Author takes a look back at historic voter fraud case in Terre Haute during the early 20th century


TERRE HAUTE, Ind. (WTWO/WAWV) – Friday, the United States District Court for the Southern District of Indiana took a look at Terre Haute’s past. The court hosted a presentation about an old election fraud case, dating back more than 100 years.

At the turn of the 20th century, Terre Haute had a much different reputation than it does now leading some to call it “a wide open city”.

“Wide open in the sense of a lack of enforcement of largely laws against vice,” said Sasha Issenberg, author/lecturer at UCLA.

During this time, Issenberg also says Terre Haute was very involved with politics, making for elections that he calls “lively”.

“There’s more politics per square inch in this county in Vigo County than there is to a square mile in any other county in the state,” Issenberg said.

In 1913, a former city engineer Donn Roberts was elected as mayor of the city. According to Issenberg, Roberts was known to influence elections through various actions.

“Roberts is notable for the sort of unapologetic, shameless quality in which he engaged in voter fraud,” Issenberg said.

Issenberg says the fraud committed by Roberts and those close to him included violence at the polls and voter impersonation, among other tactics.

This led to the federal justice department getting involved in 1914, when 116 people were arrested for their involvement in voter fraud and Roberts was charged with conspiracy.

“It takes whole train cars from Terre Haute to Indianapolis to load up not just the mayor, but most of the top of city government down to saloon owners,” Issenberg said.

In 1915, in the case of U.S. v. Aczel, Roberts was sentenced to six years in prison. According to Issenberg, the fraud that took place in Terre Haute left behind a lasting impact.

“It helped to define the federal authority on which the voting rights act and later legislation throughout the 20th century on the subject related to civil rights was based,” he said.

Issenberg says Roberts later attempted to run for governor while in jail and was unsuccessful. Roberts died in 1936.

Friday’s presentation was scheduled prior to the current events of the country.

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