Skip to main content
Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Gaming the Vote

Why Elections Aren't Fair (and What We Can Do About It)

William Poundstone

Hill and Wang



Even when he was Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, David Duke felt he was destined for something bigger. The Klan was just one of a number of organizations that Duke had joined, been actively involved with, and discarded when they no longer fit his purpose.

As a student at Louisiana State University, Duke had studied German so that he could read Mein Kampf in the original. Each April 20, he celebrated Hitler's birthday with a party. He draped his dorm room with swastika flags and wore a Nazi uniform around campus.

Duke was equally comfortable in the uniform of an ROTC cadet. One of his instructors praised Duke's "outstanding leadership potential." But then "we started receiving information on him from the Department of Defense . . . Here was a 19-year-old kid getting money from Germany."

The money was for American Nazi activities. The Pentagon rejected Duke's application for an advanced-training program and refused to commission him as an officer. That rebuff caused Duke to channel his leadership potential into the Ku Klux Klan. In just a couple of years, he rose to the Klan's highest post, Grand Wizard, in 1975. This meteoric ascent was a matter of his being in the right place at the right time. The previous Wizard had just been gunned down in a motel parking lot.

Duke stood out in the Klan almost as much as he had at LSU. He preferred to appear in a crisp business suit and tie rather than a hood and robe. He adopted the corporate-sounding title "National Director." One of his more surprising actions as Klansman was to write a book called African Atto (1973), under the pseudonym Mohammed X. He sold it by mail order, taking out ads in black newspapers with the heading when was the last time whitey called you ? The book was a martial arts manual. Duke told people that its real purpose was to compile the names and addresses of the blacks who ordered it—for Ku Klux Klan records.

In 1980 Duke abruptly left the organization. His story is that he realized the Klan would never be taken seriously as a political force. It was time for the defenders of the white race to get out of the cow pastures and into the hotel suites. People who knew Duke in the Klan have a different story. "We had to get David out," explained Karl Hand, formerly Duke's lieutenant. "He was seducing all the wives . . . He had no qualms about putting the make on anybody's wife or girlfriend, and the flak always came back to me, because I was his national organizer."

The immediate cause of Duke's departure was his attempt to pocket a quick thirty-five thousand dollars by selling the top-secret Klan membership list to an enigmatic character named Bill Wilkinson. Wilkinson presented himself to Duke as a Klansman intending to set up his own splinter organization. In fact, he was secretly an FBI informant. Wilkinson videotaped Duke dickering over the price, then threatened to play the tape at a KKK meeting. Possibly the whole thing was an FBI sting—or possibly Wilkinson saw a freelance opportunity. Duke left the Klan after that.

Duke had never held a regular job and was not keen to start. Naturally, he turned to politics. Plastic surgery and a blow-dryer transformed him into something resembling a game show host. Starting in 1975, he began running for local offices in Louisiana. In 1980 he founded his own organization, the National Association for the Advancement of White People. He discovered that there was good money to be made in fringe nonprofits. After Duke and some Klansmen were arrested at a demonstration in Forsythe County, Georgia, he raised nineteen thousand dollars from white supremacists nationwide to pay a fifty-five-dollar fine.

In 1988 Duke ran for president of the United States, entering several primaries as a Democrat. No one took him seriously except for writers of offbeat feature articles. He then ran as a Populist and got 47,047 votes.

In 1989, Duke downsized his ambitions to run for the Louisiana legislature. Not only did he win, but he won against former Republican governor Dave Treen. This coup encouraged Duke to run for the U.S. Senate in 1990. He lost. Then in 1991, he decided it was time to try for governor of Louisiana.

Edwin Edwards "plays the system like a violin. He had an uncanny knack of charging headlong to the brink and knowing exactly where to stop . . . and he doesn't even try to cover his trail, he's that cocky." These were the words of U.S. Attorney Stanford Bardwell, Jr., one of the many prosecutors who indicted Edwards and saw him wriggle off the hook. Some called Edwards the most corrupt politician in a corrupt state.

Edwards was born dirt-poor in an cypress-wood farmhouse his father built with his own hands. He attended Louisiana State University and became a successful trial lawyer in Cajun country. Entering politics as a populist Democrat, he made a successful run for governor in 1972, winning on an alliance of the Cajun and black vote. In the governor's mansion, so close to the flow of money and power (the two great aphrodisiacs), he was like a kid in a candy store.

His plump patrician face, ruddy nose and cheeks, graying hair, and salacious wit perfectly fit the part of an aging roué. "Two out of ten women will go to bed with you," ran one of Edwards's maxims, "but you've got to ask the other eight." Edwards inherited the Louisiana tradition of influence peddling and used it to live lavishly. His most expensive habit was gambling. The New Orleans Times-Picayune reported that Edwards

is granted up to $200,000 casino credit at the stroke of his pen . . . He is classified by his favorite hotel-casino—Caesars Palace—among the 0.25 percent of its customers whose importance as gamblers makes the company unwilling to share credit information with other casinos. Caesars even waives its maximum bet limit when Edwards steps to the table . . . He eats his meals on the casinos' tab in the Strip's poshest restaurants. He sunbathes on casino-owned yachts at Lake Tahoe. He glides around town in casino limousines, and he and his entourage stay at luxury suites in the most popular hotels. All for free.

What can Edwards get from the Vegas casinos? "Anything he wants," a former Caesars Palace employee said.

"I like to gamble," Edwards admitted. He was able to get away with all he did because of a good ol' boy charisma that charmed journalists, voters, and grand juries alike. A reporter once asked Edwards if it wasn't illegal for him to accept a reported twenty-thousand-dollar bribe from South Korean lobbyist Tongsun Park. Edwards replied, "It was illegal for them to give, but not for me to receive." Or as Edwards asked another time: "What's wrong with making money?"

One of Edwards's most puzzling contributions to Louisiana politics was the open primary, more evocatively known as the jungle primary. Candidates of all parties run against one another in a no-holds-barred primordial contest. The two candidates with the most votes go on to a runoff election for the office.

The open primary, proponents say, gives more power to voters and less to decision makers in smoke-filled back rooms. That was the part that mystified the pundits. It defied belief that such a consummate player as Edwin Edwards would have backed a high-minded reform without considering what was in it for him.

In 1972, Louisiana's registered Democrats outnumbered Republicans twenty to one. That made the primary system used in other states ludicrous. The real fight was for the Democratic nomination. The final Democrat-versus-Republican election was a formality, a waste of time and money. With the open primary, both the primary and the runoff were meaningful, hard-fought elections.

No one believed that this rationale was sufficient to outweigh an obvious negative: Edwards was a Democrat, and his jungle primary would help the Republican Party.

A slew of Democrats would run in each primary. There would probably be only one Republican. The Republican would automatically corner the conservative vote, while each Democrat would have to scratch and claw for a scrap of the liberal vote (and for liberal campaign money). That would almost guarantee that the Republican made it to the runoff. The Republican could spend his campaign dollars where they counted—on the runoff election.

So what was in it for Edwards, a liberal Democrat? The only theory that made sense was worthy of Machiavelli. Under Louisiana law, the governor cannot run for a third consecutive term. Edwards, who was reelected in 1976, was out of the game when his second term expired in 1980. The law did not preclude a third term (or more), as long as it wasn't three in a row.

According to this theory, by backing the open primary Edwards was looking several moves ahead, to 1984. Believing it would be easier to beat an incumbent Republican than a younger, less baggage-encumbered Democrat, Edwards knew (made sure?) that there would be no heir apparent in the Democratic Party. With the open primary, the Democratic vote would be more fragmented than usual, and Edwards could therefore count on the split Democratic vote to lead to the election of a Republican—someone to house-sit the governor's mansion for him. Then, in 1983, he would reunify the Democrats and sail to an easy third victory.

If this really was Edwards's plan, it was a bigger gamble than the ones he was making at the craps tables. No Republican had been elected governor of Louisiana since Reconstruction.

This "theory" describes exactly what happened. In 1979, five Democrats ran, and only one Republican. The front-running Democrat, Louis Lambert, was the most liberal of the group. Under the old, party-controlled system, the Democrats surely would have chosen someone more moderate than Lambert. As it was, Lambert ran in the runoff against Republican David Treen, and Treen won. He became Louisiana's first Republican governor since 1877.

And in 1983, Edwin Edwards had no problem making sure that Treen's first term would be his last. He told the press that Treen was "so slow it takes him an hour and a half to watch 60 Minutes." As Election Day approached, Edwards boasted that he couldn't lose unless he was caught "in bed with a dead girl or a live boy." He won the runoff with 63 percent of the vote.

Is it possible that Edwards planned all this, back when he launched the open primary? Columnist John Maginnis recalls an enigmatic comment Edwards made in 1978 to a Republican Women's Club. The club members were pleased that the then-new open primary was helping Republicans get elected. Edwards said, "You are happy with the open primary now, but there will come a day when you will not be." Without explaining the statement, he left the room.

Excerpted from Gaming the Vote by William Poundstone. Copyright © 2007 by William Poundstone. Published in February 2008 by Hill and Wang, a division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.