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How to Steal an American Election

From Alexander Hamilton to Richard Nixon and more: meddling, fixing, rigging, fraud, and violence.

The 2020 election wasn’t stolen. Full marks for trying, though: the incumbent president and some of his Republican supporters gave it their best shot. That phone call to Georgia was but one example exposing the effort at chicanery. Systemic obstacles to voting, in many states, show it more generally. Still, in 2020, their best shot wasn’t good enough. The president was defeated, and he failed, through both legal and illegal efforts, to overcome that fact.

So here are a few tips for more effectively messing with elections, based on the experiences of earlier American politicians:

1. Collude with foreign governments that will actually do what you want.

As we now know, one way Trump tried to swing the 2020 election his way was by offering a deal to President Zelensky of Ukraine, a key U.S. ally. Trump suggested to Zelensky that he would release security funds, congressionally approved for Ukraine’s military support against Russia, which Trump had put on hold solely for the purpose of proposing this very deal. In exchange, Zelensky was to come up with dirt on Trump’s probable opponent Joe Biden. It didn’t work, partly because the offer came to light and led to Trump’s (first) impeachment.

But also, Zelensky didn’t do it.

In 1968, when he was running for president against Vice President Hubert Humphrey, Richard Nixon had a far more reliable foreign ally to collude with: South Vietnam. In the waning days of the election, the race was getting close. Meanwhile, President Lyndon Johnson was getting close to brokering a deal for peace in the War in Vietnam. The prospect of peace might have put Humphrey well over the top at the last minute.

Nixon and his campaign manager, John Mitchell, were ready for that. Via a cut-out go-between, Anna Chennault, a prominent GOP contributor and China lobbyist, they got a message to South Vietnam’s U.S. embassy, and from there to the country’s president, Nguyễn Văn Thiệu. The message was if Thiệu would wait until after the election to agree to peace talks with North Vietnam, South Vietnam would get a better deal under a Nixon administration than under a Humphrey administration. (Some have said there was similar signaling toward North Vietnam, though not direct contact.) Thiệu abruptly backed out of the talks. The war went on. Nixon won the election. Thousands more people died.

There are all kinds of oddball wrinkles in that story. One of them is that Johnson found out about Nixon’s move, considered it treason, but didn’t do anything; when he left the White House, he took with him some FBI wiretap evidence of Nixon’s treachery. Nixon knew there was evidence out there somewhere, but he didn’t know where it was. He spent a lot of time trying to find it, and to find out who knew about it, and how much they knew. Hence, in part, the program of break-ins that led to his resignation in disgrace in 1974.