Rigged elections not new

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Defeated rival Coke Stevenson

I am reading about the Kennedy assassination, not just Roger Stone’s book but the LBJ lawyer Barr McClellan’s account. Both writers have approximately the same hypothesis – LBJ did it, with the support and approval of Big Oil, the Mafia and in active concert with the CIA. The alleged hitman in both cases was Mac Wallace, who died in a “car accident” in 1971. More about him in the next blogpost. Both books are utterly gripping as true life thrillers that give an insight into the corrupt world of Texas, and perhaps American politics. Stone’s is the slightly better written book, he marshalls his facts more crisply, but ultimately McClellan’s is the more involving: he has credibility, too, because he personally worked for LBJ.

LBJ flourished in a particular environment of lawless, corrupt Texas politics – the frontier mentality of rough justice and lynchings provided the cultural context to his youth, both writers inform, but he was also almost psychopathic as a person. A sadist towards animals in his care; even in Texas that was utterly unacceptable. Perhaps especially in Texas. It was an unwritten rule among rural folk to treat your animals well. In cowboy lore, you looked after the needs of your horse first after a hard day’s riding before looking after your own. Not with LBJ. He was also of course charming, smart and intensely, intensely driven – good at building alliances and manipulating people. Naturally, or he wouldn’t have got as far as he did.

It is interesting reading these books right now when American politics is under the spotlight in a manner it hasn’t been for years. One allegation of Donald Trump’s is that the elections will be rigged. How can he know? People dismiss him too easily though. Because US elections have been rigged. We know that. The question being whether it is routine or it has just happened in those cases that have been reported. Democrats and Republicans have both cheated.

LBJ stole the Senate election of 1948. Even his loyalist biographer Robert Caro thinks so. In his four volume biography of LBJ, published 25 or more years ago, he goes into great detail about how the future president overcame a 20,000 vote deficit to achieve an 87 vote victory in the 1948 runoff primary against a former governor, Coke Stevenson, whose main weakness appears to be that he was too honest. A South Texas political boss, George Parr, manufactured thousands of of votes.

On the night of the primary, a Saturday, the first tallies of the Democratic count suggested Johnson was trailing Stevenson by 20000 votes. According to MacClennan, the former LBJ lawyer: “Stevenson ran a relatively clean campaign. Leading in the polls, he was not desperate. As a man with many opportunities apart from politics, he was not committed to victory at any cost. Running an issue-oriented race, he simply ignored many of the absurd charges Johnson levelled.”

For many Texans, Stevenson represented stability and reliability, whereas Johnson was the upstart. That is why Stevenson was in the lead. However, for Johnson, who had failed to win the senate seat in 1941, this was an all or nothing event; he would do anything to win.

San Antonio’s results had not yet come through but there Stevenson had defeated Johnson by a 2:1 margin. Not this time. When the results came in, Johnson had defeated Stevenson by 10,000 votes. When the votes in the Rio Grande valley were counted later that evening, Stevens’s lead was further cut to 854 votes. Over the next week, several precincts “discovered new votes” cutting Stevenson’s lead to a fraction. Maclennan, with deep contacts in Texas’s law fraternity, claims that LBJ’s lawyer Ed Clark, simply bought votes in several rural counties, by paying into local political fiefdoms money raised from major political donors and flying it by private plane across the vast state to deliver it to local political machines, cash in hand, in return for promises. In these precincts, voters had to be brought to the polls, but that was handled by paying the precinct chairman enough to cover his costs. Hispanic voters in the border countries or in the territory covered by the world’s largest ranch, the King’s Ranch, were particularly amenable to vote the way their chiefs wanted them to.

But in the final count, Wednesday, Stevenson still lead narrowly. Then, on the Friday one county, Jim Wells, phoned in an amended return and Coke Stevenson was no longer ahead. Johnson had won by 87 votes of 1 million cast.

Caro, the biographer, confirms after extensive research the long standing allegations of ballot stuffing: local elections officials had simply cast the votes of absent voters and changed the numbers on the election tallies. Stevenson, who understood the ways of the Rio Grande valley, went to investigate, taking with him one Frank Hamer, a legendary Texas Ranger who had once tracked down Bonnie and Clyde. In a town called Alice they discovered signs of fraud: the last 202 names on the rolls in box 13 were written in a different colour ink. The new names were in alphabetical order, in identical handwriting. Some of the voters claimed never to have voted. Johnson reacted to Stevenson’s cry foul by finding a friendly judge from his home town of Austin who issued an injunction that would ban any change of the situation in Jim Wells county.

Stevenson reacted by finding a friendly federal judge, who issued an injunction to stop Johnson’s name from going on the ballot. Johnson, not to be outdone, scrambled to find a solution when a supreme court justice, Hugo Black, ruled that the federal government has no right to intervene in a state election. Johnson’s “victory” was upheld by the state democratic executive committee and, since Texas was a democratic fiefdom, the actual senate election facing the Republicans was the usual walkover. And so LBJ’s political career got its launch.

Reading this one wonders: were many elections in the US conducted like this? (Or did the LBJ affair just have the attention paid to it because of his subsequent career success.) One gets the sense of a country of interlocking good old boy oligarchies, with strongmen in the local dominant industry drink and whore with local politicians (sharing a prostitute being a good bonding experience) and judges all of whom scratch each other’s backs. Or maybe this was just Texas at a certain time and a certain place. Or maybe things haven’t changed.

Further reading: the 1960 election was rigged

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