The high voter turnout in the 2022 midterms smashed dire predictions from the left that election reforms, such as expanding voter ID requirements, would lead to “Jim Crow 2.0.”
But another type of “reform,” established by a 2021 presidential executive order, has yet to play out. If fully implemented in time for the 2024 elections, it may well lead to what should be called Tammany Hall 2.0.
Tammany Hall was the powerful Democratic political machine founded by Aaron Burr. It had a stranglehold on New York City politics until well into the 20th century. Similar organizations operated elsewhere: the Pendergast machine in Kansas City, the Daley machine in Chicago, the Long machine in Louisiana and the Curley machine in Boston, to name a few. But none had the raw political power or the national reach of Tammany Hall.
Big-city machines like Tammany Hall were notorious for twisting election laws. They used these tools to make it easier to win (or sometimes steal) elections, perpetuating one-party rule.
The political machines of the past largely confined themselves to ruling state and local fiefdoms. But we’re about to see how it works at the federal level.
In March 2021, President Biden signed Executive Order 14019, aimed at turning federal agencies into a get-out-the-vote operation, and working with so far unnamed private organizations to do so. Don’t worry. The White House assures us this is nonpartisan.
“Agencies shall consider ways to expand citizens’ opportunities to register to vote and to obtain information about, and participate in, the electoral process,” the order says. “The head of each agency shall evaluate ways in which the agency can, as appropriate and consistent with applicable law, promote voter registration and voter participation.”
Democrats failed to pass a sweeping federal takeover of elections in 2021 and 2022 when they controlled Congress. They are relying heavily on this executive order to do the job for them.
The details are sketchy since most federal agencies aren’t releasing their strategic plans to the media or watchdog groups.
According to the White House summary of agency plans, the Department of Homeland Security is required to focus on voter registration “at the end of naturalization ceremonies for the hundreds of thousands of citizens naturalized each year.” The Department of Justice is directed to “provide information about voting to individuals in federal custody, facilitate voting by those who remain eligible to do so while in federal custody, and educate individuals before reentry about voting rules and voting rights in their states.”
This is perhaps nominally more subtle than when Tammany Hall worked to get prisoners released to ensure they voted and even established a “naturalization mill” to instantly turn immigrants coming off boats into voters. As The Washington Post explained, Tammany Hall bosses “ushered hundreds of thousands on the Lower East Side and elsewhere into citizenship” to register to vote and keep Democrats in power.
The White House also noted that the Department of Agriculture would work with mortgage lenders to provide voter registration information, the Department of Health and Human Services would connect people with voting information, tools and resources, while the Department of Housing and Urban Development would provide registration information.
The more things change …
As noted in my book “The Myth of Voter Suppression,” political machines such as Tammany Hall thrived in part because they were the social service network at the time. The political bosses helped arrange citizenship for immigrants, provided emergency assistance, and hooked people up with jobs—all with the expectation that these people would pay them back by voting their way.
While in the minority, House Republicans made multiple inquiries about how the presidential order was being implemented. They were largely stonewalled. Now that they have regained majority status, they are expected to investigate the matter vigorously.
Even Democrats should be leery of letting the federal government throw its weight around to improve the electoral prospects of the party in power. In politics, nothing lasts forever. Eventually, a Republican could retake the White House and look fondly upon Mr. Biden’s executive order. Will Democrats give a future GOP president the benefit of the doubt for being nonpartisan in having the agencies he runs involved in elections?
Tammany Hall 2.0 should be defined more broadly than just Mr. Biden’s order. It must include the various private actors—such as election litigator Marc Elias, the Stacey Abrams-founded Fair Fight Action and the Brennan Center for Justice—that vigorously work to block any legal mechanism to stop voter fraud. Key to this is not just the politicians, but also the interest groups pumping money and propaganda behind the machine.
This piece originally appeared in The Washington Times