Pluggers, stuffers, and personators

People have been making a mockery of the democratic process ever since elections began. But in many parts of the world defrauding the electorate is strangely regarded as a comic by-product of politics.

The culture of ballot-rigging has a history and vocabulary of its own. In Ireland, "plugging" means to cast someone else's vote. An "open box" was a polling station devoid of personation agents. An open box was "riddled" when numerous fake votes were cast.

The outlawing of bribery in elections was described by one 17th century English MP as "as much use as trying to make a coat for the moon." Halfway into the 19th century the practice of getting voters drunk at election time was still widespread in Britain, and was known as "treating".

Legislation against treating was introduced as recently as 1883 although the 1872 Ballot Act introduced the secret ballot - making it difficult for a candidate to know whether the treated were keeping their side of the bargain. But the Second Reform Act of 1867 had enlarged the electorate so much that most constituencies comprised a prohibitively expensive round.

In Ireland and the United States it is traditional for the dead to rise up out of their graves to vote at election times. In the county of Storey, Nevada, this was immortalised in a verse by Sam Davis:

"On yonder hillside, beak and barren,
Lies many a friend of William Sharon
Who in election's hurly-burly
Voted often, voted early.
But since old Sharon went to glory
The younger Billy bosses Storey,
And at his beck those sons of witches
Rise to vote without their britches
To take a hand in the election
And hustle back without detection.
As we recall those mem'ries hoary
Let's bless the graveyard vote of Storey."

Not only is it generally accepted historical fact that Lyndon B. Johnson was one of many US presidents elected by means of ballot-stuffing (at least 202 votes were added in his favour after polls closed on his election to Congress in 1948) but when he felt safe from any danger of investigation he used to tell hysterical audiences about Manuel, a boy in a Mexican border town, who was crying because his father had come to town but not visited him. Dramatising the story, Johnson would then take the role of Manuel's friend and say: "But Manuel, your father has been dead for ten years." But the boy just sobbed louder. "Si, he has been dead for ten years. But he came to town last Saturday to vote for Lyndon Johnson, and he did not come to see me."

On the positive side the Cook County graveyard vote was said to have cost Richard Nixon the U.S. presidency in 1960. John F. Kennedy at a speaking appearance two years prior to the 1960 race pretended to produce a telegram from Joseph his wealthy father to say: "Dear Jack. Don't buy a single vote more than necessary. I'll be damned if I'm going to pay for a landslide." There are many accounts of the deals Joseph Kennedy made with the Mafia and others to secure his son's election.

Only last November, state investigators seized more than 5,000 absentee ballots as part of an electoral fraud probe including the buying of dead people's votes in Miami, Florida.

In Belfast they still vote early and often according to David McKittrick writing in the Independent last April. At the last general election John Hume's SDLP was distributing leaflets saying: "Make sure your vote - and not a stolen vote - elects your MP."

McKittrick recalls how one election day in the sixties his grandmother's parlour was filled with hats and coats to give "personators" a change of clothing. His mother, he says, was once greeted by Terance O'Neill, then prime minister of Northern Ireland, who urged her to "vote early and vote often."

Both unionists and nationalists observed certain conventions and customs. It was considered bad form for a unionist personator to plug a nationalist vote. All he did was vote on behalf of those unionist electors too apathetic to vote themselves. McKittrick says that when Sinn Fein entered the arena in the 1980s they shattered the old protocols and plugged every vote they could get their hands on.

In 1982 there were more than 700 cases of voters arriving at polling stations in the six counties only to find that their vote had been cast by somebody else pretending to be them. The next year there were almost a thousand, and 149 people were arrested for personation.

The UK government responded in 1983 with legislation requiring voters to produce medical cards or other identification but McKittrick says he saw a batch of new medical cards on a shelf in a Sinn Fein caravan parked near a polling station in Gerry Adams's constituency of West Belfast.

According to one senior figure, "Everyone abuses. It's just the Provos are probably more organised than anybody else." But in the former Soviet bloc the simulation of free and fair elections is still something of a novelty. As soviet foreign secretary V. M. Molotov used to say: "The disadvantage of free elections is that you can never be sure who is going to win them."

The second round of the 1996 election in Russia gave President Yeltsin's campaign team some sticky moments when nobody turned up to vote. By 3.00 p.m. only 4 per cent of electors in the Yeltsin stronghold of St. Petersburg had voted. A state television announcer let slip the news that catastrophic moods had seized hold of the campaign staff.

Miraculously by 4.00 p.m. the low turnout was replaced by a high one. The more remote the region, the greater was the support for Yeltsin. The Chukotskiy peninsula in the far north-east gave him 75 per cent of the vote - remarkable for people starving because the authorities had been so busy with the election that no food had been shipped out to the region.

The Italian newspaper La Stampa said: "In any other country these figures would have caused a scandal of international proportions, whereas in Russia they circulate in samizdat." The newspaper concluded that such fraud could only be carried out with the participation of a large number of functionaries right up to the top government level.

Even before the first round, the then defence minister Pavel Grachev announced that sailors in the fleet outside Russia had voted unanimously for Yeltsin. Even more incredibly, Yeltsin's highest vote was supposed to have come from Chechnya - remarkable for a man who had ordered mass slaughter of Chechen people and reduced much of their homeland to ashes.

But, possibly because Yeltsin was the candidate preferred by the west, his election was internationally received as a progressive development from the old soviet system of election whose historical precedent was said to be biblical - God made Eve, put her in the Garden of Eden, and said to Adam: "Now choose a woman."

When Romanians went to the polls in December 1992 Associated Press Bureau Chief Dan Peteanu said: "The degree of vote nullifications is simply beyond what even the most charitable observer can accept or believe. The glossing over of this issue is shocking."

In spring 1993 thousands of missing Romanian ballot stamps were recovered at the address of an alleged Bucharest mafioso and there were suggestions that agents of the ruling party had been working in the election count with stamps hidden in their palms to conduct the nullification scam. In this way it was possible to stamp opposition votes, thereby causing them to be discounted as spoiled ballots because they had been double-stamped.

In the Serbian election of 19 December 1993 spoiled ballots and errors made it necessary to hold another vote a week later at 45 polling stations.

Fran De'Ath, who frequently works overseas as an observer of elections, says that some polling stations were blown up while she was monitoring an election in Albania. However she adds that the official report at the end was: "overall it was free and fair." She says: "It had pockets that could have done better but if you start talking about the bits that went wrong, that's what people start focusing on. And they then reinterpret it that the whole election was a heap of shite and then our professional conduct comes into question."

An electoral tribunal in Mexico's third biggest city, Monterrey, disqualified 42 polling stations in the municipal elections of August 1994 reducing the ruling party's total by 4,000 votes because of ballot-rigging.

Jean-Bertrand Aristide's 1994 landslide victory in Haiti was denounced as a joke by Republicans in the U.S. Senate including Senator Bob Dole who called for all aid to Haiti to be cut off and said Aristide had replaced a dictatorship with a one-party state.

However the Clinton administration smiled upon Aristide in much the same manner that it approved the re-election of Yeltsin in Russia. The U.S. government insists that is is unfair to assert that the Haitian government is having serious human-rights problems when compared with the regime it replaced. But there are limits. When Haiti's electoral council was accused of tampering with the results of the first round of last April's election, U.S. Ambassador William Swing said that unless the council held a new vote in areas affected by fraud, the U.S. would not recognise the results.

In such cases Fran De'Ath counsels a charitable view. "It's difficult to make a distinction between fraud and mistakes because these kind of countries are not accustomed to doing this, and genuine mistakes are made. And what I do in my job is assume that everything is a genuine mistake and I point it out to people. Then they know that I know, and they either rectify it because it was done out of ignorance or they rectify it because they know I'm onto them."

Two years ago Columbia's President Samper was cleared of the allegation that his 1994 campaign had been financed partly by $8,000 donated by drug traffickers. With the oratory of a Lyndon Johnson, Samper asks an aide why he is known as "the earthquake-proof president" and gets the reply: "Because you don't move, and you don't fall, even with quakes that register 8,000 on the Richter scale."

Bangladesh's election of February 1996 was boycotted by almost the entire opposition and voter turnout was less than 5 per cent. Reports of ballot-rigging were rife. The opposition then launched a civil disobedience campaign that crippled the country for weeks until President Zia resigned in March and installed a caretaker government that held an election in June. The Electoral Commission ordered repolling in 27 constituencies where vote-tampering was reported.

In the Kenyan election last December two people were killed when a helicopter tried to land in Meru town with stuffed ballot boxes. Irregularities were said to include missing presidential papers, ballot boxes and papers being sent to the wrong location, and delays in the delivering of ballots to areas hit by floods. Most of the reported irregularities occurred in areas where opposition to President Daniel Arap Moi was strongly supported.

In South Africa's 1994 election, Fran De'Ath was an observer in Natal which she says was a difficult spot. "There was an incredible combination of attempts at fraud and ignorance and mistakes and ineptitude. But on the whole the spirit was well-intentioned."

She says that at the first polling station she visited on election day the ballot box was improperly sealed. "There'd been an oversight in our training and we didn't know how the ballot boxes were supposed to be sealed" she says. "It was out in the country and we weren't expecting any of the white party representatives turning up. Suddenly two white guys arrived. So I said: 'Oh, do you know how to seal the ballot boxes?' Well they'd been having their whites-only elections for years. So they said: 'Yeah. We know how to seal ballot boxes.' So I said: 'Great.' Well, one of them said an aside to me: 'These black bastards they don't know anything.' So I said to him: 'You know, at the moment they don't know about ballot boxes but, do you know what? You can teach them.' And there was a moment when his expression changed and the penny dropped. He said, 'You're right. I can.' And he did just that. He showed the people the official procedure. And there was a moment when there was a black hand and a white hand together on that ballot box and it just made me burst into tears."

Michael Burgess 1998