Note: This article was originally written in the autumn of 2016
Donald J Trump was an unconventional presidential candidate in almost every sense imaginable, not least in his willingness to defy taboos. Of all the presumed norms he ignored, possibly the one that created most consternation was his repeated claim that the election is “rigged” against him and his refusal, in the third presidential debate in 2016, to say whether he would accept the result: “I’ll keep you in suspense,” he promised.
Allegations that the system is rigged were a staple of Trump’s 2016 campaign; he began complaining of a rigged process during the primaries early in the spring. When Trump talked about the election being rigged he seemed to mean it on two levels: he alleged that the media is biased against him and therefore that voters’ minds have been poisoned against him. But he also suggested that there would be widespread voter fraud, that the election might be “stolen” from him, and he warned his supporters to “watch your polling booths”. One man at a Trump rally was quoted by the Boston Globe saying he was going to take his candidate’s advice and go to the polls, look for people who “don’t speak American” and “make them a little bit nervous”.
Trump was the first presidential nominee of a major party to make allegations of systemic fraud central to his campaign, but his line tapped into a deep tradition in American politics. Trump’s attacks on the electoral system may well have intensified the alienation felt by many Americans from their political institutions, but surveys showed that he was tapping into that feeling, not creating it. Most commentators were outraged by Trump’s willful attacks on the electoral process. In this narrative, the Republican candidate was jeopardizing the essence of the American tradition: the “peaceful transfer of power” that goes back to the nation’s founding.
There was a rosy quality to this narrative. It imagined an American past in which voters went to the polls to peacefully cast their votes, gamely accepting the result even if it went against them. It was a narrative based on truth, but it was not the whole truth. The reality is that Trump’s conspiratorial way of thinking – his refusal to accept that the electoral system works in the way it claims to – is just as old as the alternative, rosy picture. The United States, by most measures, is the oldest mass democracy in the world – white men could vote almost without any property restrictions in most states as early as the 1810s, fully a century before the same was true in the UK (with the Representation of the People Act 1918). But its politics have always been rude and rumbustious – and, on occasion, rigged…
Violent coercion and drunken voting
Until the introduction of what was known as the “Australian ballot” in the 1880s, when you voted you made your choice public. The “Australian” system, named after the practice of secrecy in elections adopted in the British colony of Victoria in 1856, meant a generic ballot paper produced by neutral election authorities. That replaced a chaotic electoral world in which the campaigns themselves produced their own ballots on coloured paper, which voters then deposited in round glass ballot boxes. Voters lined up to cast their ballot with party operatives pressing, persuading or bribing them. Voting against the prevailing mood in one’s own precinct took courage, often physical courage. Violence was common, and, up to a point, an accepted part of the process. If a voter was not “manly” enough to stand up for his chosen candidate against a little bit of rowdiness from the other side, then was he really a fit republican citizen?
Election results in the 19th century were frequently contested, sometimes in the courts, but more often by appeals to the relevant legislature (at the state or federal level) who set up committees to investigate disputes among rival candidates. The hearings those committees held revealed amazing stories of the lengths that campaigns would go. For example, the practice of “cooping”, notoriously adopted by the Tammany Hall political machine in New York City, meant luring willing or unwilling men into a basement a day or two before the election, plying them with alcohol and food and then dragging them semi-conscious to the polling place on election morning.
Slightly more subtly, party workers would set up shop with a barrel of whiskey right next to the polling place, a practice so commonplace that it is depicted benignly in a famous series of paintings of a Missouri election in the 1850s by George Caleb Bingham.
In Adams County, Ohio, in 1910, a judge brought to trial and convicted 1,690 voters – 26 percent of the whole electorate – for selling their votes. Especially in urban areas, political gangs openly used violence to carry elections. Isaiah Rynders was a notorious political boss and leader of the Empire Club in New York in the 1840s and 50s who led a heavily armed team of bruisers, smashing up opposition political meetings and patrolling the polling places to deter anyone who did not support their candidates. But he was far from alone. Also in New York, in 1853, a Democratic candidate for Congress, “Honest John” Kelly (the nickname was ironic), took an army of dock workers and volunteer firemen into a polling station on election day, smashed up the tables and tore up opposition ballots.
Immigration and fears of the “alien” masses
Kelly was Irish. And much of the history of election fraud – or alleged election fraud – in American history has been prompted by the fear that “alien” masses would steal an election. Just as Trump in 2o16 voiced an accusation widespread on the right-wing internet that undocumented migrants were being allowed to vote, and darkly warned his supporters about upcoming fraud in inner-city Philadelphia (an area with a heavily African-American population), 19th and early 20th-century Americans experienced waves of panic about the abuse of the electoral process by outsiders.
This is why the most acute periods of concern about electoral fraud have coincided either with a big influx of immigrants or with an extension of voting rights to African-Americans, or both. The 1850s was a decade of high levels of immigration, and the Democrats quite deliberately targeted immigrants fresh off the boat, entering into a mutually beneficial arrangement in which the “machine” would provide them with jobs in return for political support, but it triggered huge anger about “stolen” elections among the native-born majority.
In the late 1860s and 70s, after emancipation and after the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution had tried to guarantee suffrage for black people, there was a fresh wave of anxiety about the “debasement” of the electoral process. Black men, it was alleged, were incapable of exercising the judgment required to vote in a republic. Their presence at the ballot box was seen by the white majority in the Southern states as de facto evidence that the election was being rigged by Northern Yankee carpetbaggers, who were cynically manipulating African-Americans to win elections illegitimately.
On this podcast, Sarah Churchwell and Adam IP Smith explore the origins of America First and the American Dream:
An undertow of fear
There has never been a time when Americans have been comfortable with their electoral system. Mass politics has come with an undertow of fear. At the heart of this fear is the creeping sense that the system’s transparency is a sham and that someone somewhere is manipulating the system to cheat the “real” people of their rightful rule. Almost always such charges are linked to the idea that there is a group of voters who are so weak or supine that they will allow themselves to be the pawns of some behind-the-scenes power broker.
A cartoon entitled “Soliciting a Vote” from the 1852 election expresses this anxiety very well. It shows a hapless, down-at-heel voter being manhandled by four candidates for the presidency. There is here no corruption in the direct sense – no money is apparently changing hands – but a general anxiety that the election will be determined not by the “issues” or rational-critical interchange but by a combination of intimidation and bribery.
The word “rigged” to describe an election, however, is of fairly recent usage. So far as I have been able to discover it was not used in the 19th century. Newspaper writers did describe corrupt schemes having been “rigged up” to sway an election, but did not use the word in quite the sense that it is used today. It was once again a battle over who was entitled to vote that propelled “rigged” into the electoral lexicon.
African-Americans protested in the 1950s and 1960s about elections – and the system – being rigged against them. The pro-segregationist George Wallace, whose 1968 third party run for the presidency was often cited as a precedent for Trump’s politics, counter-charged that the 1965 Voting Rights Act (which secured black voting) was “rigging” the process against white people. Bernie Sanders, who ran a populist campaign against the “establishment” figure of Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries in 2016, also charged that the system was “rigged”, though he was more likely to use the term to refer to the entire economic system than the electoral process specifically. Rigging is a seductively easy charge to make because it is almost always used in the passive voice. Exactly who is doing the rigging is usually unspecified – the listeners can fill in the blank themselves.
The vulnerability of electoral systems has always been the prospect that the losing side will not accept the outcome. George Washington fretted that the early republic would not survive its factious politics; could the fledgling republic hold together its disparate interests without the binding power of a permanent monarchical head of state? In 1860, the losing side was so unprepared to accept the outcome of a presidential election that they seceded and formed a separate Confederacy (though it should be noted that in that case, even Southerners did not dispute that the winner – Abraham Lincoln – had been duly elected; they just really didn’t like the result).
Elections have frequently been contested. There has never been a golden age when the losers gave in gracefully every time (though many have done so, notably the last two losing Republican presidential candidates). Little wonder, then, that Trump’s claims chime with the public. In his warnings of conspiracy they hear, unknowingly perhaps, the echo of the darker, grumpier, side to the American democratic experiment.
Adam IP Smith is the Edward Orsborn Professor of US politics & political history at the University of Oxford and the director of the Rothermere American Institute. He specialises in the history of the United States in the 19th century and he is the author of The Stormy Present: Conservatism and the Problem of Slavery in Northern Politics, 1846–1865 (The University of North Carolina Press, 2017)
This article was originally published in the autumn of 2016