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Dirty Work on the Voting Machines

October 26, 1962
by Robert D. Loevy
Robert D. Loevy is an instructor in political science at both Johns Hopkins University and Goucher College. His special field of study is American election campaigns.

       About half of all the votes cast across the country in November (1962) will be registered on voting machines. Being Americans and possessed therefore of practically illimitable faith in anything mechanical, U.S. voters have generally applauded the increased use of these machines. A vote on a machine—so the image runs—is a vote untouched by human hands and is not subject to the same kind of shenanigans as the old-fashioned paper ballot. Unfortunately, this is not always the case.
       The technology of vote-stealing has kept right up with everything else in the world, and methods developed to circumvent the machine's strictly non-partisan array of levers, wheels, gears and counters now have gained wide circulation.
       These relatively new techniques, when added to all the ancient and dishonorable swindles associated with paper ballots, may deprive a very sizable number of Americans of their right on election day to a free and honest ballot. Some of the fraudulent tactics have their widest application in primary elections only, when opposing parties tend to watch each other less closely, but many are possible at any time because of loosely drawn local election laws. Even so, New York's nonpartisan Honest Ballot Association has estimated that in the elections of 1960 two million votes were subverted by one form of fraud or another.
THE JAM: This is the generic name for the most common form of machine cheating. Its goal is simple: to slowdown the voting at the very time when most independent (i.e., uncontrolled) voters tend to show up. Political bosses know very well that many such voters have only a limited amount of time to spend at the polls—a half-hour or so before going to work in the morning; a quick trip before or after dinner at night. So, the politicos move blocs of their faithful—each one of whom makes the line longer and longer and takes a full measure of time to complete his voting—into position at the critical time. Men with jobs to get to and parents with small children to worry about soon grow restless. An important number give up.
       If the human jam doesn't work, the political boss can always try to discourage voters by jamming the machine mechanically. A knowing voter-accomplice can do this by forcing the voting levers into a position that will cause the machine to lock when he pulls the handle to register his vote. Occasionally other, less subtle, means reportedly have been tried in attempts to jam the machines—including screwdrivers, paper clips, nails and tooth-picks. Clearing the jam such objects could cause generally should be a simple matter. But it can take precious time for a repairman from the election board to reach the polling place.
THE DEMONSTRATION: A significant number of voters need instruction in how to operate a voting machine, particularly in precincts where they are in use for the first time. A precinct worker, representing the dominant political organization, accompanies the prospective voter into the booth, shows him how to pull the levers and work the handle to tally his votes—and then throws open the curtain, thereby automatically registering a "vote."
       Sometimes a particularly dense voter has to be shown three or four times how to work the machine—and three or four extra votes are recorded on the machine. Though detecting this form of fraud would seem to be ludicrously easy for even a halfway competent poll watcher, the sad fact is that in many precincts dominated by a single party the opposition, through laxity, either sends an incompetent observer to guard its interests or a disloyal one who is secretly in the pay of the other party.
       But how can this work when the machine tally must coincide with the number of voters signed in on the registration books? This intended check poses no serious problem. Every politician knows that many citizens don't vote for every office on the ballot. Minor candidates, in particular, nearly always fail to get as many votes as the major candidates at the head of the ticket. But the minor offices are highly important to the ward politician as sources of power and patronage. Using the Demonstration, he can chalk up plenty of votes for his minor candidates and still check out with the registration books.
THE EARLY VOTE: Sometimes a great many votes are registered before the polls even open in the morning. In Jackson County, Mich. in 1955, there were 99 more votes cast in one precinct than there were registered voters. An investigation indicated that the counters on the voting machine, instead of being set at zero before the voting began, had been set at a higher figure.
       Relying on past experience, the riggers had gambled that a certain percentage of registered voters would not show up, and they set the counters ahead to take advantage of the discrepancy. When the voters did turn out in greater numbers than expected, the cheats were exposed.
       In Louisiana, a voting machine mechanic explained in detail how he could set the counter wheels ahead for any one candidate. On one type of machine it is a simple matter, he demonstrated, to paste 000 over, say, 099 to fool the election judge. The official looks at the counter, sees it set at what looks like zero and locks the machine. When the vote starts and the counters begin to turn, the pasted numbers come off.
       The Early Vote fraud is virtually impossible to perpetrate on the new-model voting machines. One type, for example, prints both beginning and final ballot counts on a sheet of paper which, like checks printed on a check-writing machine, cannot be altered. But there are thousands of older models still being used which are not so, fraud-proof. As the polls open, the machine is beset by a host of dishonest adversaries, from long-dead "ghost" voters to those who try to jam it.
THE NAME DROPPER: Back in the '30s, when men were men and voting machines were novelties, a party stalwart in Scranton, Pa. took a chisel into a voting booth in an attempt to remove the opposition candidate's name. In Nashville, at about the same time, nitric acid was used for the same purpose. Nowadays the methods used to the same end are perhaps less spectacular but more efficient.
       Black tape is stuck over a name, or the opposition's name card is removed and switched for another. However it is done, the aim of Namedropping is simple: if your opponent's name isn't on the face of the machine, no one is likely to vote for him.
THE PEEKABOO: Crooked election judges have found it simple to slash the curtain shielding the voter so they can peek in to see who votes for whom. Such techniques are important to the dishonest political boss, because one of his problems is that his supporters may inadvertently—or deliberately—vote for the " wrong" man. To guard against mistakes or duplicity he has the curtain slashed so that the faithful are fully aware they are being observed.
THE MICKEY FINN: This is a rather extreme technique, but Eugene A. Sekulow, former chief clerk of the Baltimore Board of Supervisors of Elections, insists it has occurred. The poll watcher from the opposing party is slipped a mickey, usually a high-powered laxative, in his coffee so that he is indisposed several minutes at a time at frequent intervals. With the opposition "watchdog" out of the way, the dishonest politician has more freedom to perform his hanky-panky.
       The simplest and possibly most important way in which voting machines are "used" to perpetrate frauds is for dishonest election judges to misread deliberately the totals found on the counters when the machine is opened after the polls close. It takes at least two very alert watchers to make certain that the judge reading the totals has announced them correctly and that these results are then correctly transcribed on the master tally. On the newest machines, which are equipped with an elaborate cross-counting system, it is all but impossible to make a crooked tally come out plausibly, but on the older machines it is no great task.
       Fanciful as these techniques are, however, they will account for only a fraction of the votes that will be stolen one way or another next week. Most of the trouble will still come from paper ballots, which are easily defaced (and thus invalidated) by crooked election officials. The CHAIN BALLOT is the most spectacular and effective method yet devised to defraud an electorate.
       A party worker registers to vote and receives a ballot. He goes into the voting booth and emerges holding a neatly folded blank piece of paper of the same size and shape as the ballot he has carried into the booth. He deposits the blank in the ballot box. His unmarked valid ballot—now hidden in his pocket—he takes with him. After marking it appropriately, he gives it to a compliant voter, who puts it in the ballot box and returns his unmarked valid ballot to the party worker, who marks it and gives it to a third tame voter. And so on. At the price of one ballot (his own) the party worker has won disciplinary control over a whole chain of ballots; he is insured that each ballot is marked exactly as he wishes.
       If all the devices mentioned thus far seem to involve only a relatively small and therefore unimportant number of votes, the ultimate effect should not be minimized. The crooked politician operates on a principle that apparently escapes the average voter. The politician does not scoff at one vote. He knows what one vote will do.
       For instance, in the 1960 presidential election, Kennedy lost California by 35,623 votes. If he had gotten one or two more votes in each of the state's 30,682 precincts, he would have won California. Nationally, if the G.O.P. had cast just one more vote in each precinct in the land, Nixon would have won the popular vote by 46,616, instead of losing by 119,450.
       One vote is all the dishonest politician asks. He doesn't care whether he gets it by adding an improper one, by throwing out a proper one for his opponent, or by keeping one opposition voter away.
       It is doubtful that all forms of vote fraud—ancient or modern, by machine or paper ballot—can ever be eliminated. But as the voter goes to the polls, he should keep in mind these six rules for maintaining honest elections in his community:
1. Don't let long lines dissuade you from voting.
2. Wait out a jammed voting machine. Report any jammed levers immediately and see that no one votes on the machine until it is fixed.
3. Be sure your election board has mechanics on duty for breakdowns.
4. Check your voting machines for slashed curtains, name tampering or any damage.
5. Check to see that both the major political parties have election judges on duty at all times.
6. In paper ballot areas, make certain you have followed exactly all the rules that apply in your district. And insist that watchers from both parties be present when the ballots are counted.
       (other text not replicated here)

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Source:    Life Magazine - October 26, 1962