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Ballots and Bullets: Will Strains of War and Public Division Spell Violence in the Coming Election?The disputed election of 1876 led to widespread violence in several states that ended only when the army was mobilized.

Ballots and Bullets: Will Strains of War and Public Division Spell Violence in the Coming Election?

Terrorism authority David Rapoport tells Los Angeles Times readers that it has happened before.

"We are steadily moving in that direction again. The hatred each side has for the other's candidate is extraordinary."

We pride ourselves on abiding by the rule of law in our elections, but UCLA Emeritus Professor David C. Rapoport, writing in the October 3 Los Angeles Times, recalled past violence in American contests that we just don't usually talk about. Rapoport is the founder and editor of the Journal of Terrorism and Political Violence, which is supported in part by the Burkle Center for International Relations.

"The very suggestion that election violence might happen this year may sound odd," he wrote. "Our recent elections have been so peaceful that we think ourselves immune from the scourge, associating it with the less-developed world." But there is actually a long history, and not all of it terribly far in the past, when guns have been drawn over the voting process here in the United States.

Claims of fraud, Rapoport said, are the most common trigger of angry outbursts. "This explains why so many countries regularly use international monitors to help assure the authenticity of the voting, which reminds us of last week's warning from former President Carter, who has organized many such monitoring efforts and wrote, 'Some basic international requirements for a fair election are missing in Florida,'

Even peaceful fair elections can produce violence afterwards. Rapoport pointed to the election of 1860, which precipitated the secession of the South. "The South decided that the campaign debates demonstrated it could not live with Abraham Lincoln as president. The resulting Civil War occasioned more American casualties than all our other wars combined."

This was an extreme example of an American election aggravating preexisting hostilities. But the fact is that "candidates must emphasize differences to attract voters, and in doing so, they inevitably exaggerate the potential stakes," Rapoport wrote. "The military metaphors employed by candidates and media are particularly striking and revealing. Parties wage 'campaigns' that employ 'strategy and tactics.' Party faithful are called 'rank and file,' and areas with many supporters are 'strongholds' or 'citadels.' President Bush's biggest financial supporters are called 'rangers.'" Rapoport has added another example in a note to the International Institute: that the moderator in the October 5 televised vice presidential debate referred to the procedures as "the rules of engagement."

Usually, David Rapoport wrote in the Times, the bad feelings of the campaign are smoothed over afterward by a  "conspicuous conciliation process." The losing candidates "give concession speeches, making a public 'surrender.' Their supporters must know that the 'war' is over. (In the disputed 2000 election, Al Gore went further and presided over a joint congressional session that prevented black members of the House from reopening the issue.)"

Rapoport cited some examples of a tradition of violence in the late nineteenth century:  "In 1889, one U.S. marshal in Philadelphia said that fraudulent voting and violence were so endemic that 'never an election goes by without a riot,' and that killing 'regularly occurred in some wards.' A Cincinnati newspaper reported a 'quiet election in which only eight people were killed.' The Chicago police in 1894 'kidnapped 25 prominent Polish Republicans the day before the election and held them incommunicado afterward.'"

He pointed to the famous contested election of 1876 that pitted Democrat Samuel Tilden against Republican Rutherford B. Hayes. "Results in four states were dubious, and serious violence erupted in three. A special electoral commission took four months to decide that Rutherford B. Hayes won despite having received fewer popular votes. Fearful of more violence, President Grant mobilized the army, and Hayes was sworn in secretly. Finally, the 'corrupt bargain of 1876' was struck when Hayes, a Republican, accepted Democratic recommendations to withdraw federal troops from the South, where the army had protected the right of blacks to vote. For nearly a century afterward, Southern whites used violence to keep blacks from participating in elections."

Rapoport recalled that Robert Kennedy was assassinated while campaigning for president in the 1968 election campaign, while anti-Vietnam War demonstrators "tried to disrupt the Democratic National Convention." And after Richard M. Nixon was elected, "the Weather Underground, a terrorist organization, was formed because the election did not provide the group's solution for the Vietnam War."

Preparations for the 2004 Vote

Should we expect an outbreak of violence next month when the country chooses between another term for George W. Bush and replacing him with Democratic challenger John Kerry? David Rapoport noted that a number of the reforms enacted after the contested Florida voting in 2000 have not been evenly applied. "Congress passed the Help America Vote Act to aid states in acquiring better voting equipment, creating more accurate voting rolls and preventing eligible voters from being turned away. But few think that all the reforms will be in place by Nov. 2 or that the changes will be for the better. Many states have new equipment or electronic voting machines, but no one knows how secure or reliable they are. They certainly would be seriously challenged in the emotional atmosphere close elections generate. Some closely contested states, like Ohio and Missouri, still use the paper punch-card ballots that caused so many problems in 2000.

"With respect to voter rolls and registration, the situation may be much worse. Reuters reported last month the complaints of civil rights and legal experts: 'Millions of U.S. citizens, including a disproportionate number of blacks, will be blocked from voting … because of legal barriers, faulty procedures and dirty tricks.' Soldiers stationed overseas who want to vote by e-mail or fax will have to waive their right to a secret ballot. University students are finding that some local communities are making it particularly difficult for them to vote, and states will have difficulties processing a record number of absentee ballots." 

In Florida, David Rapoport adds in his note to the International Institute, "legal suits are being raised even before the election occurs and that has never happened before. In Pennsylvania, it appears that both parties might have been involved in  promoting the signature scandal that apparently has removed Ralph Nader from the ballot, and in the process may make it impossible to get out the absentee ballots in time."

In his Los Angeles Times article Rapoport compared the current campaign to the turmoil of 1968: "The 1968 presidential campaign was fought in the context of the unpopular Vietnam War, which made the campaign's language more abusive. We are steadily moving in that direction again. The hatred each side has for the other's candidate is extraordinary. Dirty charges abound. The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth advertisements, for example, capriciously and unjustly attacked John F. Kerry's Vietnam record. On the other side, we witnessed an amazing inability of a major news network to acknowledge that it was using false documents to attack George W. Bush's National Guard service.

"Republicans are pursuing a strategy of fear. Vice President Dick Cheney and other Republican leaders are repeatedly saying that if Kerry becomes president, Al Qaeda is more likely to strike us again. Democrats regard those claims as 'despicable' efforts to make voters so personally insecure that they feel ashamed to vote the 'wrong way.' . . . We have never had a close election whose outcome might appear fraudulent in a time of war when we could be struck by outside forces within our borders."

In his note to the International Institute David Rapoport commented that "Perhaps, one important and saving grace is that the young, those more disposed to violence when great issues are decided, are less interested in this election than they were in 1968."

He concluded his Los Angeles Times article with a cogent warning: "Whatever happens, both candidates will have to make unusual efforts to bring the country together again after the election. Otherwise, the terrorists, wittingly or not, will have achieved their purpose."

Burkle Center for International Relations