Vote buying in nineteenth century US elections

Anecdotes about vote buying and electoral fraud, particularly in the mid to late nineteenth century, are an inescapable, and colorful, part of American political history. As Howard W. Allen and Kate Warren Allen long ago noted:
"Stories of fraudulent election practices color the political history of the United States, and anecdotes about vote buying, the dishonesty of election officials, and the like suggesting the widespread prevalence of election fraud in the American past are an integral part of the lore of American politics".[1]
The academic literature on vote-buying moved quickly from localized stories to considerations of aggregate systemic effects and speculation about their implications for US politics. One important vehicle for this transformation is an interpretation of US politics advanced by Walter Dean Burnham in an article published exactly 50 years ago. “The Changing Shape of the American Political Universe,” put the focus not on corruption, but on the vast number of Americans participating in the elections from the 1840s to the 1890s.[2]  Burnham’s argument was premised on the authenticity of those votes, not their tainted and corrupt status: this was America’s political “golden age,” its “Camelot.” In Burnham’s interpretation those votes were the sum of the very high levels of political participation by an enlightened electorate motivated by issues and engaged by a strong party organization. [3]
This was, as Burnham recently wrote in an article celebrating the success of his interpretation,
"a strange lost world of democratic politics in the United States...[that] had come into being in the 1830’s, vigorously survived across the whole of the nineteenth century, and then came to an abrupt end in the first decades of the twentieth century[:]….a preexisting democracy… sacrificed on the altar of a triumphant industrial-financial capitalism".[4]
The world of nineteenth century voting that Burnham described was a world in which voting was a public act, not a private one, a world in which the secret ballot did not exist and in which all voting was accomplished either by depositing a party ticket or, as in the case of Alexandria and Newport, by calling out candidate names.[5]
Critics were quick to point out the wide variety of structural reforms introduced into US electoral law beginning in the 1890s. These included registration systems, the Australian secret ballot, and women’s suffrage, and they could all serve as explanatory variables for the proportionate decline in participation rates of the twentieth century.
It was inevitable that these alternative explanations for the decline in participation would mine the irresistible richness of that anecdotal evidence of voter corruption in order to deflate the legitimacy of high levels of voting prior to reform. In this fashion Lionel Fredman presented the case for the secret ballot in terms of an earlier history of electoral corruption; by the 1850s, he wrote, “it was obvious to many Americans that manipulation of the ballot [sic] had made voting a meaningless procedure.”[6] Phillip Converse was one of the first to attack Burnham’s thesis, using investigations by late nineteenth century reformers to suggest that in dense and transient city cores the level of fraud votes was vast and ranged from 30 to 60 to even 75 percent of the total vote, with perhaps 40 percent fraud rates the most likely figure.[7] So great was this alleged level of fraud that it was quite possible, as Howard Allen and Kay Allen put it, that the decline in turnout Burnham discerned, “merely reflected the decline of fraud brought about by the reforms in the election procedures.” [8]
That theme continues in Glenn Altschuler and Stuart Blumin’s 2001 book Rude Republic which targets Burnham’s image of “the last six decades of the nineteenth century as an era of unprecedented and subsequently unequaled popular interest and participation in partisan political life.”[9] Voting in this era was instead, they argue, devoid of meaning and was but a function of the floss and corruption that surrounded nineteenth century elections. Richard Bensel’s 2004 study of electoral impropriety in 48 contested Congressional elections, largely in Missouri, Pennsylvania , and Kentucky between 1851 and 1868 presents a picture of almost unrelieved drunkenness, voter intimidation, and voters being marched by party organizers to the polls devoid of any understanding of their acts. This view of America’s past elections is the near-antithesis of Burnham’s:
"[t]he American polling place was thus a kind of sorcerer’s workshop in which the minions of opposing parties turned money into whiskey and whiskey into votes. This alchemy transformed the great political interests of the nation, commanded by those with money, into the prevail currency of the democratic masses. Whiskey, it seems, bought as many, and perhaps far more, votes than the planks in party platforms".[10]
However, as Joel Silbey reminds us, charges of vote-buying, corruption and stolen elections are, and were, almost always self-serving. As is the case today, those who make the charge of vote fraud are often seeking to change the electoral rules and those who seek to change the rules often allege voter fraud. Silbey quotes a young Abraham Lincoln, defending viva voce election returns in the Illinois legislature in 1840, asserting that he, “had every reason to believe that all this hue and cry about frauds was entirely groundless, and raised for other than honest reasons.”[11]
Silbey notes too that “[t]here were also some strong built-in checks in the nineteenth century system. Party workers were constantly on guard against the depredations of the other side and never hesitant about challenging potential voters on residence and other grounds.”[12]  Burnham, in answering Converse, built upon Richard Jensen’s close work on mid-century elections, reasoning that, “traceable corruption, being a dangerous enterprise for practitioners, was at most a marginal phenomenon.”[13] The fact that all of Bensel’s evidence arises entirely from contested election cases, cases by their very nature highly exceptional, is in fact grist to Burnham’s and Sibley’s mill that voter fraud was a risky business and that real cases of it would be and were contested by interested parties.
Let us also note that almost all those cases arose in states using the ticket system of voting, a system seldom more secret than oral voting and equally open to vote purchase. Indeed, the very public nature of viva voce voting, used in Alexandria and Newport, as well as Lincoln’s Illinois, may have even more effectively militated against bribery than did the ticket system.[14]
Of the anecdotal evidence of voter fraud, Howard Allen and Kay Allen conclude, “[t]he unsystematic, undocumented, partisan, and emotional nature of most of the literature indicates that the charges of vote fraud were probably gross exaggerations.”[15] Insofar as vote purchases may have occurred, they find the most likely cases were likely to have been in poor urban populations, especially those where machine politics prevailed.[16]  This is not the world of either Alexandria or Newport. In these two places ward level-poll books recorded 614 as the maximum number of voters appearing over a day of polling: a small number susceptible to close scrutiny by neighbors and party and candidate representatives.  And finally, no charges or allegations of electoral bribery appeared in newspapers or court papers in the aftermath of the Alexandria or Newport elections considered in this project. Until there is evidence to the contrary, the most appropriate adjudication to the charge of vote buying in these two case studies would seem to be that wise Scottish verdict of “not proven.”

[1]  Howard W. Allen and Kate Warren Allen, “Vote Fraud and Data Validity,” in Jerome Clubb, William Flanigan, Nancy Zingale (eds.),  Analyzing Electoral History: A Guide to the Study of American Voter Behavior Beverly Hills: Sage Publications, 1981): 153
[2] Walter Dean Burnham, “The Changing Shape of the American Political Universe,” American Political Science Review, 64 (1965): 7-28.
[3] Turnout was the most important of the five distinguishing features which Burnham identified in mid-nineteenth century mass politics, the others being split-ticket voting, roll-off (ballot fatigue within an election for multiple offices and referenda), drop off (lower levels of participation in Congressional and other elections which do not coincide with presidential contests), and extent of partisan swing between elections, being the others. Burnham’s point was that those other four indicators were low when turnout was high and rose as turnout fell and the system lost traction with the voters.
[4] Walker Dean Burnham, “Triumphs and Travails in the Study of American Voting Participation Rates, 1788-2006,” The Journal of the Historical Society, 7 (December, 2007): 505.
[5] See See Paul F. Bouke and Donald A DeBats Washington County: Politics and Community in Antebellum America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995); “The Structures of Political Involvement in the Nineteenth Century:  A Frontier Case,” Perspectives in American History, 3 (1987): 207-38; “Identifiable Voting in Nineteenth Century America: Toward a Comparison of Britain and the United States Before the Secret Ballot,” Perspectives in American History, 11 (1977-1978): 259-88.
[6] Lionel E. Freedman, The Australian Ballot: The Story of an American Reform (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1968): ix.
[7] Philip E. Converse, “Change in the American Electorate,” in Angus Campbell and Philip E. Converse (eds.), The Human Meaning of Social Change (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1972: 289-92.
[8] Allen and Allen, “Vote Fraud and Data Validity,” 155.
[9] Michael Holt, Review of Glenn Altschuler and Stuart Blumin, Rude Republic: Americans and Their Politics in the Nineteenth Century (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000) in Civil war History 47 (June, 2001): 164.
[10] Richard Franklin Bensel, The American Ballot Box in the Mid-Nineteenth Century (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004): 295
[11] Joel Silbey, The American Political Nation, 1838-1893 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991): 148.
[12] Silbey, The American Political Nation: 148.
[13] Walter Dean Burhnam, “Theory and Voting research: Some Reflections on Converse’s  ‘Change in the American Electorate,’” The American Political Science Review, 68 (1974): 1018. See also Richard Jensen, The Winning of the Midwest, 1888-1896 (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1971).
[14] For evidence of vote buying in an oral voting system in a different political culture with weak rather than strong parties, see George Emery, Elections in Oxford County, 1837-1875: A Case Study of Democracy in Canada West and Early Ontario (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2012): 142-4, 170.
[15] Allen and Allen, “Vote Fraud and Data Validity: 179.
[16] Allen and Allen, “Vote Fraud and Data Validity: 180-1. And even here the meaning of “purchase” would be contestable.