Voter Fraud: How an election lie has been used as a political weapon against our Democracy since 1964
Will we be governed by representatives we elect, or people put in office by angry mobs storming capitols? Nations have to figure out how they are to be governed. Most of recorded history tells the story of kings, popes, priests, lords, and barons who ruled through violence and imposed themselves on their people rather than the people selecting them.
Ultimately, as we all learned in high school civics, you can have a government chosen democratically with a free and fair vote or you can have a government chosen through brute force and violence. There really are not any other choices.
That was the great American experiment. Replacing a violent hereditary warlord king with a president and congress elected by the people. Democracy.
But democracy only functions properly when the people trust that its essential mechanism — voting — is honest and true.
And that dependence on trust in elections — that vulnerability of all democracies — is exactly what Donald Trump and his fascist followers are aiming their weapons of mass deception at.
But Trump is not doing it alone: he is following a script that has played out in multiple countries over many tragic years and wars, and is now possible in America (and is spreading around the world) because of a decision a Republican campaign made in 1964.
Our country is also experiencing this deep crisis of democracy because, in large part, the media has not been doing their job about this issue of faith in the security of our vote. There is a lot of a history here.
Republicans have been attacking the heart of our democracy right out in the open since 1964 and covering it up by yelling about “voter fraud.”
It is a phrase they essentially invented, although it was occasionally used by the Confederacy during its later years when they tried to suppress poor white voters who opposed the oligarchy.
No other developed country in the world worries about “voter fraud” because it has been nonexistent in most modern democracies. It is not a thing anywhere except in the United States, and now Brazil. And it is only a thing here because of this strategy that was developed in 1964.
Most countries do not even have what we call voter registration, because they do not want a system to try to cut back on the number of people who can vote.
If you are a citizen, you vote. You show up with your ID and vote at any polling location you choose; in many countries because you are a citizen they simply mail you the ballot and you vote by mail. Everybody gets one.
After all, what kind of idiot is stupid enough to risk going to prison to cast one vote out of millions? What possible payoff is there to that? And the one time somebody tries to do it at scale — like the Republican scheme a few years ago in North Carolina to buy a few dozen mail-in ballots from low income people in a trailer park — it gets exposed because it is almost impossible to cover things like that up for any period of time. After all, it would take thousands of votes in most places, sometimes tens of thousands, to alter election outcomes.
In all the intervening years since Republicans began this continuous and relentless attack claiming that this “voter fraud” was happening in Black and Hispanic communities across America, our media has been totally asleep at the switch.
Remember the hours-long lines to vote we have seen on TV ever since the 60s in minority neighborhoods? Those are no accident: they are part of a larger program the GOP has used to suppress the vote — to suppress democracy — for sixty years now.
Probably to keep from offending their white audience, and also to prevent Republicans squeals of “liberal media bias,” America’s news media has historically treated those long lines and other barriers to voting that conservatives have thrown up as if they were simply a bizarre force of nature.
“Who could imagine why this is?” they seem to say, sometimes noting that the poll workers in Black districts are also themselves usually Black — even though they have no say over how many voting machines or polling places their precincts get from the white-controlled state.
The media’s message over the past 60 years has been clear:
“Black people, apparently, can’t even figure out how to vote right.”
This assault on the democratic system at the heart of our republic has a long history, stretching back to the era when the Republican Party first began trying to cater to the white racist vote.
The GOP made this transition after LBJ and his Democrats passed the 1964 Civil Rights Act just five months before that year’s November election.
In 1964, Senator Barry Goldwater — who was running for President on the Republican ticket — openly opposed the Civil Rights Act that President Johnson had just pushed through Congress. He was doubly opposed to the Voting Rights Act that Johnson had teed up for 1965 if he was re-elected. At the time:
- 35.5 percent of the citizens of Mississippi were Black but only 4.3 percent were able to register to vote.
- Alabama was 26% Black: 7% could vote.
- South Carolina was nearly one-third Black (29.2%) but only 9% of that state’s African Americans could successfully register to vote.
- Alabama was 26% Black but the white power structure made sure only 7% could vote.
These were not accidents: from poll taxes to jellybean counting to constitution-interpreting requirements, most Southern states had erected massive barriers to Black people voting.
These elections where only white people were allowed to vote in large numbers were — by definition — naked attacks on democracy.
After all, it is not really democracy when a “free and fair” election was held but, in fact, large numbers of people who legally qualified and wanted to vote were not allowed their voice.
How can that not be a crisis for a nation that calls itself a democratic republic?
By 1964 people across the country were starting to agree with that assessment, which is why the Civil Rights Act was passed, producing a lot of angry and disaffected Dixiecrats.
Republicans decided it was a great time to pry the southern racist vote away from the Democrats. Their rallying cry would be that Black people were engaging in “voter fraud!!!”
But do not bother looking through newspaper archives to see if the American media exposed this new GOP invention as a fraud itself: they rarely raised the question until the past year or two. I worked in radio news back in the later 1960s and 1970s and do not recall a single major-story mention of Goldwater’s racist vote-suppressing positions and the GOP’s sudden use of the phrase “voter fraud” during that era.
Reported on or not, back in 1964 Goldwater and his Republicans wanted to keep Black people from voting. And the media was fine going along with them: after all, this was a time when the only Black faces on TV were portrayed as criminals, minstrels, or buffoons. The advertising money that paid the salaries of television executives was only interested in a white audience.
But Republican efforts in 1964 were complicated by the Civil Rights movement and its leaders like Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. African Americans and their allies were marching across the country for their right to vote, and had acquired a strong affinity for and loyalty to the Democratic Party that had just put civil rights into law.
Panicked, consultants on Goldwater’s team realized they needed a justification for an ongoing and even amped-up campaign to block the Black and Hispanic vote.
So they came up with a story that they started selling during the 1964 election through op-eds and letters to the editor, in political speeches, and on rightwing radio and TV programs like Joe Pyne’s (Buckley would pick it up on his PBS Firing Line show three years later and promote it till the day he died).
This 1964 story was simple:
There was massive “voter fraud” going on, exclusively in America’s cities, where mostly Black people were voting more than once in different polling places and doing so under different names, often, as Donald Trump said in 2019, “by the busload” after Sunday church services.
In addition, the Republican story went, “illegal aliens” living in the United States were using stolen Social Security numbers to vote by the millions.
None of it was true, but it became the foundation of a nationwide voter suppression campaign that the GOP continues to use to this day: a campaign based on a lie of “voter fraud” that the media was more than happy to amplify. This lie to disenfranchise Black and brown people was the original sin that has brought us to today’s crisis.
After all, “if it bleeds it ledes” and this GOP assertion that Black and Hispanic people were voting illegally was a juicy scandal that the white electorate ate up.
For six decades partisan Republican pundits have shown up on TV news programs at election time to opine about America’s “crisis” of voter fraud.
For six decades, Republican-controlled states have worked to make it more difficult to vote and easier to throw people off the voting rolls in Democratic parts of the state.
William Rehnquist, for example, was a 40-year-old Arizona lawyer and Republican activist in 1964, when his idol, Barry Goldwater, ran against Lyndon Johnson for president.
Rehnquist helped organize a program called Operation Eagle Eye in his state to challenge the vote of Hispanic and Black voters and to dramatically slow down the voting lines in communities of color to discourage people who had to get back to work from waiting what would become hours in line to vote.
As Democratic poll watcher Lito Pena observed at the time, Rehnquist showed up at a southern Phoenix polling place to do his part in Operation Eagle Eye:
“He knew the law and applied it with the precision of a swordsman,” Pena told a reporter. “He sat at the table at the Bethune School, a polling place brimming with black citizens, and quizzed voters ad nauseam about where they were from, how long they had lived there — every question in the book. A passage of the Constitution was read and people … were ordered to interpret it to prove they had the language skills to vote.”
Rehnquist was richly rewarded for his activism; he quickly rose through the GOP ranks to being appointed by President Nixon, in 1972, to the US Supreme Court, and was elevated in 1986 by President Reagan to Chief Justice, a position he used to stop the Florida State Supreme Court-mandated vote recount in 2000, handing the White House to George W. Bush.
(Interestingly, two then-little-known lawyers who worked with the Bush legal team to argue before Rehnquist that the Florida recount should be stopped were John Roberts and Brett Kavanaugh. Bush rewarded Roberts by putting him on the Court as Chief Justice when Rehnquist died, and gave “Beerbong Brett” a lifetime position as a federal judge in 2006.)
Rehnquist’s Arizona arm of Operation Eagle Eye was one of hundreds of such formal and informal Republican voter suppression operations that exploded across the United States in 1964. As The New York Times noted on October 30, 1964:
“Republican officials have begun a massive campaign to prevent vote fraud in the election next Tuesday, a move that has caused Democrats to cry ‘fraud.’
“The Republican plan, Operation Eagle Eye, is designed, according to party officials, to prevent Democrats from ‘stealing’ the 1964 election. Republicans charge that the election was stolen in 1960.”
Keep in mind, this was novel back then. Nobody had been talking about “voter fraud“ outside of a few southern states for about a century. Certainly not in national news. The Times article continued:
“The Democratic National Chairman, John M. Bailey, has criticized the Republican plan as ‘a program of voter intimidation.’ He has sent a protest to all 50 state Governors and has alerted Democratic party officials throughout the country to be on their guard.
“’There is no doubt in my mind,’ Mr. Bailey wrote the state chairmen yesterday, ‘that this program is a serious threat to democracy as well as to a Democratic victory on Nov. 3rd.’”
But that was about it for the media taking on this particular Republican lie. In the fifty-eight years since then, with the exception of the past year or two, no major American news media has seriously challenged the Republican excuses for blocking Black voters or purging voting rolls the way, for example, Brian Kemp has just done in Georgia this election and last.
And now the GOP has extended their campaign against Democrats voting by making it harder for students to vote (allowing, for example, gun licenses as voter IDs but not state college ID cards) and culling huge numbers of mail-in votes through so-called “exact signature match challenges.”
Millions of votes are expected to be challenged this year by the tens of thousands of Republican election volunteers, and in most states those ballots will never be counted unless the voters show up at the Secretary of State’s office to prove that their signature is still theirs.
With the blessing of five Republicans on the Supreme Court in 2017, they’ve also doubled down on caging and voter roll purges, stripping the right to vote from millions just this year alone.
And, as I noted in The Hidden History of the War on Voting, the GOP has expanded its suppression efforts to women:
Those [Republican controlled] states, specifically, are the places where ‘exact match’ and similar ALEC-type laws have been passed forbidding people to vote if their voter registration, ID, or birth certificate is off by even a comma, period, or single letter. The impact, particularly on married women, has been clear and measurable. As the National Organization for Women (NOW) details in a report on how Republican voter suppression efforts harm women:
“Voter ID laws have a disproportionately negative effect on women. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, one third of all women have citizenship documents that do not identically match their current names primarily because of name changes at marriage. Roughly 90 percent of women who marry adopt their husband’s last name. That means that roughly 90 percent of married female voters have a different name on their ID than the one on their birth certificate. An estimated 34 percent of women could be turned away from the polls unless they have precisely the right documents.”
MSNBC reported in an article titled The War on Voting Is a War on Women, “[W]omen are among those most affected by voter ID laws. In one survey, [only] 66 percent of women voters had an ID that reflected their current name, according to the Brennan Center. The other 34 percent of women would have to present both a birth certificate and proof of marriage, divorce, or name change in order to vote, a task that is particularly onerous for elderly women and costly for poor women who may have to pay to access these records.” The article added that women make up the majority of student, elderly, and minority voters, according to the US Census Bureau. In every category, the GOP wins when women cannot vote.
Again, these Republican crimes against our democracy are laying around in plain sight but rarely mentioned in news stories about elections and election outcomes.
The GOP has to do this today for the same reason they did in 1964: Republican positions both then and now are not generally popular.
Who would vote, after all, for more tax cuts for billionaires, more pollution, banking and media deregulation, privatizing Medicare, gutting Social Security, shipping jobs overseas, keeping drug prices high, and preventing workers from forming unions?
On the other hand, corporate America — including the massive corporations that own most of our media — love the GOP for the same reasons mentioned in the previous paragraph.
Which may have something to do with why our media almost never discusses these Republican efforts beyond vaguely quoting Democratic outrage about ambiguous “voter suppression” charges.
This is one dimension of a much larger nationwide campaign of Republican assaults on our democracy executed through the phony excuse of trying to stop “voter fraud.”
This year, and particularly in 2024, they are reviving Operation Eagle Eye to have armed white militia men and DeSantis’ dystopian “election police” confront people in their own neighborhoods on election day, all in a craven attempt to discourage minority voting.
Doubling down on that effort, they are also stepping up the rate at which they close polling places in largely Black communities to further stretch out lines and discourage voters.
And they are putting up billboards across the dozen or so states with anti-felon-voting laws warning that under some circumstances voting is a crime that can land them in prison.
Other states have criminalized registering people to vote; the smallest error can now land you in prison in several Republican-controlled states. These laws have killed multiple voter registration drives in those states; the League of Women Voters recently had to stop their registration efforts in Florida, for example.
When Donald Trump started squealing about the 2020 election being “stolen” after his wipeout 7-million-vote loss and being crushed in the Electoral College, the media treated it like a joke for more than a year.
As a result, it is now an article of faith among over 70 percent of Republicans, driving one of them to attack Nancy Pelosi’s husband in an attempt to assassinate the Speaker of the House; thousands of other people who have believed this Republican lie of voter fraud were whipped into a frenzy by Donald Trump to attack the US Capitol.
This situation has reached today’s crisis point because our media has almost entirely ignored the truth about this Republican scam for almost 60 years. Even today, about the only network that covers the work of people like Marc Elias is MSNBC, and even then only occasionally.
Mark Twain is sometimes quoted – probably apocryphally – as saying, “A lie can get halfway around the world before the truth gets its boots on.” Social media has given the saying a whole new meaning, but in this case an updated version may be:
“When a lie is ignored by the media for decades it becomes a believed ‘truth’ that the liars can then use to pass legislation destructive of democracy itself into law and through the courts.”
No democracy anywhere in the world can work if its citizens do not believe their votes are legitimately counted, as we can see today in Brazil. This lie that was merely a convenience around the edges in 1964 is now a harpoon pointed right at our elections, what Thomas Paine called “the beating heart” of our republic.
If it is not debunked and destroyed, it could well signal the end of democracy in America and the beginning of a Putin/Orban-style fascism.
It is beyond time for our media to do their damn job and point out the evil lie the Goldwater campaign buried deep in our collective psyche way back in 1964, before it succeeds in killing American democracy altogether.
© Thom Hartmann, used with permission. Originally published on The Hartmann Report as The Weapon Republicans Pointed at the Heart of Our Democracy in 1964 Still Haunts Us
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