Investigative Classics is a weekly feature on noteworthy examples of the reporting craft.
Florida Republicans wonder why Panhandle counties ravaged by Hurricane Michael were able to count all their votes on schedule last week while possible result-changing tallies continued to trickle out of two large Democrat counties – Broward and Palm Beach – days after Tuesday’s vote.
As Republicans charge that the Senate and Governor races may be stolen from them, Democrats and leading voices in the mainstream media insist the hubbub is much ado about little, repeating their claim that there is no significant voter fraud in America, that our elections are as pure as Caesar’s wife.
One thing that cannot be disputed is that voter fraud has been a continual theme in American history. Journalist turned historian Robert A. Caro provided a gripping account of the one of the most significant stolen elections in "Means of Ascent," the second volume of his multi-book biography of Lyndon Baines Johnson. The episode has echoes in last week's contentious election aftermath in Florida and Arizona -- with much of the action taking place after election night in concerted efforts to ensure the votes needed for victory.
In this excerpt from the New Yorker, Caro focuses on Johnson’s 1948 run for a U.S. Senate seat from Texas against former Gov. Coke Stevenson. “Johnson,” Caro writes, “had gambled his entire political career on this election. To run in it, he had to sacrifice the congressional seat he had held for more than a decade, but he felt he had no choice: his career had been stalled for years … This race, he said, would be his last chance; if he lost it, he told friends, he would leave politics forever.”
For complicated reasons, Johnson was running against Stevenson in a second primary – after having lost to him convincingly in the first primary. When the votes started pouring in, it looked like the result would be the same. Johnson was down by 20,000 votes with only San Antonio and its surrounding counties (a.k.a. the Valley) to go – an area Stevenson had won by a 2:1 margin the first time.
But Johnson and his wealthy backers – especially the contracting firm of Brown & Root, which depended heavily on state road contracts – had spent a lot of capital in the area, much of which was controlled by a man named George Parr. Basically, Caro reported, Parr could write down the vote tally desired, as long as the total votes did not exceed the number of people who had supposedly paid their poll tax. “You just had to … tell him what was needed,” one man said of the Parr machine.
And they did. After describing returns in surrounding counties that gave Johnson 80 percent of the vote, Caro reported:
Coke Stevenson: No waltz across Texas.
In the two counties in which Parr’s rule was absolute, the figures were even more one-sided. In Starr County, it was 2,908 for Johnson, 166 Stevenson. And in Duval, Parr’s home county, it was 4,195 for Johnson, 38 for Stevenson – a vote of more than a hundred to one. Johnson came out of the Valley with a plurality of twenty-seven thousand votes, and by the time the Texas Election Bureau, an unofficial vote-tabulating body financed by newspapers and radio stations, closed for the night at 1:30 a.m., despite further gains for Stevenson in other parts of the state, out of almost a million votes cast his [Stevenson’s] lead was down to 854 votes.
Johnson needed more votes. The next day:
Duval County election officials announced that although George Parr’s home county had given Johnson a 110-1 plurality, more than four thousand votes, that was not, in fact, the county’s total vote, because, these officials said, it had just been discovered that the returns from one of Duval’s precincts – or “boxes,” as they were called – had not yet been counted. … There had been 427 previously unreported votes in that “uncounted” precinct. Stevenson had received two of them; Johnson had received 425.
Much of Caro’s reporting focuses on the wrangling of the final 200 votes that would put Johnson over the top – the fabled phantom ballots from Jim Wells County’s Precinct 13 reported six days after the election. Johnson and his lawyers focused much of their efforts on making sure that the box was never was opened, which seems pretty good proof they knew what was inside. Hugo Black, the Supreme Court Justice responsible for the Fifth Circuit, made sure of that when he ruled this fraudulent election was no business of the federal government.
Caro – who conducted interviews with conscience-stricken Johnson allies decades after the election – establishes beyond doubt that the future president owed his career to the theft of tens of thousands of votes.
Johnson himself admitted as much at the time: “The argument – that the Valley’s vote for Lyndon Johnson was nothing more than the normal run of Texas politics – was always to be Johnson’s contention.”
Caro reports that Johnson was half-right – ballot-stuffing, buying and changing were par for the course. But no one had done it as brazenly as "Landslide Lyndon."
The Johnson-Stevenson race occurred 70 years ago. Those who argue that not much has really changed for African-Americans and women since then are some of the same ones arguing that American voting has been completely reformed.