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The Battle Against Vote Fraud
By Louis B. Nichols
, 1969 Reader’s Digest

Page 2

As we organized and moved in on our target areas, I got an unforgettable education – one I want to share with every U.S. citizen.

Gary

In Indian’s Lake County Democratic organization we confronted one of the nation’s most notorious machines.  Ins ward leaders had already exposed themselves in an attempt to steal the November 1967 mayoral contest from their own party candidate.  When Richard Hatcher, a Negro, beat out a Democratic “regular” in the primary, Gary’s white politicians plotted to throw the general election to the Republican.  A courageous white precinct captain, ordered to insert fake names on her precinct’s registration list, went to Hatcher and exposed a sordid plan to cast some 20,000 votes under phantom names.  FBI agents rushed to the scene, the Justice Department filed suit under federal election laws, and ghost voters were exposed in court.  With a federal court overseeing the election, Hatcher won by 1389 votes, becoming Gary’s first Negro mayor.

In the 1968 primaries, Republican poll watchers were intimidated by opposition goons, ejected physically from the polls and even arrested on trumped-up charges.  As the November election approached, ghosts were exposed again: 21 voters registered, for example, from a single building that had been razed months before.  The Democrats, we estimated, would be able to vote perhaps 25,000 people who had died or moved away.  In a nationally covered press conference, I announced that “Operation Integrity” lawyers were going to federal court to ensure independent poll watchers unhindered access to Lake County’s polling places. Thanks to the publicity and court action, “Operation Integrity” manned most of the precincts on Election Day without difficulty.

When one GOP election judge was bodily ejected from a polling place, Mayor Hatcher arrived and personally helped him re-enter.  For the first time in 40 years, the Lake County Democratic organization failed to deliver a majority for its national ticket.

Philadelphia

Ten days before the November 1968 election, Republican inspectors, by state law, examined Philadelphia’s voting machines.  They found that 2344 of the 3500 total lacked tamper-proof seals, leaving them vulnerable to unscrupulous tinkering by local ward heelers.  Counters on 42 of these machines – machines still in the warehouse – had already recorded 1083 “ghost” votes.  The Republican officials hurriedly presented their findings to a state judge, who personally inspected the machines.  The judge ordered a thorough check of all the 2000 unsealed machines, tamper-proof seals and round-the-clock police guard.

Texas

El Paso voters were subjected to a more subtle kind of machine chicanery last November.  Predominantly Republican precincts, containing 18,302 registered voters, were arbitrarily denied 11 of the 39 machines they were numerically entitled to.  And Democratic precincts, whose 9547 voters entitled them to 16 machines, were given 11 extra.  Result: in the Republican precincts, voters had to stand in line for up to five hours, until as late as midnight.  Sick people, mothers with small children, physicians and other working people simply could not vote at all.  Compared to 1964 totals, voters in the eight short-changed precincts were lowered by 17 percent.

In a Galveston precinct, an election official openly instructed Negro voters how to vote, watched as they did so, and in some cases even marked their ballots himself.  He stopped only after an “Operation Integrity” poll watcher phoned Austin, and a lawyer, after reading him the law, threatened prosecution.

In the closing weeks of the campaign, GOP state chairman Peter O’Donnell and party counsel Duncan Boeckman persuaded the Texas Secretary of State to alert election officials to changes in the law aimed at clarifying the tabulation of split-ticket ballots.  But in many precincts officials simply ignored the instructions, and untold Republican votes went untallied.

St. Louis

So total was boss control in St. Louis that a leading lawyer told me he did not expect to see a non-machine candidate win office in his lifetime.  Little wonder.  The August 1968 primary was riddled with fraud and irregularity.  Volunteer poll watchers who accepted soft drinks became violently ill, and three had to have their stomachs pumped at Deaconess Hospital.  A University of Missouri student poll-watching for an insurgent Democrat was bodily heaved out after objecting to illegal and coercive voter “instruction.”  A reporter found one “corpse” recorded as showing up at the polls.  The next day he discovered that the records has been altered – to show that the corpse had voted instead by absentee ballot!

With the help of a dedicated newspaper executive, we were able to find a businessman willing to try to clean up the mess.  Harold Thayer, a chemical-company president, got 30 business and civic leaders together and formed the “Committee for Fair Elections.”  I enlisted Washington lawyer Downey Rice, a former FBI agent, to serve as volunteer counsel.  In October, after the election-board canvass had supposedly removed all ineligible voters, Rice had letters mailed to 6500 “registered” voters in 16 traditionally Democrat Fifth Ward precincts.  Of these, 941, or 14 percent, were returned as undeliverable because the “voter” had died or moved with no forwarding address.  Both the Globe-Democrat and the Post-Dispatch, though on different sides of the political fence, joined in exposing “ghosts” on the voting lists.  The Globe-Democrat found “more haunted houses in the city of St. Louis than there are in Disneyland.”

The Committee for Fair Elections recruited poll watchers to man 125 of the worst of the city’s 579 precincts on November 5.  When the votes were tallied, the machine’s 1960 majority had been slashed almost in half, enabling Nixon to carry the state by a narrow 20,488-vote margin.  How many ghosts stayed home that day is anybody’s guess, but without doubt the Committee for Fair Elections and St. Louis newspapers prevented a steal of the state’s 12 electoral votes.

Chicago

We all knew from the start that Cook County, Ill., would be our toughest test.  Here we faced everything from wholesale bribery and vote buying to “long counts” designed to permit brazen tally-sheet falsification, all at the hands of city employees doubling as precinct captains and hell-bent to protect their patronage jobs by producing needed votes.

After the 1960 scandals, Republicans and some reform Democrats, under the leadership of corporation executive Charles Barr, launched “Operation Eagle Eye,” a bipartisan anti-fraud effort.  In the 1968 June primary, Eagle Eye poll watchers ventured into 600 machine-controlled precincts, many for the first time.  They were offered bribes, threatened and terrorized.  Their car windows were smashed, their tires slashed.

Shortly before the general election, a federal judge declared from the bench that if violations recurred widely on November 5, he would personally urge a federal grand jury investigation.  Copies of his declaration were swiftly distributed to pool halls, barbershops, and bars in troubled precincts as an election-eve deterrent.

Meanwhile, the nonpartisan Better Government Association and the Chicago Daily News scathingly exposed phantom voter registrations.  Three days before the October 7 deadline for registering, a BGA investigator checked into a skid-row flophouse under the fictitious name of “James Joyce,” spent five minutes in his “room” and left.  Two weeks later, the election board’s list of registered voters included the nonexistent James Joyce, along with 408 other “voters” supposedly residing in the same flophouse! 

On the final registration day, BGA and Daily News investigators watched wholesale criminal registrations of drifters in the skid-row area.  A “hustler” scoured the neighborhood’s flophouses and bars, marched men up to the registration table like a drill sergeant and showed them where to sign.  A city employee then forked over $1 for each new registrant, signing them up as fast as he could write. *

In the 27th Ward, registration lists showed scores of voters living in burned-out buildings, vacant lots, and houses where others actually resided.  Seven persons were registered as living at an address which turned out to be a pile of rubble.  Eagle Eye researchers concluded that about 170,000 of Chicago’s 1,800,000 registered voters were “ghosts.”

On November 5, despite Eagle Eye efforts, votes were stolen, miscounted and coerced by the thousands.  After watching several West Side polling places, columnists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak reported, “What we saw showed that lurid Republican charges leveled for years have not been exaggerated.”

Nevertheless, the effect of the poll watchers was dramatic.  In the fraud-prone 27th Ward, 28 of 50 precincts were manned by Eagle Eye and GBA volunteers.  In 1960, the total 27th Ward vote had been 22,236.  In 1968 it fell to 16,049 – a 27-percent reduction, and a fair measure of the number of illegal and “ghost” votes!  In the six precincts where the BGA’s trained investigators had exposed bribery and fraud and generated massive publicity in the month before the election, the phantoms stayed home in droves – with the result that Democratic pluralities fell by 52 percent from the 1968 primary.

“The lesson is clear,” says Eagle Eye attorney Frank Lunding.  “Vote fraud can be controlled by assigning honest election judges and effective poll watchers, and by using trained investigators and intensive publicity on irregularities.”

The worst threat we faced in Chicago was also the simplest: falsification of tally sheets.  In the early morning hours after the 1960 election, with most suburban and downstate Republican precincts already reported, 200 “lost” Cook County precinct reports suddenly appeared and gave the Democrats their razor-thin victory.  The only way to prevent such tally-sheet manipulation, we decided, was to force the Daley machine to submit its returns before it could know how many votes were needed to “win.”  So Republican officials in suburban and downstate precincts decided to “concentrate on accuracy” in counting ballots and preparing tally sheets.  Some were obviously delayed.

Thus, on election night, many Republican precincts dribbled in slowly – and at 3 a.m., nine hours after the polls closed, the Presidential race was still very much in doubt.  Millions stared blearily at their television sets as Nixon slowly piled up 261 certain electoral votes – only nine short of victory.  Just as in 1960, it seemed that Illinois could decide the Presidency.  All eyes turned to Chicago, where the results from 135 key Democratic precincts were missing.  But this year, for the first time in memory, Republican precincts were also out.

Just before dawn, the Democrats gave up and began reporting their long-missing precincts.  The Republicans followed suit and, as dawn broke, Eagle Eye officials telephoned the good news to me in Washington.  For once, Illinois had not been stolen.

Needed:  Nationwide Mobilization.  Without doubt, “Operation Integrity” produced the cleanest election in many years.  Even so, the nation barely missed getting itself caught in a constitutional deadlock resulting from vote stealing.  The theft of only 78,000 votes in St. Louis and Cook County alone would have deprived Richard Nixon of the required 270 electoral vote majority – and would have plunged us into a national crisis with Alabama’s George Wallace holding the key.

There is no longer any reason why we should flirt with such danger.  In 1965, Congress passed the strongest federal anti-fraud election law in the nation’s history, backed by penalties of up to $10,000 fine and five years in jail.  Sadly, this law has been largely unenforced.

But no law can automatically produce election security.  Each of the major parties, after surveying the need, should recruit, train and qualify canvassers and poll watchers in every state to ensure fair elections, not only for the White House and Congress but in thousands of local contests as well.  If this is done, and if the principles of the 1965 Voting Rights Act are preserved and enforced, we can ensure that all votes will be fairly counted.  If it is not, by our failure we shall have betrayed democracy itself.

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* Title 42, U.S. Code, makes it a federal crime to pay or offer to pay for registering to vote or for voting.  This is punishable by a $10,000 fine and five years imprisonment.

 

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