Don’t Miss Beacon’s 2018 Holiday Sale!
Langston Hughes’s “One Christmas Eve”

What We (Don’t) Talk About When We Talk About Electoral Fraud

By Mary Frances Berry

Polling placeTwo years ago, we didn’t want to talk about it. But it’s happened again in North Carolina. We’re talking about electoral fraud. This time around, veteran political operative Leslie McCrae Dowless, Jr. is facing allegations of illegally collecting absentee ballots from voters. Electoral fraud takes other forms, including vote buying. And it doesn’t just happen in North Carolina. Democrats and Republicans alike participate in these illegal practices. More importantly, none of this is breaking news. Historian and activist Mary Frances Berry had already written about the effects of electoral fraud and what should be done about it in Five Dollars and a Pork Chop Sandwich: Vote Buying and the Corruption of Democracy. Let’s take a gander at this passage from her book . . . and pay attention.


What [former director of Louisiana’s Vote Fraud Division] Greg Malveaux told me about electoral fraud in Louisiana was disturbing. He explained how campaign operatives paid the poor small amounts of money for their votes while making policy contrary to their needs. He talked about the family fiefdoms that perpetuated their power illegally. He described how election officials cavalierly accepted payments to let buyers view the ballots to make sure the bought stayed bought. He related how poor voters didn’t mind saying they got paid small amounts of money and treats for their votes, perhaps a pork chop sandwich and a cold drink.

Greg had been a deputy sheriff for twelve years in Orleans Parish. He was not naïve. But he soon realized that his new job of punishing election fraud was very complicated. The manipulation and vote buying seemed accepted by the public as just a routine part of the process. Politics is a game and parties do whatever it takes to win.

Malveaux focused on his job as an enforcer of the fraud law. But after thorough investigations he found he couldn’t get help from local officials. Elected local prosecutors and judges recoiled from the very idea of prosecuting the people who voted for them. Party principle and solidarity also play a role. Elected officials have important connections and relationships with each other and the candidates for other offices. Jobs, contracts, and other matters of patronage are at risk. Put simply, judges and other officials aren’t eager to upset the system, because they benefit from it.

Greg had some successes but it was hard, often demoralizing, work. His boss, Suzanne Haik Terrell, had campaigned on an “end the fraud” platform. Ending fraud is certainly great rhetoric and a good campaign slogan. Greg believed Terrell wanted him to succeed, hoping success would propel her to higher office. Success seemed to mean convicting a few low-level brokers and haulers and not the donors or candidates themselves. Basically, the law was hard to enforce because hardly anyone who could enforce it wanted it to be enforced.

The extraordinary effort it took for Malveaux to win his biggest case attests to the difficulty. To penetrate the Martin-Champagne-Thibodeaux network in St. Martinville, he had to overcome intimidation and deliberate undermining by fellow staff members. He did have the helping hand of a few courageous ordinary citizens. He also found an occasional reporter willing to stand up to his or her editors in pursuit of the story. But only when he was able to persuade federal officials to respond did he have some measure of success.

The research his experience inspired shows that electoral fraud, consisting mainly of vote buying and abuse of absentee ballots, does indeed exist in state and local elections. Such fraud is routine in some locales. Family dynasties that perpetuate their own power seem tempted to buy votes with money or influence as a rite of passage. The Martin-Champagne-Thibodeauxes in Louisiana, the Shulers in Florida, the Daleys in Chicago, and others are examples. At the national level we have also seen the good and bad effects of politics as the family business. The role Jeb Bush played in the manipulation of the Florida election in 2000 for his brother George is one recent example of such influence. While in the twenty-first century working to end voter suppression through identification laws and other mechanisms is necessary and a priority, the influence of often hidden or just plain ignored fraud harms the same group of vulnerable citizens. In fact, the very existence of their democratic participation tempts abuse of the election process.

Yet the inclination, no matter how small, to blame the most vulnerable citizens for fraud is misdirected. The prosecution of poor people who get a few dollars for their votes is like making an arrest for selling single cigarettes. In 1904, Indiana tried punishing voter fraud by giving rewards to buyers who would persuade someone to sell them a vote. They soon recognized that all they did was to entrap the needy along with the greedy.

Any outrage over fraud should be reserved for the candidates who buy their votes, neglect the issues that concern the poor, and studiously refuse to implement policies that could help them. Good examples of the latter include the refusal to adequately fund the schools their children attend, fund the medical facilities they utilize, or promote more racially equitable policing.

Candidates who engage in electoral fraud should suffer prosecution, even though it’s challenging. Looking for legal ways to give citizens practical incentives to vote may be a way to reduce the attractiveness of vote selling, while increasing turnout. But incentives must be combined with appealing issues and candidates, and organizing needs to assist the marginalized to achieve beneficial policy objectives. Otherwise the increased election totals will serve only to validate the system.

Taking care of voters and potential voters in poor and working-class neighborhoods such as those manipulated by Nashville’s Little Evil and Good Jelly, and Chicago’s mayors and aldermen, motivates turnout and loyalty to candidates. Street money or walk-around money, designed to increase turnout among people who see no reason to vote, also acts as a short-term jobs program for the unemployed or low-wage workers needing additional income. There are stipends for putting up yard signs, distributing literature, and circulating petitions. There are payments for hauling voters back and forth to the polls. There are expenses for feeding election judges and other officials and campaign workers. There are also media buys for ethnic and black radio stations and ad consultants. Campaign operatives and the community dependent on the short-term jobs hope for competitive primaries and run-off elections to increase the money flow. Turnout may increase, but whether it is increased legally or though illegal vote buying, the same structural problems of unemployment and inequity remain in the targeted communities once the election is done.

Federal enforcement would be the most certain way to provide more effective oversight, the adjudication of violations, and control of the relationship between money and politics in state and local elections. But unless there are federal candidates on the same ballot, or a federal discrimination issue is raised as in Pam Thibodeaux’s case, this is the most unlikely approach. Unlikely, because under the Constitution, the framers deliberately did not include control of state and local elections among the powers delegated to the national government. Therefore, the power is left to the states. The only way to change this responsibility is to adopt a constitutional amendment. The amendment would need to make voting and election protection a federal responsibility instead of a primary responsibility of the states. In 2001, stirred by investigations of irregularities in the 2000 presidential election in Florida, including from the US Civil Rights Commission, Illinois congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. introduced such a Right to Vote Amendment in the Congress. The bill, reintroduced in successive Congresses, would place voting under the direct control of Congress, which would have the power to administer standards and enforce election protection in both state and federal elections. Since Jackson’s resignation from Congress, Wisconsin Democratic congressman Mark Pocan and Minnesota Democratic congressman Keith Ellison have pushed the amendment. It has not yet made it out of committee.


About the Author 

Mary Frances Berry is the Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought and professor of History and Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. She is the former chairwoman of the US Commission on Civil Rights, a Distinguished Fellow of the American Society for Legal History, the author of twelve books, and the recipient of thirty-five honorary degrees. Dr. Berry has appeared on Real Time with Bill MaherThe Daily ShowTavis SmileyPBS NewsHourCBS Evening NewsAl Jazeera America News, and various MSNBC and CNN shows. She is the author of History Teaches Us to Resist: How Progressive Movements Have Succeeded in Challenging Times. Follow her on Twitter at @DrMFBerry and visit her website.