As Long As I Count the Votes, What Are You Going To Do About It?

William Marcy Tweed? Boss Tweed? Thomas Nast? Zack Chandler? Napoleon Bonaparte? Joseph Stalin? Boris Bazhanov? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Remarks about the manipulation of vote tabulations have a long history. Apparently, a corrupt leader made a cynical pronouncement about voting. Here are three versions:

  • Let me count the votes, and I care not who casts them.
  • It’s not who votes that matters but who counts the votes.
  • Those who cast the votes decide nothing. Those who count the votes decide everything.

Would you please explore this family of sayings?

Quote Investigator: The viewpoint of this saying can be expressed in many different ways which makes it difficult to trace.

The earliest match known to QI appeared in October 1871 within a single-panel work by influential cartoonist Thomas Nast depicting politician William Marcy Tweed standing next to a ballot box. Tweed was known by the nickname Boss Tweed because of his political power and wealth. Nast titled his cartoon “THAT’S WHAT’S THE MATTER”, and he placed the following derisive words into the mouth of Tweed. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

Boss Tweed. “As long as I count the Votes, what are you going to do about it? say?”

It is unlikely that Tweed actually made this statement because it implied that his political operatives planned to illegally modify the election results. Instead, Thomas Nast should receive credit for crafting this remark.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1877 “The Daily Examiner” of San Francisco, California attributed the saying to another politician. This version referred to “Returning Boards” which were organizations responsible for tabulating ballots: 2

There is no longer any doubt that Zack Chandler is to be credited with the authorship of the famous saying: “Give me the Returning Boards of a country, and I care not who cast its votes.”

In 1880 “The New York Times” linked the saying to Napoleon Bonaparte while simultaneously humorously denying the link: 3

“I care not who casts the votes of a nation, provided I can count them,” Napoleon failed to remark. If he had said it, however, he would have frankly expressed the sources of imperialism, and would have made a useful addition to the world’s stock of quotations.

In July 1890 “The Anderson Intelligencer” of Anderson, South Carolina printed an instance: 4

It is a well known rule among politicians that the party which counts the votes is likely to win. The old saying, “I care not who makes the laws of the people if I can make their songs,” is adapted thus: I care not which side throws a majority of the votes if I can have the counting of ’em.

In October 1890 another politician was given credit for the saying within the pages of a Marshall, Michigan newspaper: 5

“Let me count the votes, and I care not who casts them or how they are cast.” This is the motto of Mr. Breckinridge, of the Second Arkansas district. But will this scheme work as well in 1890 as it did in 1888? The chances are against its success this year.

In 1899 a newspaper in Scranton, Pennsylvania published an article about an unnamed South American country: 6

Did not one of the foremost statesmen of that republic say, “Let – me count the votes and I care not who casts them?” And did not his rival reply: “Let me control the courts, the legislature and the militia, and I care not who counts the votes?”

In 1926 a newspaper in Oakland, California published a piece about Romania: 7

For decades it has been the rule that the party which presides over elections wins them. It is not a question of who votes, but of who counts the votes.

In 1944 a newspaper in Newport News, Virginia printed an instance of the saying: 8

Oh! They say you can vote for this and that.
It is not so much who votes as who counts the votes.

In 1989 “The Observer” newspaper of London attributed the saying to U.S.S.R. leader Joseph Stalin who had died in 1953: 9

Then again, as Stalin is supposed to have said, it’s not who votes that matters but who counts the votes.

Boris Bazhanov who defected from the Soviet Union in 1928 was the personal secretary of Joseph Stalin. Bazhanov published a memoir which was released in several editions over time. The reference “Lend Me Your Ears: Oxford Dictionary of Political Quotations” cited the 1992 edition in which Bazhanov stated that Stalin employed a version of the saying in 1923: 10

I consider it completely unimportant who in the party will vote, or how; but what is extraordinarily important is this—who will count the votes, and how.

said in 1923; Boris Bazhanov The Memoirs of Stalin’s Former Secretary (1992)

In 2000 the “Las Vegas Review-Journal” of Nevada credited Stain with a different phrasing of the saying: 11

“Those who cast the votes decide nothing. Those who count the votes decide everything.”
Joseph Stalin

In conclusion, QI believes that Thomas Nast deserves credit for the caption in his 1871 cartoon which was satirizing William Marcy Tweed. An efflorescence of sayings appeared subsequently.

In 1877 “The Daily Examiner” of San Francisco attributed an instance to Zack Chandler, but QI conjectures that this attribution was based on political hostility. Boris Bazhanov in 1992 attributed an instance to Joseph Stalin, but there was a long time delay between when the remark was supposedly spoken in 1923 and when it was reported; hence, the credibility of the claim was reduced.

Cartoon by Thomas Nast published in “Harper’s Weekly” on October 7, 1871.

(Great thanks to Jim Brewster, Sue Ferrara, and an anonymous person whose inquiries led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Also, thanks to researcher Fred R. Shapiro who included the crucial 1871 citation in “The Yale Book of Quotations”.)

Notes:

  1. 1871 October 7, Harper’s Weekly, Cartoon title: “That’s What’s the Matter”, (Caption of one panel cartoon by Thomas Nast), Quote Page 944, Column 1, Harper & Brothers, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1877 January 6, The Daily Examiner (The San Francisco Examiner), Pithy Political Paragraphs, Quote Page 2, Column 1, San Francisco, California. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1880 May 26, The New York Times, Imperialism, Quote Page 4, Column 5, New York. (Newspapers_com)
  4. 1890 July 10, The Anderson Intelligencer, Federal Interference at the Polls, Quote Page 1, Column 3, Anderson, South Carolina. (Newspapers_com)
  5. 1890 October 24, The Marshall Statesman, (Short untitled article), Quote Page 3, Column 3, Marshall, Michigan. (Newspapers_com)
  6. 1899 December 6, The Scranton Republican, A Study in Statehood (From The New York Tribune), Quote Page 6, Column 4, Scranton, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
  7. 1926 May 6, Oakland Tribune, Corrupt Politics Drove Carol To Resign Throne, Quote Page 2, Column 1, Oakland, California. (Newspapers_com)
  8. 1944 August 31, Daily Press, The Shipyard Worker Who Has Not Signed Up, Quote Page 7, Column 7, Newport News, Virginia. (Newspapers_com)
  9. 1989 November 05, The Observer, The Rise and Rise of Forsyth the Unstoppable by Ian Bell, Quote Page 11, Column 3, London, England. (Newspapers_com)
  10. 2010, Lend Me Your Ears: Oxford Dictionary of Political Quotations Fourth edition, Edited by Antony Jay, Entry: Joseph Stalin, Quote Page 299, Column 1, Oxford University Press, Oxford, England. (Verified with scans)
  11. 2000 April 22, Las Vegas Review-Journal, In Other Words, Quote Page 8B, Column 1, Las Vegas, Nevada. (GenealogyBank)