Books

Buying a Vote With Five Dollars and a Pork Chop Sandwich

Vote buying gives “retail politics” an entirely different meaning.

Photo Credit: Burlingham / Shutterstock.com

The following is an excerpt from the new book Five Dollars and a Pork Chop Sandwich: Vote Buying and the Corruption of Democracy by Mary Frances Berry (Beacon Press, 2016): 

In 2000, a few weeks into his work as head of Louisiana’s new Voter Fraud Division, Greg Malveaux knew he had the most challenging job in his life. After twelve years as a deputy sheriff in Orleans Parish and five years detailed to the city council, he had learned quite a lot about scandals and shenanigans, and had observed firsthand Louisiana’s corrupt politicians. However, what people were telling him about the manipulation of the electoral process was more outrageous than he had ever imagined.

All of this came home one day when he was investigating a complaint in Cajun country. He talked to an elderly black woman about a recent local election. When he approached her, she saw a thirty-eight-year-old African American man in a suit and tie who politely explained he was a voter-fraud investigator for the state. Suspicious, she demanded what he wanted with her. He asked, “Did you vote? Did you notice anything unusual?”

Malveaux’s respectful manner erased her doubts. She was pleased to see a black man in such a big government job. She told him she voted and began casually explaining how politicians bought votes on Election Day. She would be driven to the polls with instructions on whom to vote for. When she cast her ballot, the driver gave her five dollars. She didn’t know this was illegal. “This is the way it’s s’posed to be,” she said. That was the way it was always done, and “besides, we poor people need the money.”

All over Louisiana, Malveaux found evidence of election corruption by both Democrats and Republicans. Vote buyers in rural areas, acting as middlemen, generally received ten dollars per voter from a candidate who had no personal contact with the voters in the process. Half of the money, five dollars, went to the voter, as the elderly woman had told him. Sometimes the payment was “lagniappe”: a pork chop sandwich and a cold drink. In urban areas, the process and payoffs were handled by organizations with benign names like the Alliance for Government and Citizens for Responsible Government. Politicians paid these groups surreptitiously for their endorsement. Vote buying gives “retail politics” an entirely different meaning.

But this was not the only corrupt practice Malveaux confronted. Local prosecutors, because they too were elected, refused to abolish the system by prosecuting the people they themselves sometimes “hired” to win office. Malveaux was disgusted by the way politicians took advantage of poor people by buying their votes and then ignoring their needs. Under his leadership, Louisiana’s Voter Fraud Division became an agency that sought to empower voters and end election corruption.

Readers may be surprised to learn that vote buying and vote selling even exists. Some may think this form of election corruption ended a long time ago, or that its effects are negligible. Other issues about voting and elections seem to be more pressing: the influence of corporations and corporate donations on candidates and issues, the ever-declining turnout of voters in elections, and the disfranchisement that may result from requiring voters to present identification. The contemporary focus on voter suppression and the declining political power of ordinary citizens to “make their voices heard” motivates Tea Party sippers and Coffee Collective drinkers alike.

Paying people to vote for a specific candidate may not seem to fit the definition of “voter suppression,” but it is one of several ways that campaign operators manipulate the outcome of elections. Vote buying, misuse of absentee ballots, and other stratagems tend to defraud the very citizens who need government services the most: the poor, the elderly, and minority voters. These are also the people who may not have “proper” government-issued identification to vote. Whether their vote is bought, or not cast at all, their political power is suppressed. Buying votes is another form of suppression: paying eligible citizens to vote for candidates whom they might not otherwise support. And since a single ballot lists candidates for other offices at the local, state, and even federal level, the entire election can be corrupted.

“Who Can Vote?,” a study funded by the Carnegie and Knight foundations, compiled data on electoral fraud, documenting 2,068 instances of criminal prosecution between 2000 and 2012. These cases were collected from state officials, though not everyone responded to requests. Forty-six percent of resolved cases resulted in acquittals, dropped charges, or a decision not to bring charges. A search of cases that were appealed in the states’ highest courts before 2000 produced about four hundred cases of electoral fraud. This number is not definitive. Most criminal complaints are not prosecuted, and those that go to trial are often unreported. Earlier cases are even more difficult to find because people convicted of criminal offenses before the 1960s had to pay for their own lawyers if they wanted to appeal.

Vote buying in Louisiana is not an anomaly, though many in the state hope the television reality show Duck Dynastyis. Across the country, Kentucky, Illinois, and other states have long histories of electoral fraud, primarily in state and local elections. In order to explore the extent of voter fraud beyond Louisiana and efforts to combat it, I researched vote buying and abuse of the ballot laws elsewhere in the country. I discovered that most states don’t have dedicated voting fraud units, so investigations and criminal prosecutions are haphazard if they occur at all. However, newspaper accounts, oral histories, and other source materials reveal numerous violations and prosecutions.

I have included places with a long and well-documented history of fraud and powerful political machines. Chicago is an obvious example. In some of Kentucky’s counties, vote buying has been going on since at least the early 1900s, when coal, timber, and railroad barons used it to destroy unions and local party organizations. In Texas, the widespread use of the buying, hauling, and abuse of absentee ballots in rural areas among Latino politiqueras has become entrenched. I also found some states that resorted to rather novel ways to curb vote buying without resorting to threats of prison. There were also examples of incentives given legally to voters to increase election turnout.

The criminal cases of vote buying and selling that were appealed include misbehavior by election officials as well as prosecution of voters and officials. Candidates themselves filed suit to contest elections, and charged their opponents with fraud. These civil cases provide important evidence of the extent of vote buying and selling. Further, in civil cases the court could discard election results, bar a candidate from holding office, or order participants to stay out of political campaigns for a period of time. It appears that judges in civil cases were more likely to find parties guilty of election fraud because perpetrators did not face prison.

Malveaux approached election fraud as a criminal offense; he investigated hundreds of complaints and sent detailed accounts to local prosecutors who could have prosecuted wrongdoers by using the evidence compiled by the Fraud Division. These cases almost never went to court. To Malveaux, this was a gross miscarriage of justice, a civil rights violation of the worst order. He didn’t think this way just because he was a lawman by training and profession who thought he should put vote buyers in jail. He thought this because he wanted voters to get power. To him, vote buying debased government of the people and by the people.

Candidates are expected to make promises to voters, which most people interpret as a perfectly legal form of vote “buying.” A senator in Alaska can pledge to build a “bridge to nowhere.” Another candidate says she will obtain highway construction funds, or federal money to build a hospital, or other jobs and infrastructure projects, offering an economic reward to voters while paying a particular community with public funds. Other rewards may come in the form of patronage for those who support the winner, and these benefits are perfectly routine and permissible according to Supreme Court decisions.

Sometimes vote buying turns into extortion. In Fond du Lac, Wisconsin in 1964, city officials offered voters “free rent for a year” in public housing in exchange for their signatures on an annexation petition. Those who refused the offer of free rent were threatened with eviction. The state supreme court decided that the officials’ actions were clearly corrupt; there was nothing for the “public good” in such behavior. The use of “economic pressure . . . to obtain favorable signatures” was “a shocking disregard of the political process of government.” In fact, “The city’s action was the equivalent of buying votes and improper.”

When a candidate or a campaign operator buys a vote outright, the balance of power is disrupted. Once elected, the official has no political motivation to address the economic and social problems citizens face in their daily lives. The city councilman has no reason to ensure that people in their districts have good schools, paved roads, health care, responsive police, or public services, because at reelection time, however poorly he has served his constituents, they won’t vote him out of office. It creates the impression that a vote is an individual choice, a civic responsibility, rather than a demonstration of a community’s collective power. And in Louisiana, where the money to buy votes appears to come from “big money” campaign donations made by oil and petrochemical interests, lawmakers are even less responsive to their constituents’ interests.

Authentic democracies are based on citizen participation and the delivery of government benefits to constituents by elected officials. Voters may invest their hopes in a candidate who promises to change their situation, believing that this time around, elections actually do matter. But when good jobs at decent wages remain stubbornly difficult to obtain, and other reminders of growing inequality are revealed, pessimism is the mood in barbershops and beauty salons. It leads a cynic to suggest that a pork chop sandwich and a few dollars would at least be some kind of reward in return for supporting President Obama or Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel.

Cynicism and disbelief in the power of collective political action deeply affects local elections too. The impact of nonparticipation in municipal elections and lack of influence became apparent in Ferguson, Missouri, and in other communities where whites control local government. African Americans make up two-thirds of Ferguson’s population, yet the mayor, school board, and city council are all majority white; only two members of a fifty-three-member police force are people of color. White voter turnout in Ferguson was three times that of blacks in the April 2013 municipal election. These disparities and inequalities came to national attention after Michael Brown was killed by police officer Darren Wilson on August 9, 2014.

The primarily white police force of Ferguson raised most of the city’s operating funds through traffic fines. US Attorney General Eric Holder called this practice “revenue generation through policing.” “Driving while black” means that police targeted African American drivers for mostly minor infractions in numbers that far exceeded their population, according to a report done by Missouri’s attorney general. In 2013, African Americans were 86 percent of police stops, 92 percent of vehicle searches, and 93 percent of arrests. Yet police found contraband more often on white drivers (34 percent) than on black drivers (22 percent). The US Department of Justice made a series of recommendations for reforming the police department, announcing that if Ferguson did not act voluntarily to implement their recommendations quickly, there would be a federal lawsuit forcing compliance.

Political disfranchisement in Ferguson won’t be overcome simply by increasing black voter turnout or electing African Americans to political offices. Local citizens who are organizing on the ground know that, even though the outside political commentators who weighed in after the shooting tried to affix blame on low political participation. The township’s off-cycle municipal elections—a Progressive-era reform designed to focus voters on local issues—may have contributed to reduced turnout and fewer black officeholders, but it was not the only factor. Local political organizers recognize that Ferguson and adjoining suburban towns are essentially fiefdoms: municipal managers appointed by white elected officials distribute government jobs, award city contracts, and distribute patronage without being held accountable to voters.

Grassroots activists spent the better part of early 2015 organizing and educating Ferguson’s voters to use their collective power by voting in the April elections. “In order to be motivated to vote, people have to have something to vote for,” said Reginald Rounds of Missouriansb Organizing for Reform and Empowerment (MORE). “That’s why we’re so glad to be supporting candidates who really want to fix Ferguson and make our justice system work for all of us.”  Turnout went up two-and-a-half times from the previous election, to 30 percent of eligible voters, even though only 128 new people registered to vote. Two new black council members, both solid members of the professional middle class, were elected; the candidates supported by the activists did not win. The city council now has three black members and three white members including Mayor James Knowles, who has a vote. Political accountability remains the priority of Ferguson activists, who want not just reform of the police department but also revisions in municipal financing. In other communities where protests  against police killings of African American men and women have occurred since Michael Brown’s death, similar organizing campaigns by local activists have begun to confront entrenched political and police power.

The massacre of nine African American worshippers by a Confederate sympathizer at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, led to a successful movement to remove the Confederate flag from the capitol grounds, but not political reform. Calls for the legislature to overturn South Carolina’s photo identification law have not gained sufficient support. Even the invocation of Reverend Clementa Pinckney, one of those murdered in the June 17 massacre, church pastor and a South Carolina state senator, who had made voting one of his principal goals, was insufficient.

Martin Luther King Jr. asked in 1967, after the legislative victories of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, “Where do we go from here?” Voter registration, citizen education programs, economic development programs, and greater educational opportunities should have made “things different now.” Yet almost forty years later, Ferguson and events in other cities make it seem that ordinary American citizens possess very little political power. The expansion of voting rights since the colonial period has, in theory, enfranchised everyone over the age of eighteen born in the United States or its territories. We’re at a peak—yet we have achieved a new low.

Excerpted from Five Dollars and a Pork Chop Sandwich: Vote Buying and the Corruption of Democracy by Dr. Mary Frances Berry  (Beacon Press, 2016). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.

Mary Frances Berry is the Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought and professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania, and the author of nine books. The recipient of thirty-three honorary degrees, she has been chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, is a regular contributor to Politico, and has appeared on Real Time with Bill Maher, Anderson Cooper 360, The Daily Show, Tavis Smiley, and PBS's NewsHour.

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