With nearly every headline you can find these days about the health crisis, it would be easy to forget that here in America, it’s still an election year. This fall, in whatever form it takes—whether by voting booth, mail-in-ballot, or carrier pigeon—Americans will exercise their right to vote.
Regardless of which horse you’re backing—or whether you’d rather back an actual horse this fall instead—our quadrennial ritual feels more freighted than usual, and not just because of the issues newly posed by the coronavirus. Even before the current crisis, fears of internal failure and outside influence alike have pervaded the 2020 contest, as voters worry about the integrity of the process. While we at Crime Capsule have great faith in our democracy, both its principles and its mechanisms, even a brief tour of American history suggests it’s wise to stay on guard for any mischief. After all, remember the lesson from Pittsburgh—if you’re not fond of how the ballots were cast, just throw the suckers in the river.
So: to enlighten, educate, and hopefully even entertain you, we wanted to offer a few lessons from noted American historians on what to watch for this coming election year.
Electoral skullduggery may be as old as elections themselves, but it’s certainly as old as our republic. Our first stop is Vermont, where author Gary Shattuck (Insurrection, Corruption, and Murder in Early Vermont) has unearthed an account from the War of 1812, when a detachment of soldiers were penalized not for voting but for failing to vote. Despite the ongoing war with the British, American elections still continued as planned, and as Shattuck records, one Army major from New Hampshire marched nearly 200 soldiers eight miles into Colchester, VT. If they didn’t vote as instructed, Shattuck writes, “they would be severely punished, or ‘cobbed,’ as one soldier attested. Cobbing was a new form of punishment being inflicted on the men as a substitute to flogging the bare back, employing the use of a stick to strike a soldier’s exposed buttocks.”
How many instances of cobbing took place isn’t recorded, but after the ballots—pre-marked with the preferred candidate, of course—were handed out, punched, and collected, the troops were rewarded for their ‘choice’ with rum. Needless to say, among that particular company of men, the election was a landslide.
The next stop on the tour comes fifty years later in Kentucky, where another officer pulled the reverse stunt in a different conflict. During the Civil War, Kentucky was a Union state, but as Berry Craig (True Tales of Old-Time Kentucky Politics: Bombast, Bourbon & Burgoo) notes, by election year 1863 many Kentucky folk had grown tired of the war. To prevent the pacifist candidate Charles Wickliffe from being elected to a second term as governor, and potentially sway the locals into an armistice with the South, Union General Ambrose E. Burnside declared martial law, arguing that “disloyal” Kentuckians ought not to be able to vote. As Craig records, over a third of potential voters were forcibly kept from the polls. The result? You guessed it—another landslide, for the pro-war ticket.
Fast-forward another half-century and a little further west to Prohibition-era Portland, where, as two sets of authors—JD Chandler and Theresa Griffin Kennedy (Murder & Scandal in Prohibition Portland: Sex, Vice & Misdeeds in Mayor Baker’s Reign) and JD Chandler and JB Fisher (Portland on the Take: Mid-Century Crime Bosses, Civic Corruption & Forgotten Murders)—have explored, the only good palm was a greased one. One of the most prominent names of the era was four-term mayor George Baker; under fire for charges of public corruption (owing largely to the infamous Public Market Scandal), Baker was finally facing a special recall election in 1932. Tired of Baker’s profiting from racketeering and blind-eye deals for booze distributors, his opponents, called the Committee of Fifty, had collected thousands of signatures for the recall—but two months before the ballot, their office was burglarized and their petitions stolen. Eking out a narrow victory in the election, Baker served out the remainder of his term, but ultimately—and wisely—decided not to seek reelection afterwards.
Formal investigations into corruption during an election year, tied to mysterious break-ins pilfering sensitive material? It’s almost like Richard Nixon read the Baker playbook.
Razor-thin margins are all the rage in electoral mischief, as our next two stops on the tour provide. The first one is a classic hit-‘em-and-quit-‘em tale of tampering from Connecticut, courtesy of historian Rob Sullivan (Political Corruption in Bridgeport: Scandal in the Park City). In November 1957, the day of an election between a longtime socialist incumbent named Jasper McLevy and a Democratic challenger named Samuel Tedesco, a polling place at the Barnum School fell prey to a silent intruder. Tampering with one of the machines, this anonymous thief (still unidentified to this day) rigged up an extra two hundred votes for Tedesco, who unseated McLevy later that day by—wait for it—an astonishing margin of 161 votes. Who was behind the scheme? Sullivan, a seasoned chronicler of Bridgeport politics, has unearthed the full scoop.
Our second tale of suspect machines hails from Florida by way of Montana, where the most famous knife-edge election in recent history—George W. Bush vs. Al Gore in 2000—was decided partly due to the influence of a Republican governor from the Mountain State. Journalist Mike Dennison (Inside Montana Politics: A Reporter’s View from the Trenches) how Montana political wunderkind Marc Racicot was one of the key voices arguing for the suspension of electoral protocol in that strangest of national scenarios. If you’ve ever wondered who was behind the infamous hanging-chad debacle, and how George W. Bush came out on top, wonder no more: Dennison, who followed Racicot’s career perhaps more closely than any other journalist of the time, has an angle on the story you may have never heard.
Last but not least—having crossed the country in search of electoral mischief, traveling from east to west, early to late, sneaky to blatant—we end in the great state of Virginia, which many founding fathers our democracy called home. For this we turn to Jeff Thomas (Virginia Politics & Government in a New Century: The Price of Power), who offers an exhaustive, learned, illuminating, and occasionally terrifying look at contemporary elections in the Old Dominion. Charting what he calls ‘The Virginia Way,’ Thomas shows how proximity to the halls of power in nearby Washington, DC has led to practices that would make certain scurrilous American forebears—here’s looking at you, George Baker—proud.
Consider, for instance, how Thomas organizes his account of the Virginia Way, with sections variously entitled “Hiding Votes,” “Unlimited Personal Use of Campaign Funds,” “Gerrymandering: A Sin Against Democracy,” “Keeping Voters Away From the Polls,” “Eliminating Voting Rights,” “Electing Judges and Getting Paid to Bring Cases Before Them,” “Self-Dealing,” and our favorite, “Archaic Page Labor.” And that’s just the first chapter. Enjoy!
So—we hope we haven’t caused you any undue despair, dear reader, but we here at Crime Capsule are firm believers in the good old ounce of prevention. You know what happens to those who fail to study history; we hope that in the coming weeks and months, as you examine the candidates and issues and make your choice, that reading these accounts will better equip you to spot irregularities, inconsistencies, and misdeeds should they arise. Thankfully, our election commissions are there to prevent this kind of malfeasance, and should you see any signs thereof, we urge you to reach out and help preserve the integrity of our national franchise.
Also, cobbing? If you see any of that going on, call the police. Just call them. And tell them to hurry. Please.
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