Thanks to President Donald Trump, we now have a commission, led by Kris Kobach, that will hopefully find some answers about the prevalence of voter fraud in this country, and perhaps put to rest persistent questions about the prevalence of election theft.
Thankfully, throughout recent American history, credible charges of election stealing have been relatively rare in spite of our admittedly imperfect voting system. Even when allegations of election stealing are credible enough to raise the most skeptical of eyebrows — as they notably were in the 1960 presidential election and in the 2008 U.S. Senate race that gave Al Franken his current seat — definitive proof has been difficult to come by.
However, there is one prominent election in United States history in which it is almost definitively certain that the election was stolen outright, because even the victors have conceded the theft.
Although no one knew it at the time, the outcome of that race would have an enormous impact on the course of American history — and it is probably not an exaggeration to say all of human history.
The reason for that is simple: the winner, the man who outright stole the election even by the admission of his own campaign operatives, would go on to become one of the most consequential presidents in the history of the country. That race was the 1948 Democratic Senate primary in Texas. The contestants were former Texas Gov. Coke Stevenson, and then-United States Rep. Lyndon B. Johnson.
The story of the campaign between Stevenson and Johnson would itself fill an entire entertaining book of history — and indeed it has. The story of that campaign dominates the excellent book, The Means of Ascent, and I am heavily indebted to Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert A. Caro for his work, without which this post would not be possible. The campaign is not the focus of this post, other than to note that it is remarkable that Johnson was even able to get himself into position to steal the election at all.
At the start of the campaign, Coke Stevenson — a rock-ribbed Southern conservative — was one of the most popular politicians in Texas history. He was the prototypical Texas man of the frontier — a rancher who became a legendary Texas lawyer after teaching himself the law during night studies. He served as speaker of the House of Representatives in Texas, then as lieutenant governor, then as governor. In every election he stood for, he won victories by overwhelming margins, despite the fact that he essentially refused to campaign, beyond occasional trips from town to town to meet folks in the town square. It was a point of pride for Stevenson to never respond to a charge that an opponent made against him, no matter how outrageous or false. Stevenson considered that to be beneath him.
Coke Stevenson, lighting his trademark pipe. (Image source: Texas State Library and Archives Commission)
Lyndon Johnson, one of the most serially dishonest politicians ever to walk God's green earth, knew just how to exploit this weakness: He invented a lie out of whole cloth and hung it on Stevenson, knowing that Stevenson would never respond to it. And the lie he told was brutally effective in fiercely anti-labor Texas.
Johnson saw his opportunity to invent this lie when the Texas AFL — a denuded and politically pitiful organization in a state as opposed to labor interests as Texas — announced that they were endorsing Stevenson.
They did this not because Stevenson was on their side; in fact, the ultra-conservative Stevenson was without a doubt more ideologically opposed to unions than Johnson was. Rather, the endorsement was personal; the unions felt that they had been betrayed by Johnson, who had initially run as a New Deal liberal but had become an open influence-peddler for Texas conservatives once he arrived in Washington, D.C.
Lyndon Johnson, posing for a photograph next to the Bell 47D helicopter he used to campaign in Texas. The helicopter drew enormous crowds everywhere he went and allowed him to campaign much more aggressively than his opponent. (Image source: The Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin)
When Stevenson, who had no use for labor, refused to outright reject the Texas AFL's endorsement, Johnson pounced. He claimed, without a shred of proof, that in exchange for their (meaningless) endorsement, Coke Stevenson had promised in some "back room deal" to vote to repeal the Taft-Hartley Act. He hammered this charge home relentlessly, and Stevenson refused to respond — even when asked direct questions about it.
Johnson was able to spread this charge effectively thanks to an unprecedented and perhaps totally uncountable amount of corruptly-obtained campaign funds from Texas oil and construction giants, all of whom knew that Johnson's influence was for sale.
Johnson blanketed the state with radio ads, he paid off influential citizens and newspapers, he even leased a helicopter (which most Texans had never seen and which drew them out to watch him give speeches when it landed in their towns) to crisscross the state, all while Stevenson plodded across the state in his car, shaking a few hands at a time and silently taking Johnson's abuse, until at the very last minute, after being begged by his campaign operatives, he finally stated that Johnson's charges were false.
But it was too late. Johnson was within striking distance. As the old adage goes, "If it isn't close, they can't cheat." Now it was close, and Johnson intended to cheat.
Johnson had been the victim of what was likely a stolen special election for that same Senate seat in 1941, and he was not about to let victory slip through his fingers again. He dipped into his apparently bottomless well of illegally supplied campaign cash and went on the hunt for votes — fake or real — that he could buy. And when the dust settled, it became clear that Johnson had put into place perhaps the most effective vote-buying operation in United States history.
The first — and probably least blatantly illegal — source of those votes came from the Hispanic ghettos of San Antonio. Johnson purchased these votes by funneling enormous sums of cash to San Antonio's feared sheriff, Owen Kilday. Kilday had in place a sophisticated operation that involved the flat-out disbursement of small sums of cash to voters in these ghettos, where appropriate, along with intimidating street patrolmen who intimidated more reluctant voters into visiting the polls and casting their vote for the right man.
Former Johnson aide (and eventual Texas governor) John Connally admitted in an interview with Caro that the Johnson campaign may have spent as much as $50,000 in cash (an astounding sum of money in 1948) to buy the services of deputies and others in Kilday's organization. According to Connally, there was a "standard rate for a car and a driver" to round up Mexican votes, "and they were paid handsomely[.]"
How effective was Johnson's vote-buying operation in San Antonio? Well, consider that the primary Johnson stole was actually the second primary that year — in the first, no candidate had received 50 percent of the vote due to the presence of East Texas candidate George Peddy, thus necessitating an expected runoff between Johnson and Stevenson.
In that first primary, Stevenson had carried San Antonio by a 2-1 margin, giving him an advantage of about 10,000 votes over Johnson. In the runoff, thanks largely to Kilday's efforts, the final vote total in San Antonio city was Johnson 15,610, Stevenson 15,511. Johnson had erased a 10,000 vote deficit using the brute force of cold, hard cash.
But nothing could compare with the perfidy Johnson was prepared to participate in when it came to the border counties in the Rio Grande Valley — counties like Duval and Jim Wells. In those counties, it was widely known that the entire vote for the county was for sale, and that the votes were controlled by county bosses who ruled their largely Mexican-American population with an iron fist.
Particularly instrumental to Johnson's efforts was Duval County boss George Parr, who would later in life openly confess to Caro and others the role he played in stealing the election for Johnson. In those counties, bosses controlled the vote in one of two ways. Using the first method, they would actually require people to vote. Mexican-Americans would be rounded up by gun-wielding pistoleros who would usher them to polling places and force them to vote in the pistoleros' presence. The voters, many of whom spoke no English at all, were given a string with knots tied in them to indicate who they were supposed to vote for — usually with a pistolero literally looking over their shoulder to ensure compliance.
In other counties in the Valley, bosses did not bother to actually go through the tedium of requiring people to show up at the polls; they merely wrote down the vote totals they wanted and wrote down random names from the poll tax lists to match the totals they were supposed to produce. As Parr would later say, they had two ways of doing it in the Valley: "We either voted 'em or counted 'em." The vote totals that a crooked candidate could rack up in the Rio Grande Valley was thus only limited (at least theoretically) by the number of living people and the number of poll tax receipts he was willing to pay.
Johnson was willing to pay as much as necessary.
In previous elections — elections in which no one was buying votes — the universally popular Stevenson had done well in the Rio Grande Valley. But when the votes started rolling in for the runoff, it became very clear what Johnson had done. According to Caro, the votes from these counties — many of which unabashedly reported vote totals that were as much as 10-1 in favor of Johnson — were enough to erase about a 17,000 vote margin in favor of Coke Stevenson. In George Parr's county (Duval), Johnson received over 99 percent of the vote — a figure that simply cannot credibly be the result of an honest vote.
Overall, Caro estimates that Johnson flat out bought 27,000 votes from county bosses statewide, not counting the 10,000 or so from San Antonio. But while Johnson had stolen and bought his way very close to a lead, it was still not enough. At the end of the final first count, Stevenson still held an astonishingly slim lead — 854 votes out of almost one million cast (less than one tenth of one percent). Johnson had tried to buy the election, and had failed.
Or so it seemed.
The election bureau closed at around 1:30 a.m. that night, but Johnson was just getting started. He, along with his loyal confidants Alvin Wirtz and Ed Clark (aka "the secret boss of Texas") began burning up the phone lines — begging, cajoling, and threatening Johnson's precinct managers to find him more votes. In many cases, those calls fell on deaf ears; county judges may have been willing to buy votes, but they were not willing to fraudulently declare more votes.
But George Parr of Duval County most certainly was. The next day, Duval County officials announced that there were more votes yet to come; it turned out that the results from one of Duval County's precincts had not yet been counted; they hoped to have final totals later that day.
As the recounting went on that day, Stevenson maintained about an 800-vote lead. Then, results came in from some Houston precincts that were "in themselves so suspicious that there were calls for an immediate investigation" according to Caro, and suddenly, Stevenson was ahead by a bare handful of votes.
Then, the allegedly uncounted votes from Duval County came in, and they showed a truly astounding total: 425 new votes for Johnson, to only 2 for Stevenson. For the first time in the counting, Lyndon Johnson had a lead — but throughout the day as the usual corrections were made, Coke Stevenson re-established the slimmest of leads — a total of a bare 119 votes.
Other, ordinary changes over the next several days increased Stevenson's lead once again to a total of 351 votes. Newspapers treated the election as over. But they were wrong. As Caro notes, "On September 3rd, the sixth day after the election, the Valley was heard from again."
Corrections began to roll in that gave Johnson more votes: 43 from Dimmit County, 38 from Cameron County, 45 from Zapata County. When all was said and done, Stevenson's lead was reduced to 157 votes. But Johnson was still not done finding votes to steal.
One other box under George Parr's control was the infamous box from the 13th Precinct in neighboring Jim Wells County, which was controlled by Parr deputy Luis Salas. In that precinct, on election night, the vote had been recorded as 765 for Johnson to 60 for Stevenson. But when the executive committee for Jim Wells county met in the courthouse to certify the vote, they discovered that this total had been changed to 965 to 60 for Johnson, giving Johnson 200 extra votes — and a lead he would never relinquish.
Subsequent eyewitness testimony would indicate that someone — presumably Salas — simply added a loop to the "7" to change it into a "9." In order to validate this change, it was necessary for Salas to actually add 200 names to the voter rolls. This, he apparently did in the easiest way possible: by opening the voter rolls and writing down, in alphabetical order the first 200 names that had not already cast votes, in the same handwriting and in the same color ink. The obvious evidence of this was sealed inside of Box 13. When the final totals were announced, Johnson had "won" by 87 votes — a razor-thin margin he would not have enjoyed without the obviously fraudulent votes in Box 13.
Coke Stevenson was not the sort of man to take a stolen election lying down, however. He sent men to the Valley to investigate, and they quickly found, during the course of interviewing citizens of the Valley, that many who were recorded as having voted for Johnson did not vote at all. They wrote up statements for these people, but when they tried to get these statements notarized, they were confronted by heavily armed county bosses who told them that they had 30 minutes to get out of the county if they knew what was good for them. They knew what was good for them.
Some of Stevenson's investigators were able to get brief looks at the voter rolls from Box 13, and there they saw the exact point — voter #842 — where the black ink changed to blue and it was obvious that someone (Salas) had written in a bunch of names in alphabetical order in the same handwriting. However, the rolls were quickly removed before the investigators could get a list of names that they might later depose.
So Stevenson went to the Valley himself. But he did not go by himself, he went with the legendary Texas Ranger Frank Hamer (best known for tracking down and killing Bonnie and Clyde), and in a scene straight out of a Clint Eastwood movie, Stevenson and Hamer allegedly stared down armed Jim Wells county bosses in the entryway of the State Bank in Alice, Texas, and demanded to see the voter rolls. The threat of gunplay was very real.
Stevenson and his lawyers were allowed to look at the lists again, but when they tried to copy names from the section written in blue, the list was again snatched away. In order to avoid a bloodbath on the streets of Alice, Stevenson and Hamer relented, but not before Stevenson's lawyers had memorized several names on the list, and when they interviewed these individuals, they found that they had not voted, and were willing to swear to this fact in affidavits.
An intense legal battle then ensued to force the opening of Box 13 and possibly disqualify all its contents, which would have swung the election back to Stevenson. Stevenson felt that by now he surely had enough evidence to require at least physical examination of the votes and the voter rolls in this box, and a federal judge agreed.
The Jim Wells County Courthouse in Alice, Texas, would become the site of a dramatic legal battle that shaped the future of the nation. (Image source: Jim Wells County website)
Johnson pulled out all the best Democratic legal minds in the country to argue on his behalf, including future Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas. Fortas was able to convince Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, who had administrative responsibility for the 5th Circuit, to grant a stay on the injunction put in place by the district judge who was at that moment conducting a hearing in Alice, abruptly cutting the hearing short literally moments before the judge ordered Box 13 opened.
Johnson's name was placed on the ballot, and the rest, as they say, is history. Johnson had already lost one statewide race in Texas; if he had lost a second, he likely would not have been given another serious opportunity. What's more, due to a Texas law that prevented him from running for more than one office, he would not have even been able to return to the House; he would have likely have been forced to return to Austin to run his television station with Lady Bird. Johnson had pushed all of his political chips into one pot with the 1948 Senate run, and if he had lost, he would have retired to private life forever.
Instead, he went to the Senate, where he began a meteoric rise to Senate leadership and was subsequently selected as JFK's vice presidential nominee in an effort to consolidate the Southern vote.
From there, thanks to a fateful day in November 1963 in Dallas, the United States would be in Johnson's hands, for better or worse (mostly worse) at a crucial junction in American history.
Civil rights. Vietnam. The expanding welfare state. The political realignment of the two major parties in America. How much would have unfolded differently if not for those 200 votes? Probably quite a bit, but the world will never know.
Numerous Johnson aides over the years confessed to what Johnson had done — particularly Parr, who bounced in and out of prison after the 1948 election and reportedly unburdened himself of the guilt he felt over stealing the election before his apparent suicide in 1975. Parr reportedly told Johnson that if the judge had successfully gotten Box 13 opened, he was going to take the stand and come clean about what he had done; he was not prepared to let Salas go to jail for following his orders.
It seems likely, then, that the fate of the country was determined by the timing of Judge Black's orders, and might have turned out differently if the order had come down mere minutes later.
Johnson's presidency is widely credited with beginning the shift of conservatives to the Republican party, but long before he became president, he was responsible for causing at least one conservative to make that shift: Coke Stevenson. Stevenson was bitter at what he considered to be his party's betrayal. He became a supporter of Republicans, including Richard Nixon and Barry Goldwater. He spent the rest of his life improving his ranch in Texas, which he loved.
By 1980, most of the rest of conservatives in America had joined Coke Stevenson in the Republican party, and the arc of history would be changed forever by the momentous events (both good and bad) that occurred during LBJ's ill-fated presidency. And it all happened because of a stolen election in 1948.