Defenders of democracy and proponents of free, fair elections have plenty to fret about in Ohio—the possibility of voting machine conspiracies, the impact of unrelenting super PAC-funded advertising, and cable-company partisanship, among other things. It’s serious stuff, perhaps even serious enough to affect the outcome of the 2012 presidential election. But Ohio’s modern-era electoral gamesmanship has nothing on the Buckeye State’s voting shenanigans of yesteryear. Unless the residents of Cuyahoga County have engaged in secret compacts to trade their votes for iPad minis, or Franklin County voters agree to cast their ballots for the candidate most willing to secure them tickets for the big Michigan game at the Horseshoe on Nov. 24, the century-old violations of Adams County will continue to set the bar when it comes to election fixing in Ohio.
Modern-day Adams County, which borders Kentucky and is located less than 70 miles southeast of Cincinnati, is a favorite of outdoorsmen, who flock to Ohio Brush Creek for some of the area’s best smallmouth bass fishing. Crafters, meanwhile, tend to visit the area to partake in the quilt barn auto tour. But in the early 1900s, this sleepy rural region found itself in the midst of a full-fledged crisis.
“The air in Adams County is clean and bracing,” the New York Times Sunday Magazine reported in a Jan. 15, 1911, story. “The stars shine larger there in the frosty [w]inter nights than they do in the cities. Men live close to the soil. It seems like a place set apart for the good things in life, but it is the rottenest borough in the civilized world.”
Adams County, around the onset of the 20th century, was one of the nation’s foremost hotbeds of vote boodling—the practice of buying and selling votes for political office. The story of just how bad things got in Adams County, and of how one man, Judge A.Z. Blair, endeavored to set things right, have largely been lost to history but are discomfortingly pertinent to our own electoral moment, even if it’s less common to buy and sell votes quite so boldly nowadays.
According to a 1911 article in McClure’s Magazine written by Judge Blair, elections in Adams County were virtually boodler-free prior to the Civil War—largely because nearly everyone who lived there voted along the Democratic Party line. But when soldiers returned home after fighting on the Union side, hundreds of them had become loyal to the Republican Party, and Blair noted that by 1867, when Republican Rutherford B. Hayes ran for governor of Ohio, the practice of vote buying had begun to infiltrate the county. For the next decade or so, the purchasing of votes was at least somewhat discreet—with candidates and party loyalists providing willing vote sellers, mostly poor farm workers and others of modest means, a dollar or two for each vote.
Gradually, both political parties became more aggressive in their vote-buying efforts, much to the delight of county residents. In 1879, according to a 1911 edition of Cosmopolitan Magazine (not the same publication we’ve come to know as Cosmo), a Republican candidate for governor “sent two-dollar bills into Adams County” to fund vote-buying operations. Not to be outdone, Democratic partisans from the nation’s capital journeyed to Adams County in 1886 with “stacks of ten-dollar gold pieces” in an attempt to secure the county for their party. No longer was it just poor farmhands exchanging their votes for cash. “Thirty thousand dollars was spent to carry Adams County Democratic that year,” according to the Times Sunday Magazine, and, from there, things snowballed. “Prices went higher and higher with each succeeding election,” the Cosmopolitan report noted, “until twenty-five dollars [per vote] was the average.” (In 2012 dollars, that amount would equate to approximately $640.) Campaign managers oversaw gigantic slush funds, and nearly all men of voting age in the county, regardless of upbringing or occupation, dipped into the bag at election time.
“Men who had moved into other parts of the [s]tate,” Blair wrote in McClure’s, “kept their residence in Adams County for years, so as to come back at election time ... to sell their vote.” Even those who were barred from voting managed to get in on the action. “[W]omen are numbered among the boodlers who have made the rest of the country look aghast at the cesspool of corruption that has opened here,” noted the Times. “Mothers have sold the votes of sons and husbands, sisters have bartered away the suffrage of their brothers and fathers, and even sweethearts have put up for auction the votes of their swains.”
And no one, it seems, attempted to keep up appearances of propriety—despite the fact that the state of Ohio passed a law in the late 1880s making it illegal to compensate citizens for their votes. (Current federal law, as well as those of every state, expressly bans the practice of buying and selling votes.) Blair recalled in McClure’s the time when precinct leaders auctioned off a voter, “like a horse or a hog,” in front of a crowd at the courthouse in West Union (the county’s seat of government) that included the town’s mayor, the county sheriff, and the prosecuting attorney.
Buyers would approach a potential vote seller, go to the polling place with him to watch him submit his ballot, then pay the agreed upon fee. When the county implemented a somewhat secret ballot process in 1890 that required voters to mark and submit uniform ballot sheets listing all candidates, party leaders quickly discovered a way to beat the new system and effectively “check the work” of their boodlers. “The voter was told to place his ballot over a large envelope which was given to him while marking it,” the Times reported. “Inside of it was a sheet of carbon paper over a fac-simile of the official ballot. The marking of the ballot marked the duplicate, so that the purchase could be checked.”
An attempt to stop the buying and selling of votes in the 1890s via mutually agreed upon assurances from both parties worked wonders ... for one election. Thereafter, candidates and residents went right back to their boodling ways. “These people down here, many of them,” Blair told the Times in 1911, “do not realize they are doing wrong when they sell their votes. It is a custom. They won’t go to the polls unless they are paid.” (Indeed, even Blair admitted to engaging in the practice during his younger days.) Around the time of the 1910 elections in Adams County, Blair, who was then serving as a common pleas judge for Adams and four neighboring counties, helped spearhead an investigation uncovering that 85 percent of voters in an average precinct had, at one time or another, bought or sold votes. By that point, he’d seen enough.