Steeped as we are in this election year, with dire consequences at stake, you can see how some people might consider thwarting the democratic process in favor of ensuring their desired result. Not that we would ever advocate doing that (ever!). But those looking to skew democracy can find more than a few pop-culture examples for inspiration, through old-fashioned intimidation, new-fashioned technology, and getting dead people to vote.
1. The Simpsons: Sideshow Bob wins with the votes of the deceased
The so-called Republican Revolution hit Springfield first. Nearly a month before conservative candidates drubbed their Democratic competition in the 1994 midterm elections, The Simpsons’ Sideshow Bob rode a wave of pandering and radio talk-jock bluster into the office previously occupied by “Diamond Joe” Quimby. But Mayor Terwilliger didn’t exactly follow the Contract With America to the letter: In a manner befitting a disgruntled second banana turned homicidal maniac, Bob builds his impressive win on the backs of the dead. After Sideshow Bob’s eternal nemeses Bart and Lisa Simpson suspect fraud at the polls, they discover that several people who “voted” for the new mayor were six feet under on election day. And it wasn’t just people, either: To the horror of true-blue liberal Lisa, one of the fraudulent votes is attributed to her late cat, Snowball I.
Desecration of democracy on a scale of 1 to 10: 8. The fraud’s run of the mill, but the motivation’s downright tyrannical. Per Bob’s self-incriminating rant: “I did this to protect you from yourselves!” [Erik Adams]
2. Seinfeld: A puppet regime, bribes
Morty Seinfeld’s (Barney Martin) tenure as tenants’ board president was cut short by scandal in season seven, after Jerry’s gift of a brand-new Cadillac raised questions of mismanagement of the organization’s funds. But Kramer’s relocation to Del Boca Vista in season nine presents Morty with a way back into office—once he sees how popular Cosmo was with his elderly neighbors, Morty hatches a scheme to install him as a figurehead. But when another scandal threatens to destroy Kramer’s candidacy, the two men resort to bribing the constituents with knockoff gadgets that are prized for their tip calculators. Naturally, that plan goes awry, too, after the “Willards” are found to be defective—not only are some missing various alphanumeric keys, but their calculations lead the Del Boca Vista residents to overtip the staff. Kramer is run out of town, while Morty must face disgrace alone. If only he’d tried to access the Wizard’s other features.
Desecration of democracy on a scale of 1 to 10: 9. The bribery and the figurehead are bad enough in their own right, but deploying them together to win a fairly low-stakes tenants’ board election shows a complete lack of respect for the democratic process. [Danette Chavez]
3. Battlestar Galactica: Manipulated election between Roslin and Baltar
Stealing elections is something the bad guys are supposed to do. Good guys believe in democracy; one person, one vote, and the will of the people. But Battlestar Galactica was never much interested in simple answers. When Laura Roslin runs for president against Gaius Baltar, the choice should be obvious: Roslin is a brilliant, bold leader who held together the remains of humanity in the aftermath of the Cylon apocalypse; Baltar is a spineless gadabout who inadvertently helped bring about that apocalypse. But when Baltar starts pulling ahead in the polls, Roslin supporters take steps to make sure she wins regardless of how the votes turn out. It’s a classic BSG dilemma: Break the rules and get the better result, or do things the hard way and face the consequences. Roslin opts for the latter and loses the election, and things turn out horribly for everyone.
Desecration of democracy on a scale of 1 to 10: 3. Roslin ultimately upholds the principles of the democratic state at great cost to herself; too bad Baltar’s ineptitude as a leader calls the value of those principles into question. [Zack Handlen]
4. Election: Two stolen votes
Alexander Payne’s 1999 movie Election uses a high school election to translate certain life lessons. Super-ambitious high school student Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon in her best-ever performance) draws ire from her stuck-in-dissatisfaction teacher Mr. McAllister (Matthew Broderick). As Tracy runs unopposed for student body president, Mr. McAllister even drafts popular lunkheaded football player Paul (Chris Klein) to run against her. Despite all his efforts—as well as a rogue third candidate, Paul’s anarchist sister—Tracy wins the election by a single vote. As the faculty advisor, Mr. McAllister performs the vote audit, and in a moment of rage against Tracy always apparently getting whatever she wants unscathed, he throws away two of the votes, giving the election to his candidate. Within this narrow arena, Payne manages to paint a canvas of ambition versus jealousy, exploring our reactions to not just our positions in life, but how we let other people’s positions affect us. In the end, McAllister is a museum docent, and Tracy a congressional aide, so he throws a milkshake at her, still desperate to even the score.
Desecration of democracy on a scale of 1 to 10: 8, for squashing the electoral ideals of teenagers. If a high school civics teacher is this corrupt, what chance does anyone else have? [Gwen Ihnat]
5. Parks And Recreation: Very suggestive voting machines
While Sweetums heir and all-around doofus Bobby Newport (Paul Rudd) doesn’t have a conniving bone in his body, he hires ruthless political wiz Jen Barkley (Kathryn Hahn) to do the dirty work of running and winning the campaign for city council. So when, in the 11th hour, the eminently better-qualified civil servant Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) and her boyfriend/campaign manager Ben (Adam Scott) discover Sweetums-branded voting machines being installed in some precincts, they challenge them as an obvious accost to democracy. These machines say “Good choice!” when a vote for Bobby is cast, then spit out a voucher for a free Sweetums candy bar; a vote for Leslie, on the other hand, results in a loud noise used on game shows to designate a wrong answer. Confirming a vote for Leslie results in the cartoon Sweetums girl crying and the machine asking if you’d like to vote for someone better.
Desecration of democracy on a scale of 1 to 10: 6. The attempt didn’t work, but had the machines been installed, it’s safe to assume Pawnee’s notoriously fickle citizens would have gone with their sugar-happy guts and voted for Bobby. [Caitlin PenzeyMoog]
6. Gangs Of New York: Get a shave, vote again
While Martin Scorsese’s Gangs Of New York was a mostly fictionalized look at a real historical era, it did draw from actual fact at certain moments. Case in point: the “Election Day” sequence of the movie, when Leonardo DiCaprio, Daniel Day-Lewis, and Cameron Diaz’s characters help rally the residents of the Bowery to vote time and time again. Already voted that day? So what? Shave that beard and get back in line. Too hopped up on opium to know it’s voting day? Bill The Butcher’s political machine will make sure you’re awake and voting for them, then handsomely compensate you for your effort, whether with drink or with coin. While the Gangs sequence certainly benefits from a frantic cut and Sousa-infused soundtrack, it’s not entirely inaccurate. All of those tactics and more were documented in the literature that actually inspired Gangs, including Herbert Asbury’s 1928 book of the same name.
Desecration of democracy on a scale of 1 to 10: 4. Sure, it’s shady, but it actually happened. Plus, at least those guys got a free shave and a beer or two out of the whole debacle. [Marah Eakin]
7. Orange Is The New Black: Piper gets elected inmate rep without even being nominated
The women of Litchfield Penitentiary are already functionally powerless, so it only adds insult to injury when one of their few outlets of self-determination—the choice of who’ll represent them on the prison’s Women’s Advisory Council—gets taken away. Sidestepping the fact that the group is little more than a social club for figureheads seeking to aid their own self-interests, or that the elections are voluntarily segregated along racial and factional lines, the elections to the WAC are also overtly corrupt. That’s because their organizer, Counselor Healy (Michael Harney), isn’t looking to put together a representative body of reformers; he just wants people who’ll be quiet when he tosses them some donuts, and tells them to close their mouths. To that end, he stuffs the “white inmate” ballot for protagonist (and ostensible good girl) Piper Chapman, little aware that he’s bringing one of Litchfield’s most persistent thorns into his ill-fated little inner circle.
Desecration of democracy on a scale of 1 to 10: 9. Nobody—including the person it supposedly benefits—has any control over the outcome of the WAC elections, except for the sad little man in charge. [William Hughes]
8-10. Carrie, Gossip Girl, Mean Girls: Rigged prom-queen elections
There are quite a few high-stakes elections on this list, but there may be none as cutthroat as the hunt for prom queen. Some prom elections are rigged for nefarious purposes. Poor Carrie White thought she became prom queen after a life of abuse and bullying both at home and at school in Brian De Palma’s adaptation of the Stephen King classic Carrie. Little did she know a group of high school mean girls gave her the crown so they could drench her in pig’s blood, creating one of cinema’s most iconic scenes. But she got hers, didn’t she? Sometimes, and these are the best times, the prom-queen rigging is out of love. Chuck Bass, for instance, made sure that Blair Waldorf took the crown by removing the ballots of her bitter rival in Gossip Girl, while Damian made sure that his buddy Janis Ian was in the running for Spring Fling Queen in Mean Girls. She lost out to Cady Heron, but who wants two gift certificates to Walker Brothers Pancake House anyway?
Desecration of democracy on a scale of 1 to 10: 7. Some of these got way too extreme for a prom queen election, a reign that primarily lasts one evening, after all. [Molly Eichel]
11. Scandal: The corrupted voting machine of Defiance County, Ohio
Scandal’s Olivia Pope was not alone in her quest to get Fitzgerald Grant elected president. Hollis Doyle, Cyrus Beene, even Supreme Court Justice Verna Thornton, and Fitz’s own wife, Mellie, were in on a giant conspiracy to get their candidate to the White House no matter what. Curiously, a close election came down to Defiance County, Ohio, where the sinister group sweetened tallies by using a voting machine rigged to automatically swing the votes in Grant’s favor. Although Cyrus’ husband, snoopy reporter James, finally uncovered the corrupted voting machine, he was quickly bought off with the baby he wanted, so he quit his job to stay home with Ella. Nevertheless, the long shadow of Defiance is cast over the show to this day, years later: Fitz had to run for reelection because he felt like he wasn’t fairly elected the first time (and he wasn’t). The president killed a dying Verna just as she was about to spill the beans. Olivia and Fitz never really got over their trust issues. Nowadays all someone has to do is mention “Defiance” on that show for everyone to start falling apart.
Desecration of democracy on a scale of 1 to 10: 10. A balloting machine that does the exact opposite of what the voters intend is egregious to say the least. This is why this show favors the word “republic” over “democracy.” [Gwen Ihnat]
It’s one of the oldest tricks in American electoral skullduggery: Net yourself a victory by getting a bunch of people who currently reside six feet under to cast a ballot in your favor. That’s the scheme at the heart of Black Sheep, the 1996 comedy in which Chris Farley’s dimwitted Mike Donnelly tries his best to help the campaign of his brother Al (Tim Matheson) as he runs for governor of Washington. Unfortunately, his bumbling efforts do more harm than good, even under the watchful eye of campaign aide Steve Dodds (David Spade), so he eventually gets shipped out to the woods to pass the time until election day. But it’s too late, and rival candidate Governor Tracy wins. But as Mike watches the returns, he notices something amiss: Garfield County delivered more votes for Tracy than there are registered voters. Thanks to some quick thinking—well, fake hostage-taking, really—Mike saves the day, his brother is elected, and the audience accepts that this will not be as funny as Tommy Boy.
Desecration of democracy on a scale of 1 to 10: 7. It’s pretty bad to commit outright fraud like this, but then again, we all have family members casting votes for people that imply your relatives may well be brain-dead already. [Alex McCown]
13. The Good Wife: Rigged state’s attorney election
One of the great villains of The Good Wife was an unexpected one: the Illinois Democratic Party. When Alicia is accused of stealing the election for the state’s attorney, it’s not because of her own doing, but because of machinations of her party’s chairman. After Alicia fights a hard battle against Frank Prady (David Hyde Pierce), her dreams of political power are squashed when the ugly accusations come out. She’s even defended by civil rights bigwig Spencer Randolph (Ron Rifkin), but that’s not enough. Turns out, the election wasn’t rigged for her, but for another state senate candidate as a way to keep the Democratic super majority in the Illinois House. Alicia just so happens to be collateral damage. When she decides to fight back, not even Randolph is on her side. The party tries to placate Alicia with a spot on the gaming board, but she essentially tells them to fuck off and keep their sinecure position. Hey, maybe she should have taken the gig? It could have led to a better seventh season.
Desecration of democracy on a scale of 1 to 10: 1. As usual on The Good Wife, Alicia is blameless. [Molly Eichel]
14. Boardwalk Empire: Running the entire town
At the start of Boardwalk Empire, Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) is at the height of his political powers, using his position as Atlantic City treasurer to smoothly run the political machine. Said powers are given a full workout in the season-one finale “A Return To Normalcy,” as the 1920 election threatens to break the Republican grip. Nucky’s machine pulls out all of the stops to hang on: promising drinks and jobs in exchange for votes, stuffing ballot boxes with dead people who are still registered, and cutting deals with Chalky White (Michael Kenneth Williams) to secure the city’s large black vote. It still looks close, until Nucky finds a brilliant 11th-hour move to answer Democratic charges of corruption. He cuts a deal with Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg) to end their war, and in a press conference one day before the election, he frames the results of that peace accord as proof of his administration’s focus on law and order. The move keeps the city in his party’s hands, but his success turns out to be short-lived: In the next season, his enemies find the silver lining to his trickery and have him arrested for election fraud.
Desecration of democracy on a scale of 1 to 10: 7. Despite being business as usual for Atlantic City, it’s still the dirtiest of business. [Les Chappell]
15. Justified: Anti-nepotism laws
Season three of Justified sees the world of Harlan County shaken up by an outsider, Detroit gangster Robert Quarles (Neal McDonough). Confident that he could mold the county into his own drug empire, he moves to keep Sheriff Napier (David Andrews) in his pocket and on the job, aiming to kneecap the operations of Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins). However, when it comes to understanding how elections are won in Harlan, Boyd has the upper hand. He stirs up the crowd at debates and gets his prostitution ring to trade sexual favors for votes, and when Napier still manages to pull out a victory, he outflanks the opposition thanks to his knowledge of county law. Prior to the election, he cut a deal with the county clerk to get Napier’s sister a job with the sheriff’s department, a development that leaves Napier subject to anti-nepotism laws even though he was entirely unaware of it. The laws mean that another election must be held, and until then Boyd’s candidate, Shelby (Jim Beaver), takes the office. It’s the season’s theme laid bare: You can bring in your big-city charm and money, but it’s no match for home advantage.
Desecration of democracy on a scale of 1 to 10: 3. Boyd pulls an underhanded trick, but one that’s technically still within the boundaries of the law. [Les Chappell]
In the third volume of the British series Skins, episode three follows Naomi (Lily Loveless) and her run for student class president. Her strongest opponent, James Cook (Jack O’Connell), is the class-clown type, banking on his popularity and good looks to win over the student body. Naomi, on the other hand, enters politics hoping to make a difference. So, she’s especially disheartened to discover two of her teachers rigging the election in her favor in an attempt to ensure shit actually gets done around the school. It’s especially upsetting, though completely in line with Skins’ racy nature, that all of Cook’s votes vanish into a female faculty member’s bra. Later, when it’s announced Naomi wins, she blows the lid off of the conspiracy, pulling the votes out of the bra and proving that Cook has actually won over his classmates. In celebration, the students riot.
Desecration of democracy on a scale of 1 to 10: 8, for squashing the electoral ideals of teenagers again. Why can’t these teachers just leave them kids alone? [Becca James]
17. Blackadder: “And thirdly, we’ll cheat.”
The third series of historical Britcom Blackadder sees Rowan Atkinson’s titular schemer as butler to idiotic Prince George IV (Hugh Laurie). In “Dish And Dishonesty,” Parliament is deadlocked over whether to suspend George’s allowance before he can fritter away any more of the crown’s money. To swing the vote, Blackadder resolves to win a vacant seat in Parliament the only way he knows how: cheating like mad. First he finds a “rotten borough” that has one M.P. representing only one citizen. Then he steps in as election supervisor after the previous one “accidentally” stabs himself to death while shaving. Come election day, the borough’s lone voter has “accidentally” cut his own head off while combing his hair, and he’s replaced by… Blackadder. After all that, Blackadder’s chosen candidate wins, only to vote against the Prince Regent by mistake.
Desecration of democracy on a scale of 1 to 10: 10. The reason Blackadder’s satire works so well is that there isn’t even a pretense that the election is fair or that the will of the people matters in the face of the monarchy’s pettiest whims. [Mike Vago]
Joe Abercombie is often compared with George R.R. Martin, due to both authors’ cynical, low-fantasy settings. But Abercrombie’s books contain an extra measure of pitch-black nihilism that’s all the more depressing for feeling like a very accurate depiction of human nature, regardless of the presence of magic in the world. His First Law Trilogy is essentially a deconstructed Lord Of The Rings, with an eclectic group of adventurers seeking a great relic. But Bayaz, the book’s Gandalf stand-in, is no selfless mentor. An ageless wizard who derives at least some of his powers from cannibalism, he uses his magic less to gently guide than to outright manipulate. The quest was a smokescreen used in part to position the selfish nobleman Jezal Dan Luthar as a king of The Union, a puppet ruler for Bayaz to control. Bayaz uses his magic to grant Jezal victory in a pivotal sword-fighting tournament, broker a treaty with an escalating rebellion, and even to manipulate Luthar’s family into believing he was descended from the royal line. Jezal grew over the course of his journey, becoming wiser and more humble. But it was too late for him to realize that he was being railroaded into a political position he did not want and is now trapped in.
Desecration of democracy on a scale of 1 to 10: 4. Plutocratic monarchies already do a fine job of desecrating democracy even without being tampered with. But this one deserves points for sheer scope. [Nick Wanserski]
19. The Prisoner: The entire election is a scam
At their most basic level, rigged elections indicate a certain faith in the process. After all, if voting is meaningless, why bother manipulating the results? The Prisoner goes one step further. When elections are held in the Village—a surreal small town where former spies and government officials are kept in genial captivity—Number Six gets involved, if only for a chance to meet the elusive Number One. Six wins the election, in a landslide whose veracity is debatable, and then learns the truth that’s most likely obvious to anyone familiar with the series: The will of the electorate is a moot symbol, and all his efforts bring him no closer to achieving his goals. Democracy is just another ruse. Voting is just a way to give the illusion of control to those who will never have it; those with power keep it, and those without end up right back where they started.
Desecration of democracy on a scale of 1 to 10: 10. What the hell is the point of anything? [Zack Handlen]