The Secret Financial History of Voting
There's a lot of money in politics today, but old-timey politicians used to straight-up bribe them for their votes—sometimes with booze!
As our increasingly divided country gets ready to cast its ballots on November 6th, there’s one thing we can agree on: that we can’t wait for the political ad deluge to finally stop. Granted, next spring will likely see the 2020 presidential campaign begin in earnest, bringing with it even more ads, but we’ll take whatever kind of breather we can get.
Nowadays, American elections cost more than ever—by a lot. The 2016 election involved a total of $6.5 billion in spending. $2.4 billion was spent on the presidential election while $4.1 billion was spent on all the other races put together. And that’s not even as much as was spent in 2012, which came in at $7 billion.
All this spending is driven by the candidates themselves and by Super PACs, outside groups that can raise (and then spend) unlimited amounts of money—generally donated by very wealthy supporters. However, both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump found great success in 2016 soliciting millions upon millions from small-dollar donors.
All of this spending is pretty cut and dry—and more than a little dull. Meanwhile, the history of American elections is, likewise, awash with spending—large portions of it coming via bribes, purchased votes, and barrels upon barrels of liquor. That sounds way more fun, right?
We certainly think it does. With that in mind, sit back, relax, and enjoy these highlights from the secret financial history of voting.
In Colonial America, elections were bought with booze.
In colonial times, voting was usually done viva voce, or by voice. Basically, people would gather in town squares and speak their support for candidates—a process similar to modern-day caucuses. This meant that election days were oftentimes rowdy, raucous affairs: a perfect place for imbibing an alcoholic beverage or five.
In fact, alcohol wasn’t some sort of electoral side effect: It was the main attraction. So much so that candidates would purchase liquor and spirits to give to the assembled voters. And if they didn’t, their chances of winning were practically zilch.
You know how people nowadays say that they’re voting for a candidate because they’re the one “they’d like to get a beer with?” Yeah, this was like that, only it was the candidates were literally thrusting frosty mugs of brew into voters’ hands.
One politician who got bit by their refusal to hand out free booze was a young George Washington. In 1755, the 24-year-old future president was running for a seat in the legislature. He was solidly against the practice of plying voters with alcohol (sometimes referred to as “treating”) and was determined to stand on nothing but his own merits.
Stop laughing. Washington lost in a landslide: 271 to 40. When he ran again three years later, he shelled out approximately 144 gallons of free liquor. And wouldn’t you know it? This time he won.
Eventually, decades after the American Revolution, states would decide that maybe this wasn’t such a great way to decide the leaders of our nation. Beginning with Maryland in 1811, the practice of plying voters with free booze was banned.
During the 1800’s, election day was … sort of The Purge?
Up until the 20th century, elections on the whole—and election days in particular—remained pretty wild. Many considered public voting (as in, not keeping your vote a secret) to be a hallmark of the American system. Violence at the polls was also common, with the whole ordeal being seen as an almost Hunger Games-esque test of one’s manly mettle.
In an article for The New Yorker, journalist Jill Lepore recounts the story of George Kyle, who was attacked on his way to the polls in Baltimore, 1859. Kyle was wounded by a bullet, while his brother was killed. They never did get a chance to get their votes, and their candidate lost.
The results were challenged in court but were eventually upheld. Lepore writes:
Voting in America, it’s fair to say, used to be different. “Are you not a man in the full vigor of manhood and strength?” a member of the House Committee on Elections asked another Harrison supporter who, like Kyle, went to the polls but turned back without voting (and who happened to stand six feet and weigh more than two hundred pounds). The hearings established a precedent. “To vacate an election,” an election-law textbook subsequently advised, “it must clearly appear that there was such a display of force as ought to have intimidated men of ordinary firmness.”
Much of this chaos was due to the U.S. Constitution, which remained vague on matters of electoral conduct. Matters were mostly left up to the states, which combined with these somewhat barbaric traditions to create a system that was, as Lepore describes it, “higgeldy-piggeldy.”
Even states that chose to vote “by paper” weren’t much better, as many early ballots weren’t much of an improvement on viva voce. These weren’t provided by the government, but rather by (primarily) political parties. From Lepore:
Printed ballots came to be called “party tickets,” because they looked like train tickets (which is why, when we talk about someone who votes a single-party slate, we say that he “votes the party ticket”). The printing on ballots of a party symbol, like the Free Soilers’ man-pushing-a-plow, meant that voters didn’t need to know how to write, or even to read. Not surprisingly, the ticket system consolidated the power of the major parties. Curiously, it promoted insurgency, too: party malcontents could “bolt,” or print their own ballots, listing an alternate slate of candidates; they could “knife” a candidate by stacking up a pile of tickets and slicing out his name; and they could distribute “pasters,” strips of paper printed with the name of a candidate not on the party ticket, to be pasted over that of his opponent. (For this, polls were stocked with vats of paste.)
Undeniably, party tickets led to massive fraud and intimidation. A candidate had to pay party leaders a hefty sum to put his name on the ballot and to cover the costs of printing tickets, buying votes, and hiring thugs, called “shoulder-strikers,” to tussle with voters. To make sure all that soap was paying off, ballots grew bigger, and more colorful, so bright-colored that even “vest-pocket voters”—men who went to the polls with their ballots crammed into their pockets—could barely hide their votes.
Okay so maybe we overstated it slightly when we invoked The Purge. But still, this era of American elections was defined by chaos, violence, and fraud. And if that doesn’t sound like the perfect recipe for buying votes, then we don’t know what is.
Why buy ads when you can just buy voters.
If you want to know more about the history of buying votes in U.S. elections, we recommend you check out Lepore’s piece as well as the delightful The ABCs of Buying Elections from Jaime Fuller in The Washington Post. Here is our favorite selection from Fuller’s piece:
Everybody in Maine (1880): “A Democratic editor of this town with whom I talked today, sadly admitted that Maine was full of purchasable votes. There is many a place, he reported, where men can be bought up at so much a head, and the price is not high either. A dollar often fetches them, but frequently a pair of trousers, a coat, a pair of boots, or a hat does the business. Another well-informed politician told of a case in which the Democratic candidates for the legislature gave a man a pair of pantaloons a few days before the election. Approaching the polls in his new clothes, the voter was questioned as to his choice by a suspicious Democrat. ‘I’m going Republican this time,’ was the dogged reply. ‘What, with those Democratic trousers on?’ rejoined the Democratic solicitor, thinking that a hint that he was in the secret would be enough. ‘Yes,’ said the free citizen of Maine: ‘mebbe you don’t know the coat is Republican, and it’s the best part of the suit.'”
Throughout the 1800’s, candidates were able to shamelessly court voters by offering them money in exchange for their support. And public voting made this practice all the easier. From S.J. Ackerman on Smithsonian.com:
In some states, politicos could buy votes confident of knowing whether the voters stayed bought; they could watch at the polls as their conspicuously marked ballots descended into glass-sided ballot boxes. Sometimes voters handed their votes to election clerks for deposit, inviting further fiddling with the results. Apparently, ballot fraud was so common it developed its own vocabulary. “Colonizers” were groups of bought voters who moved en masse to turn the voting tide in doubtful wards. “Floaters” flitted like honeybees wafting from party to party, casting ballots in response to the highest bidder. “Repeaters” voted early and, sometimes in disguise, often.
And while these practices persisted into the 20th century, the widespread adoption of secret ballots meant a corresponding need for secrecy amongst election fraudsters.
Payments now were being made behind closed doors, and the people getting paid were more and more likely to be party bosses and local bigwigs who would then go out and manufacture vote totals. (This is a good time to mention that we’re based in Chicago: the former home of America’s premier political machine.)
Finally: one interesting fact about President Benjamin Harrison.
Still, there was one vote-buying scheme that stands head and shoulders above the rest. That Smithsonian Magazine article quoted above was about the presidential election of 1888, when Republican Benjamin Harrison outright bought the presidency out from under incumbent Democrat Grover Cleveland.
In short: Harrison needed to win his home state of Indiana in order to take the electoral college, but the massively popular Cleveland presented a challenge—especially since Indiana Democrats, themselves, had a history of electoral fraud.
While Harrison campaigned on free, untainted elections, Republican National Committee Treasurer W.W. Dudley instituted a massive vote-buying scheme, instructing local leaders to “Divide the floaters into blocks of five, and put a trusted man with necessary funds in charge,” being sure to “make him responsible that none get away and all vote our ticket.”
Despite newspapers getting wind of the story, Dudley’s scheme prevailed through sheer force of financial will, sending Harrison to the White House. Fans of karma will rest easy, however, knowing that Harrison was a total bust as President, eventually losing his re-election bid four years later … to none other than the now-even-more popular Grover Cleveland.
Vote buying still occurs today, but only on a very small scale.
You might be surprised to learn that vote-buying isn’t entirely extinct. How, in these modern times of ours, could someone be so brazen as to go around giving people money for their votes without fear of getting caught?
Well, it’s because most of these schemes are happening in very small local elections, ones where all it might take is a grand or two to push you over the finish line. In 2012, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter David A. Fahrenholdt covered a number of recent cases for The Washington Post:
It may still be possible to steal an American election, if you know the right way to go about it. Recent court cases, from Appalachia to the Miami suburbs, have revealed the tricks of an underground trade: Conspirators allegedly bought off absentee voters, faked absentee ballots, and bribed people heading to the polls to vote one way or another.
What they didn’t do, for the most part, was send people into voting booths pretending to be somebody else.
Money is an issue in the American electoral system. It always has been, and it always will be. Yesterday it was poll taxes, today it’s dark money. Who knows what tomorrow will be? Something to do with cryptocurrency? or people trying to vote via Alexa and accidentally ordering a new washing machine?
At the very least, we’re not being beaten at the polls anymore … though we’re also not being handed free liquor at the polls, either. All in all, we can judge that part a wash.
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