Blocks of Five
Updated: May 15
During this election cycle, voter fraud is a hot topic of discussion. Claims notwithstanding, there is little evidence of rampant voter fraud in the modern era. The 19th century, on the other hand, made voter fraud and manipulation an art form. Today we take for granted much of the voting process, but many aspects of today's voting, like secret ballots, were unheard of at one time. It took a contested presidential election and a vote-buying scandal to initiate many of the reforms now enshrined in today's elections.
During the colonial era, people went to the polls and declared out loud and in public who they wish to vote for. Even in 1888, some states, such as Kentucky, still held elections in this manner. The Pilgrims wrote down their vote. Rhode Island streamlined this process by printing out a list of candidates for each faction. This was called a prox or a ticket. By 1888, each party in each election ward printed their own ticket. This made ballot secrecy impossible. Each ticket was easily recognizable by distinctive graphics, designs, slogans, typefaces, pictures, and colors. The ticket, for a presidential election, generally listed the nominees for president and vice-president, a list of the members of the Electoral College for that party, and then state and local candidates for office.
The conspicuous presentation of these tickets enabled ward bosses to keep tabs on who was voting for whom. As a result, the bosses could make sure the voters they bought actually voted the way they were supposed to. Voters deposited their tickets into glass-sided boxes as well. Sometimes, tickets were given to election clerks to deposit opening things up to more trickery.
Voting manipulation had its own lexicon. There were the "colonizers", whole groups of people who would be moved en masse into an election district that was up for grabs. "Floaters" were people who switched from party to party in response to the highest bidder. Then there were the "repeaters", the people who voted early, then in disguise, would vote over and over again. States like Indiana had no organized voter registration thereby making such chicanery possible.
The presidential election of 1888 pitted the incumbent Grover Cleveland, the Democrat against the Republican challenger Benjamin Harrison. Grover Cleveland, the first Democrat to be renominated since the 1840s, was very popular. He was known for his integrity, and he was reform-minded. His notable achievement was the overhaul of the government civil service. While serving his first term, the bachelor Cleveland married his 21-year-old ward, Frances Folsom. Frankie, as she was known by, was the epitome of the style setting First Lady in the same way as Jacqueline Kennedy. Cleveland favored lowering tariffs, a popular position among average Americans, but it would be used against him during the campaign of 1888. Most of the government's funding, pre-income tax, came from tariffs. The high tariffs were favored by the big corporations and robber barons. These men began flooding the Republican coffers with funds.
Benjamin Harrison, Cleveland's opponent, was the grandson of William Henry Harrison of "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too" fame. (W.H. Harrison is also known for the shortest term having died one month into office from pneumonia.) Harrison was the darling of big business as he supported higher tariffs and protectionist policies. Yet in September of 1888, Harrison was not doing well and hopes of his winning the election were not optimistic. The Republican Party realized they needed to nail down New York in order to win the Electoral College. Plus New York was Cleveland's home state. They also looked to Indiana, Harrison's native state, for insurance. Unfortunately, Harrison was doing badly in each of them. In New York, the Republicans began spending lavish amounts of money to buy the support of renegade Democrat bosses in the big cities. This strategy looked to ensure enough votes would be finagled for Harrison.
Indiana, though, was a different problem. The state was infamous for having a long history of ballot shenanigans. Back in 1878, the U.S. Marshall, W.W. Dudley, rounded up dozens of Indiana Democrats for violating a number of election laws. The prosecutor at the time was Benjamin Harrison, but he could only secure one conviction. Harrison made it a theme of his campaign to make sure the election was fair and clean. Dudley, since then, had risen to become the treasurer of the Republican National Committee and a close ally of Harrison's. In his private life as a lawyer and as a bureaucrat, Dudley was known for his probity. Yet in the political arena, those who knew him said he considered the ends justifying the means. Whereas Harrison wanted the election free of any suspicions, Dudley had other plans.
Dudley set about buying ballots wholesale in Indiana. In a written missive, done on RNC stationary, he instructed the local Indiana party leaders to "divide the floaters into blocks of five, and put a trusted man with necessary funds in charge" thereby making them responsible "that none get away and all vote our ticket."
In late October as the campaigns were drawing to a close, a keen-eyed railroad postal worker intercepted one of these missives. He forwarded it on to the newspapers who then seized on the story of such blatant voter manipulation.
Dudley declared the letter a Democrat forgery. He filed a number of libel suits against newspapers who published the letter. But the vote-buying continued unabated. They even brought in voters from Pennsylvania (who had already voted for Harrison) as the nation watched aghast.
Harrison won the election and was sent to Washington D.C., but he carried the stain of the scandal with him. During his time in office, he would increase tariffs even higher and would squander the surplus Cleveland had left him on Congressional pork-barrel projects (nicknamed the "Billion Dollar Congress"). Meantime, Cleveland lashed out at the election process as "vice and unsavory forms of self-interest fatten upon corruption and debauched suffrage." He urged Americans to restore the "purity of their suffrage." His exhortations were heeded. Ballot reform measures swamped state legislatures in the following years, and by the 1892 presidential election, 38 states voted by secret ballot.
Cleveland ran against Harrison again in 1892, and this time he won. The only president to serve two terms that were not consecutive. Cleveland and Frankie were returned to the White House along with their daughter Ruth, after whom the candy bar "Baby Ruth" is named.
During most of the 19th century, voter fraud and manipulation were not uncommon. But it was left to the local ward bosses to get their hands dirty. In 1888, Dudley made the mistake of allowing the higher levels of the party organization to be tainted with dirty politics. Such brazenness in a presidential election was the impetus for change. Today we enjoy, overall, a high level of confidence in the integrity of our election processes. Much of this is due to the reforms enacted after the election of 1888.
The Vote That Failed: S.J. Ackerman (Smithsonian Magazine)