Most Americans have taken for granted their confidence in the supposed integrity of our election process. For them, there weren’t allegations of voter fraud in a presidential election that left the results in doubt for tens of millions until last week.
But for those who remember the 1960 presidential election, it seems like déjà vu all over again.
The Washington Times’ David A. Keene explains:
John F. Kennedy was elected president that November in one of the closest elections in modern U.S. history. When it was over, his popular vote margin was 113,000 votes or fewer than one-half a vote per precinct more than Vice President Richard Nixon. Only late count returns in Chicago put Kennedy over the top in Illinois and gave him the electoral votes he needed to win.
Kennedy eked out a victory in the Land of Lincoln by the narrowest of margins — 0.18%. Suspicious arose almost immediately and a consensus has emerged in the decades since that the Daley machine in Chicago rigged the election with the assistance of mobsters like Sam Giancana. Giancana had remained friends with Joseph Kennedy Sr. since prohibition. In exchange for the Mafia’s illegal get out the vote effort, the new administration would get Castro out of Cuba.
We know how that turned out, but the country faced a wave of uncertainty at the time.
Republican presidential nominee Vice President Richard Nixon’s aides desperately pleaded that he fight the outcome. Even President Dwight D. Eisenhower urged Nixon to demand a recount instead of letting the opposition steal the White House and undermine faith in the electoral process. But Nixon held firm to his convictions.
The media of the day “called” Illinois when the Daley machine finally reported the Chicago vote. Nixon did not want to put the country through what might transpire if he refused to concede and demanded a recount. A recount would take a long time, he later wrote, and in the meantime the nation would be vulnerable to its enemies. He also believed it could take years to restore public faith in a system that people would see as flawed or broken.
The vice president decided those factors were more important than his political aspirations. No one foresaw Nixon rising like a phoenix from the ashes in eight short years.
As a result, it is not known whether Kennedy actually won the 1960 election. Ben Bradlee of Washington Post fame was one of Kennedy’s closest friends and reported later in his own memoirs that Kennedy told him that late on election night he called Mayor Daley to ask how things looked. Daley responded, according to the president, that “with a little bit of luck and the help of a few close friends you’re going to carry Illinois.”
Even Tom Wicker of the implacably liberal New York Times admitted: “Nobody knows to this day, or ever will, who the American people really elected president in 1960 … John F. Kennedy was inaugurated, but it was not at all clear that this was really the will of the people or, if so, by what means and margin that will was expressed.”
It will never be known if the turmoil Nixon so greatly feared in November 1960 would have ever materialized. Such is the shortcoming of ‘what if’ history. It’s at least equally plausible the outcome would have lead to reforms making our current electoral process more transparent and less susceptible to fraud.
We’ll never know the answer to that question, but it is clear that the public’s faith in the American electoral system is at risk today. Mr. Trump’s opponents argue that by raising the specter of cheating and voter fraud it is he who is undermining the faith in our electoral system. Yet, if the legitimate questions being raised by President Trump and his supporters are not answered or even seriously investigated that faith will have been weakened not by the president, but by those who insist that no one really needs to see or know what goes on behind closed doors.