‘Election fraud’ was just called ‘politics’ here.
“My daddy loved politics — even my granddaddy,” says a man called “Garbo”, in between spitting chew tobacco into an empty Pepsi bottle. He watched his father help JFK buy electoral victory in the counties surrounding Hart’s Creek, West Virginia. It cost an estimated $2.5 million (over $20m today). Donald Trump continues to charge that this election was rigged against him, contrary to any evidence found so far. Of 1,262 cases of voter fraud since the 1990’s (as compiled by True the Vote), only 7% involved impersonation. Instead of undocumented or unidentified voters, this fraud consists of legitimate voters whose decisions were illegally influenced by vote brokers like Rocky Adkins.
Garbo explains why he doesn’t buy votes anymore, “I don’t want to go to prison.”
“You would if I told you to,” Rocky Adkins’ rough voice comes across the front porch of Skeeter’s, the town’s lone restaurant. Then, Adkins laughs — the long-time cohorts retired from vote buying after a 2004 FBI sting landed Adkins and a half-dozen others in jail.
For decades, Rocky Adkins has been a kind of community facilitator in this mountain town. One man in his 30’s waits at Skeeters’ counter and Adkins leans over conspiratorially, “I got him every job he’s ever had.”
“See, I was kinda guilty,” Adkins explains, “I’d buy votes. Well, it helped people… it was their vote, if they wanted to, I never made ‘em… I figure if you help somebody, they’re going to help you. Who else they got to turn to?” Besides jobs with the men who ran vote-buying factions, Adkins gave favored neighbors money and half-pint bottles of liquor, built the bridges and paved the driveways to their homes. Says Adkins, “How else can you help a poverty area like this? Not unless you help somebody get a job and help their family… I don’t think it should be no kid wading in mud to go to school. Or any kid go hungry.“
The FBI’s investigation of Adkins and other vote-buyers spanned over 12 years, hampered in part by locals’ refusal to co-operate. “They never had no witness I bought a vote. Nobody would tell on me,” Adkins explains. He, and others, were finally caught in a unique sting operation: as part of a plea deal, former Mayor Thomas Esposito pretended to run for state legislature. The FBI used the fake candidacy to ferret out vote-buying factions in the area. Adkins’ cabal was also caught in their net.
Extended families live up their own ‘hollers’ in the hills, and Adkins moved between these tight-knit groups, forming a network of loyal voters who would come to him every two years for a ‘slate’ of endorsed candidates — and $20 or $40, once they voted his way. Votes here are especially valuable to county-level candidates. Adkins says Hart’s Creek — which he describes as disliked by the surrounding towns — often decides elections that are split through the rest of the county, “When you get votes together and vote as one, and you’re worth a lot of votes, they’ll listen to you at Hamlin [the county seat].”
Adkins’ back is as straight as possible and his shoulders are only slightly stooped — not with age, but with constantly talking with others. His neck leans forward when he works to bring someone out with sympathy and moves straight back when he is forcing his point home.
Like many former coal miners, Rocky Adkins is a member of the walking wounded — he estimates he’s had 41 operations and carries 2 metal rods in his back. He’s been convicted of a federal crime, lost his son to a car accident, his ex-wife burnt down his house. There has been plenty of pain in Adkins’ life, which is why his quickness to laugh at his past is so heartening. He gleefully recounts evading the FBI for years, “I was a decoy ‘cuz everybody would come to me for a slate and I’d raise a finger… I mean, suggestion slips, but over behind the building they’d be buying votes. [The Feds] didn’t even know it. “
There are still electoral scandals around Hart’s Creek — among them, Logan County Clerk Glen Dale Adkins (no relation) pled guilty to selling his vote for $500 in 2005. The Lincoln County Commissioner, Sheriff, and a Clerk pled guilty to falsifying absentee ballots in 2010. Rocky Adkins still gets illicit offers from political hopefuls — “I was approached this year. Offer me money to be for ‘em.”
Due to its inherent secrecy and locality, Adkins doesn’t know if vote buying will ever disappear, “I don’t think it goes on here, but I’ve heard it went on in the other end of the county… But you’d never see it. They’ll take ‘em behind a building, or a car, and sit down and give ’em the slate.“
Rocky Adkins hasn’t been able to retire. “When I got out of jail, they done had my committee papers fixed up [to serve on the Community Board]… They won’t let me quit. Only freedom I got was when I bought this car.” He gestures, laughing exasperatedly, to his black Chrysler, “Two, three weeks, they didn’t know who I was.” Adkins takes in troubled youth in summers, sends jars of apple butter to sick ladies, gives people money for electric bill payments — and tells them for whom to vote.
Adkins no longer ties his favor to his voting recommendations, so he is within the law. His ‘slate’ has become a ‘suggestion slip’, which is prepared by the regional Democratic party. He has chaired and serves on the board of the local community center and food kitchen. “I enjoy it. A man don’t enjoy helping somebody ain’t much of a man.”
Sitting at his favored table at Skeeters — the table that seats the most people — he calls out to everyone who comes in, making sure they voted. When they ask him who looks good this year, he hands them a leaf off his blue stack of suggestion slips. The attitude at Adkins’ table, filled with old-school Southern Democrats, is that of sports fans in the days before a big game. Their excitement is at odds with their relaxed surroundings, as they discuss the chances for races virtually ignored in other parts of the country — for County Clerk, Assessor, State Auditor. Adkins is confident his selections will prevail.
People in the area know Rocky Adkins by first name. Directing cars around a wreck late that rainy Election Night, wet but giddy with victory, new Delegate Zack Maynard — who opposed Rocky’s candidates — knows him. So did Maynard’s campaigners as Adkins playfully teased them at the polling place. One is a waitress at Skeeter’s, called “Blue Eyes” by Adkins. “I almost got out of [voting],” the teenager rolled her eyes as she served burgers. Adkins glared devilishly, like a boy with a pigtail — he had driven her to the polling place earlier.
Adkins’ attention is always called away. Someone needs the keys to the community center, water must be delivered, his former nurse wants a hug and a chat. Adkins is in his element, even as he complains when too much time is taken up on Election Day. A few minutes’ talk costs him votes and he seems as personally invested as a candidate. When left alone, Adkins is restless. His leg constantly bounces, his gaze doesn’t stop anywhere long.
As much as he takes care of the community, he doesn’t allow it for himself, saying “I don’t want anyone feeling sorry for me.” When neighbors come with holiday food, he hides. His car too well-known, he parks it in the garage when he gets home. During a particularly dire hospital visit, Adkins says the hospital had to stop his visitors because he received too many. With death likely, he “prayed, God take all my two boys’ pain and put it on me.”
He blames himself for buying the truck that killed his son, Christopher, not long after that hospital visit. His father died when Atkins was a child and his other son lives out of state. Garbo’s eyes widen when he recounts recently discovering that Adkins’ mother is alive — and that he has a sister. They both live within miles. This year, Adkins’ only Election Day fight — Adkins describes fights as traditional at the polls and courthouses here — was when his sister came to campaign for someone not on Adkins’ slips. In a part of the world suspended by strong familial webs, Adkins is both loved and alone. “What kinda life is that?,” he asks. So he spends a few hours napping in his recliner every night, before starting a new day of tending to the everlasting needs of his town.
At 51 years old, Rocky Adkins ascribes his success mostly to his respect for every person in Hart’s Creek, “Everybody wants to be talked to and asked to help. That means a lot in politics. It makes them feel like they’re needed. It’s what wins elections.” He grumbles as the returns for Sheriff come in — the candidate he championed did not win — “I told him!” Adkins hates losing. He is particularly aggrieved that the now-unemployed Sheriff would hide and catch drivers at a little-used stop sign as they left his food kitchen on pick-up days. Adkins says the Deputy’s time is limited, as well.
Past Republican candidates could have had some claim to Donald Trump’s assertion that the election is rigged against him, at least in this county. Adkins’ campaigning — legal and illegal — has helped Democrats. Although he has never seen a presidential campaign providing money for his vote-buying, Democratic Presidential candidates enjoyed an advantageous placement on the top of his slates. This year, because of the unpopularity of Hillary Clinton, Rocky Adkins left the ‘President’ slot off entirely. “I ain’t got Hillary Clinton on my suggestion slip. I wanna win the county and tell ’em do what they want to on the president.”
UPDATE: Grammar corrections made May 17, 2017