a handful of votes over the years. “Widespread” voter fraud isn’t usually needed when but a few votes will make all the difference. The Heritage Foundation’s Election Fraud Database, while far from exhaustive, details 15 local, state and federal elections overturned because of voter fraud.
In each case the fraud involved mail-in ballots or absentee ballots, which a Florida Department of Law Enforcement report a decade ago concluded “is the ‘tool of choice’ for those who are engaging in election fraud.” Sometimes when the chicanery is discovered in time, the results have been reversed as in the cases included in the Heritage database, but in many cases cheaters have gone unpunished and the beneficiaries of their schemes, like “Landslide Jim Thomson” have taken office.
It would take “widespread” voter fraud to turn a statewide election around in a heavily Democratic state like California or New York, and cheating would be a waste of time in most congressional districts. But targeted cheating in close races can make all the difference. When the stakes are high for those involved, regardless of party, cheating is a temptation that not everyone can resist.
In 2005, former President Carter and former Secretary of State James A. Baker headed a bipartisan Commission on Federal Election Reform created to safeguard the integrity of federal elections. The commission made more than 80 recommendations, including national voter identification standards. The suggestion was that since the government was about to require REAL ID cards, they be used as a virtually foolproof voter identification.
The commission concluded that what has come to be known since as “ballot harvesting” should be banned, concluding that “absentee ballots remain the largest source of potential voter fraud.” Mr. Carter and Mr. Baker wrote that election observers or poll watchers “should be granted unrestricted access to the election process, provided that they accept election rules, do not interfere with the electoral process, and respect the secrecy of the ballot.”
Once accredited, these observers should, the commission recommended, be able to visit any polling station, view all parts of the election process, including the testing of voting equipment, the processing of absentee ballots and the vote count.
Some states adopted many of the commission’s recommendations, but others did not. One wonders if officials in Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin even read the report. If they had and adopted reforms put in place in states like Florida and Oregon, they might not be in court today, we’d all have more faith in the integrity of our democracy, and Joe Biden and Donald Trump would know who will be inaugurated in January.
• David A. Keene is an editor at large for The Washington Times.
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