—————- current events through a historical lens————————
Once again news coverage is swamped with allegations of Trump’s criminal activities.
This time he is accused of trying to overthrow the last election and retain power. If true, then it is a serious attack on the very fabric of our democracy. However, it won’t be the first time. Historically speaking, there have been at least four times when there was at least something fishy if not completely illegal in presidential elections – in 1824, 1876, 1960, and finally 2000. Having discussed these many times before, I thought I would concentrate instead on a senate election that dealt with a future president and is considered one of the most controversial in history.
The 1948 Presidential Election was a difficult one for the Democrats as the party split when Southern Democrats left the party rather than support Harry Turman for a second term. They were upset with Truman’s work for civil rights and instead created the Dixiecrat Party. Not all Southern Democrats supported the new movement, one of whom was a congressman from Texas who was running for his first term in the Senate, Lyndon B. Johnson. But before Johnson could run, he had to beat fellow Democrat and former Texas Governor Coke Stevenson in the primary. Stevenson, being a popular candidate, won the election by a wide margin but did not carry a majority. So a runoff was held between Stevenson and Johnson. Once again, in the runoff Stevenson won the day, but only by about 800 votes – enough to trigger a recount.
By that Friday, and a week of recounts and some shady maneuvering, Stevenson was only ahead by a mere 150 votes. Then a final shoe dropped. Down in the small South Texas town of Alice they discovered a new box — Box 13 — of ballots that had not been counted. Sure enough, the new box contained ballots overwhelmingly for Johnson making him the winner by 87 votes.
Stevenson believed he had been swindled.
South Texas and the Rio Grande Valley were under the control of the Parr family who ran a political machine and were accused of graft, bribery, and fraud. George Parr had been convicted of tax evasion in 1932 but was pardoned by the president after pressure from then-Congressman Lyndon Johnson.
When the Stevenson team investigated Box 13, they found that the last 202 names were written in the same handwriting and in alphabetical order. When they interviewed several of the 202 names, they claimed they had not voted. Both candidates went on the attack finding judges friendly to their cause. Johnson’s judge insisted that the 202 votes must be counted while Stevenson’s judge ordered the election halted until after an investigation. Johnson’s team won the day as they successfully pushed through all their appeals and got the case to the U.S. Supreme Court before an investigation could be concluded. Justice Hugo Black, one of the most influential and controversial justices of all time, ruled that the federal government could not interfere with state elections and so ended the investigation and gave Johnson the win.
This election would follow Johnson the rest of his life as surely there was wrongdoing, but the question always remained: Did Johnson orchestrate Box 13 himself or was it done by Parr without his knowledge? No evidence was ever found for either conclusion. While it may have damaged Johnson’s reputation some, it did not stop his ambitions. Johnson was elected vice president in 1960 to try to pacify Southern Democrats and took over the high office in 1963 with the death of President John F. Kennedy. Johnson did win outright in 1964, but then dropped out of the race in 1968 when he realized his popularity would deny him his party’s nomination. While I consider Johnson the first modern Democrat, he is not celebrated by his party as he is seen as one of the most unpopular and untrustworthy presidents in history because of the way he handled the Vietnam War.
It must be noted that bad actions in the past do not justify any type of voter fraud in the present. If laws are broken, then action is needed.
Yet, as with everything we are facing today it is always important to remember that we are not seeing anything new. We have dealt with voter problems before and have kept our democracy alive. Democracy is messy and always will be with imperfect people in charge. This sounds crazy but I almost expect politicians to cheat. The real problem is us; we are the ones who put them there.
James Finck, Ph.D. is a professor of history at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma. He can be reached at Historicallyspeaking1776@ gmail.