There are a few ways to manufacture a stolen election. In countries like Iran, hardline clerics can disqualify candidates who challenge them. That allows only a narrow range of views into office. The Economist reports that of the 600 candidates who applied to run for the Iranian presidency, only seven were allowed on the ballot.
In democratic countries, manipulation has to be subtle to withstand scrutiny. However, in the days of corrupt party bosses of the 1940s, elections could be stolen.
One of the most notable stolen elections was Lyndon Johnson’s Senate primary in 1948. Tired of his position in the House of Representatives, LBJ decided that he’d run for a Senate seat. If he lost, that’d be the end of his political career.
Johnson’s opponent in the Democratic primary was Coke Stevenson, the Texas governor who seemed destined for the Senate. The polls — and votes — had him winning the Texas Democratic primary. But Johnson had ties in South Texas that he used to fabricate the votes he needed to be Texas’ Democratic nominee for the 1948 Senate race.
(Evidence includes Robert Caro’s biography series on LBJ, in which Caro interviewed South Texas election judge, Luis Salas, who admitted to supervising Johnson’s election theft. Conveniently, Salas waited until after Johnson and other major players in the theft died to admit his role.)
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How LBJ Manufactured a Stolen Election
Johnson developed friendships with powerful political forces throughout his career, including corrupt Texas political bosses. One of those political bosses was George Parr, a man who manufactured votes to help Johnson overcome his 20,000-vote deficit against Stevenson.
First, Johnson carried San Antonio, where he came out 10,000 votes ahead. Next, he carried several South Texas precincts that put Johnson fewer than 900 votes behind. In the following days, new precincts materialized that delivered Johnson a few hundred more votes.
After the vote counting ended, Jim Wells county election officials announced “corrections” to its previous vote counts. Its corrections gave Johnson 965 votes instead of 765 votes. The voter rolls showed these extra voters all voted in alphabetical order and were listed in a different ink and handwriting from the previous 765 votes. It was as if someone went down the voter poll tax list and wrote in voters who were dead or who hadn’t voted.
The culmination of these efforts: Johnson’s 87-vote victory over Stevenson. After several close legal calls from Stevenson’s allegations of fraud, Johnson maintained the victory, defeated the Republican Senate nominee, and secured his Senate seat. He would go on to reshape power in the Senate and forge a compromise on a 1957 voting rights bill that would lead to the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965.
Despite the good that came from it all, that historic career stemmed from a stolen Senate primary election.
Why LBJ Couldn’t Steal an Election Today
Modern election protections couldn’t be more different than those of the 1940s Texas political machine. US elections employ protections that would’ve prevented the blatant voter fraud of the 1940s and which protect against modern threats.
First, voting records are shared among enough people that this can be caught. Reuters reported many common election protection measures after the 2020 election. For mail-in ballots, different people scan the ballot envelopes and open them. With a database that cross-checks received envelopes, recorded votes, and voter information, voter fraud is rare. In Oregon, only a dozen cases of voter fraud have been recorded across hundreds of millions of mail-in ballots since 2000.
In-person voting is protected, too. Voting machines don’t connect to the internet, and additional voting machine protections are beginning to target more sophisticated hacking attempts. Poll watchers from both major parties watch over ballot counting and other post-election work to watch for irregularities. Finally, even after vote counts are delivered, election audits can further confirm election results.
The many checks on voter rolls, ballots, and votes are how election officials determined that the 2020 election was secure. All the systems and eyes on the ballot box ensured that Joe Biden fairly won the 2020 Presidential Election. The 2020 Election is miles ahead of the corruptible political machine in 1940s Texas in the pre-Civil Rights Act United States.
Why Conspiracies Fail
The fewer people who are in on a real conspiracy, the more likely it is to be successful. The decentralized nature of US elections prevents stolen elections. The double and triple checks possible with modern election requirements ensure that each vote cast is legitimate and that no elections are stolen.
With so many safeguards in place, modern US elections are secure from the kind of meddling that was possible even 80 years ago. Gone are the days of widespread ballot stuffing, poll taxes, and literacy tests. Instead, the modern fight for voting rights revolves around voter suppression, which keeps blocs of voters from getting to these secure polls in the first place.
In an era of secure elections, even tactics to manipulate the vote have had to change. Like the corrupt practices that preceded them, voter suppression tactics will also be defeated.