How Not to Document Your Sources

Posted on June 25th, 2012 by

One of the fundamental skills of the scholar is documenting sources. I have a duty to emphasize that in the First Term Seminar course I’m teaching this fall. Conveniently, one of the texts we’ll be reading provides a perfect example of how not to do it, as I just discovered.

John Fund’s Stealing Elections: How Voter Fraud Threatens Our Democracy (2nd ed, 2008, Encounter Books) contains the following paragraph (p. 172):

As the [19th] century closed, however, fraud gradually began to diminish, as popular disgust with vote rigging spurred reforms. States began to require voters to register before Election Day. In Massachusetts, Richard Henry Dana III, son of the author of the classic Two Years Before the Mast, persuaded the Massachusetts legislature to adopt the “Australian” ballot—a government-printed ballot that would list all candidates and that voters would cast in secret in a booth. It became a model for reformers elsewhere. As changes spread to other states, voter “turnout” fell precipitously. The historians Gary Cox and Morgan Krause point out that turnout in New York State elections dropped some 15 percent after the antifraud measures took effect.

Fund’s clear implication, emphasized by his use of quotation marks around “turnout,” is that an enormous number of votes were cast fraudulently prior to the introduction of the secret ballot.  Such a striking claim impelled me to turn to the end notes (p. 224).  There, Fund attributes his claim about Cox and Krause to “The Dynamics of Electoral Turnout, 1870-1980 (Praeger, 1992).” This looked to be a citation of a book authored by Cox and Krause, but I found no such book.  My second guess was that it was a book by someone else (not mentioned by Fund) in which Cox and Krause’s work was reported.  Omitting the author’s name in a citation is poor form, but if that were all that were awry, chasing down the source wouldn’t be half so odd a story as it turned out to be.

It turns out that The Dynamics of Electoral Turnout, 1870-1980 is the subtitle of a book; the main title is Who Voted?. The book was indeed published by Praeger, but in 1982 rather than 1992. The author is Paul Kleppner. Alas, I didn’t find anything in it about the falloff in New York State turnout, nor any mention of Gary Cox and his collaborator. Moreover, this book argues (with regard to the nationwide falloff) that although isolated notorious episodes of fraud occurred, they were neither routine nor wide-spread, making it “unlikely that the general decline in turnout after 1896 could be attributed to procedural changes that eliminated it.”

I wasn’t about to give up on the mysterious Gary Cox and Morgan Krause, though.  A little digging revealed that Gary Cox had indeed published on the subject of turnout in New York, though his co-author was J. Morgan Kousser.  (Kousser, Krause, what’s the difference?)  Their article, “Turnout and Rural Corruption: New York as a Test Case,” was published in the American Journal of Political Science, Vol. 25, No. 4 (Nov., 1981), pp. 646-663.

It isn’t clear where Fund got the number 15%; the long-term decline in turnout shown by Cox and Kousser is substantially larger than that, but the amount occurring soon after the introduction of the election reforms is quite a bit smaller.  In any case, a more interesting question is what accounts for this change.  Cox and Kousser suggest that some of it is unrelated to legal changes; the elections simply became less exciting. But the fundamental thesis of their article does connect a portion of the turnout change to corruption, though not in the way Fund implies.

Drawing on newspaper sources, Cox and Kousser argue that the introduction of the secret ballot shifted corruption from paying people for how they voted to paying people to not vote at all.  So long as these payments were offered to groups likely to weakly support the opposition, this was a viable strategy. Even with a secret ballot, whether someone voted at all was observable. In other words, to the extent Cox and Kousser tie a decline in turnout to corruption (perhaps a few percent, not 15), they are not suggesting that the open-ballot turnout was artificially inflated, but rather than the secret-ballot turnout was artificially deflated.

What can we learn? First, if you consult two different works, make sure you are citing the right one. Second, pay attention to details: titles, dates, and authors do matter. Third, and most importantly, keep in mind that some readers will chase down the sources, so try not to distort their message.


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