A hotly-contested election. Polling data says the outcome is too close to predict. As the polls close, one of the candidates seems to have won. Shortly thereafter, votes are “discovered” for the other candidate — enough to win the election. Accusations are made. Fingers are pointed. Recounts conducted. Lawsuits filed. It goes all the way to the Supreme Court — and still, the integrity of the election remains in dispute.
Does all of this sound familiar? If you think this is another look at one of the elections of the 21st century, think again. Claims of voter fraud and crooked elections are nothing new. Nearly every heated political contest raises at least some suggestion that not everything was done by the books. Rarely can such claims be substantiated. When they are proven, it is even more difficult to show that the fraud would have made any difference in the outcome of the election. For all of these reasons, what happened in the September 1948 election in Alice is a worthy case study in crooked politics — particularly because it paved the way for one man to get all the way to the White House.
It is a two-hour drive from San Antonio to Alice, Texas. Like many other communities that are driven by the oil industry, it has had its periods of boom and bust. In most respects, it is a Texas municipality, with its special mixture of rugged individualism and southern charm. To visit there, you would scarcely suspect you have come to one of the pivotal places that defined world history.
You may never have heard of Alice, Texas, but you certainly know about the person whose political life was saved in this city. In 1948, one of the most flagrant acts of electoral fraud in U.S. history took place in this quiet community. As a result, a fellow by Lyndon B. Johnson narrowly avoided an electoral loss that almost certainly would have prevented him from becoming the 36th President of the United States.
The decade of the 1940s was a time of rapid growth for the city. Its population skyrocketed from 7,792 in the 1940 Census to 16,449 in 1950. As the booming oil industry brought workers and their families to Alice, the campaign for the 1948 Senate election attracted candidates and political party workers.
To understand what happened in 1948, it is important to also look at Johnson’s defeat in the 1941 Texas primary election. Johnson was running against Governor W. Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel. On the day after the election, Johnson was proclaimed the unofficial winner. His campaign manager, John Connally, proclaimed in a telegram, “Unless miracle happens… looks like we’re in.”
It wasn’t a miracle that intervened, however. It was election fraud. Johnson instructed his key districts to report their results on the day of the election. This put O’Daniel’s team on notice about how many votes they needed to “discover” to overcome the electoral margin. Just two days after LBJ was named as the unofficial victor, O’Daniel became the official winner by a margin of 1,311 votes.
It was the only electoral defeat in LBJ’s political career. He called it and the next few years the “most miserable period” of his life.
Although many questions surrounded the miraculous discovery of so many O’Daniel votes, LBJ did not contest the results. Those who have studied the election suggest that Johnson did not want to invite too much scrutiny, since his campaign did not exactly have clean hands. Besides, he had already made up his mind to try again. This time, he would not make the same mistake.
The 1948 Democratic Primary would again have Johnson competing for a Senate seat against a governor. Coke Stevenson served as Governor of Texas from 1941 to 1947. The campaign would prove to be a no-holds-barred, bloody battle.
Johnson had spent the past seven years allying himself with political bosses such as George Parr. Known as “the Duke” of Duval County, Parr controlled the Democratic Party mechanisms for much of South Texas. Using all kinds of questionable practices, the elections in Parr’s territory tended to come out exactly the way he wanted.
As voters went to the polls in September 1948, the Senate race was too close to call. As the polls closed, by all accounts, Johnson had once again lost. This seemed to be confirmed three days after the election when the numbers showed Stevenson as the unofficial winner. Unlike the 1941 election, however, LBJ’s key areas of support had yet to report their final numbers. Votes tallies continued to trickle in from throughout the state, each eroding a bit of Stevenson’s margin. On the Friday following the election, Stevenson was still in the lead, but his margin had shrunk to 150 votes.
On the sixth day after the election, the official tally sheet from Alice came in. It bore startling news. Precinct 13’s official report “found” 202 extra votes for Johnson than it had reported on the night of the election. That was enough to more than erase Stevenson’s margin and make Lyndon Johnson the official Democratic nominee for the U.S. Senate by less than one-hundredth of one percent of the total vote. These votes, coming from “Box 13” became the basis for the infamous “Box 13 Scandal.”
The miraculous discovery of the votes from Box 13 seemed a little too fortuitous, even by the political standards of South Texas. Stevenson suspected fraud and employed Frank Hamer, the legendary Texas Ranger who led the posse that captured and killed Bonnie and Clyde. Homer Dean is a former Jim Wells county attorney who observed the first of several unsuccessful investigations into the Box 13 scandal. He recalled Stevenson and Hamer arriving in Alice for the investigation. “They were hot to prove the election had been stolen, but they didn’t get very far,” he says. “Tom Donald at the Texas State Bank let them look at the tally sheet, but he took it away when they started copying down names.”
Dean was one of the attorneys who helped present the investigation in 1948 to a local grand jury that handed down no indictments. He gave his thoughts about what happened in an interview with a researcher at the LBJ presidential library that was released after Dean’s death in 2008.
The examination showed several disturbing things about Box 13. Each of the additional votes was written in the same handwriting, signed in the same ink, and cast in alphabetical order. They were also the last 202 voters of the day, and all of them voted for Johnson. Some of those voters, when questioned later, expressed surprise, saying they hadn’t been able to get over to the polls at all to be able to vote that day.
Stevenson cried foul and requested a recount. The Democratic State Central Committee took a week to do the recount and declared LBJ the winner by a margin of 87 votes out of 988,295.
Stevenson attempted to get the 202 suspicious votes thrown out. Johnson responded by finding a sympathetic judge in Austin to issue an injunction that prevented anyone from removing the contested votes.
While this was going on, the Texas Democratic executive committee voted to certify the election results. By a one-vote margin, the committee gave its official stamp of approval to the disputed results.
Even at this stage, Stevenson was unwilling to give up. He took his case to federal court and secured an injunction from a judge, preventing Johnson’s name from appearing on the November general election ballot. Johnson responded to this by employing his long-time friend and attorney Abe Fortas. Fortas took the unusual — and daring — strategy of appealing directly the U.S. Supreme Court. He argued that if the matter was not immediately resolved, the people of Texas would be denied the opportunity to vote in the Senate election. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, who had jurisdiction to rule over such matters, agreed. He overturned the federal judge’s injunction, determining that the federal government has no right to interfere in a state election.
With his name securely on the ballot, Johnson went on to defeat Republican Jack Porter in the general election by a margin of 33.28% and 353,320 votes, thus becoming Senator from Texas. Johnson quickly rose in the ranks of the Senate, eventually becoming Majority Leader. In 1960, he was elected Vice President of the United States. On November 22, 1963, upon the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Johnson became the 36th President of the United States.
Fortas was awarded for his loyalty. In 1965, LBJ nominated him to be an associate justice of the Supreme Court. In 1968, Johnson attempted to elevate him to Chief Justice. The nomination failed as a cloud of suspicion fell over Fortas over speaking honoraria he received since joining the Supreme Court. When new ethics charges were levied against him in 1969, he resigned his seat on the Court.
Nearly 75 years have passed since the controversial election, and questions still remain. Even the ballot box itself — the infamous “Box 13” — is itself a source of mystery. Its location is unknown. In 1977, election judge Luis Salas came forward and said he certified 202 fraudulent ballots for Johnson. Without corroborating evidence, however, that claim is also disputed.
For now, the Texas Democratic primary election of 1948 remains one of the most questionable — and significant — elections in U.S. history.