You Want My Support? How Much Are You Offering?
One Ohio county’s long, sordid history of selling its votes to the highest bidder.
The judge hatched an ingenious plan to put an end to local boodling in December 1910. As expertly spelled out by Albert Shaw in a 1911 article published by the American Review of Reviews, Blair empaneled a bipartisan grand jury and proceeded to call 200 or so known vote buyers and party leaders to testify in exchange for immunity. He demanded rosters including the names of those who sold their votes and figures related to pricing in each instance. That was step one, and it undoubtedly netted some valuable information. But the brilliance of Blair’s plan was that no one knew exactly how much.
“The next part of the scheme,” Shaw wrote,
was to be the announcement, through all the newspapers of the county, and through all other sources of publicity, that the names of those who had sold their votes were known to Judge Blair and to the grand jury, and that indictments had been found against them. If, however, they were wise enough to come to West Union, the county seat, of their own free will and make confession to the judge,—thus saving the expense and trouble of serving papers and making arrests,—they would be treated with great leniency.
County residents, desperate to avoid jail sentences for their transgressions, flocked to West Union to confess. The first few guilty pleas came in on a Saturday and word quickly spread. On the Monday morning following, as Blair exited a train at around 5:00 a.m. on his way to work, 31 citizens were there to greet him so they could be among the first to confess. By 8:00 in the morning, hundreds had gathered to meet with Blair, and 241 individuals submitted guilty pleas on that day alone. “While we were trying to keep vote-sellers from breaking down the doors to come in and confess, the precinct workers whom we had on the stand the week before telephoned in and begged for the chance to tell everything they knew,” Blair wrote in McClure’s. “They didn’t know what the sellers might be [divulging] about them.”
The plan couldn’t have been more successful. “[B]y shrouding the workings of the probe in absolute mystery,” the Cosmopolitan story noted, “Judge Blair cunningly added to the panic.” One man confessed that, despite voting only once in the most recent election, he had accepted payment from different individuals by promising to vote three different ways on election day.
West Union hotels overflowed. “Octogenarians walked for miles over rough wintery roads to make their humiliating confessions,” Shaw wrote in the Review of Reviews. One woman traveled from 18 miles away with her son to plead guilty for both the boy and her \sick husband. “[T]he ice edges had cut through her shoes,” Cosmopolitan noted. Crying, she confided that “my old man allus thought it was the law to pay us fer our votes.” At the height of the crackdown, a New York Times story reported, “The population of [West Union] has been doubled practically during the last few days, by the large number of men who have come in to plead guilty and who are obliged to wait until their turn comes.”
Most individuals who voluntarily confessed received a $25 fine and a six-month prison sentence that was precluded from taking effect assuming good behavior. The fine, too, was lessened, with the average boodler paying approximately $5, plus court fees. The judge also barred all guilty parties from voting for a five-year period. The result, as reported by Blair in McClure’s: 1,679 convictions, which served to effectively disfranchise 26 percent of voters in Adams County for five years.
The Times Sunday Magazine noted that, when all was said and done, two townships within the county were left without a single eligible voter. In another instance, according to McClure’s, a preacher and nearly his entire congregation were stripped of their voting rights. For Blair, who received numerous death threats for his anti-boodling efforts, it made good sense to be lenient on violators. “Most of [the vote sellers] didn’t know it was wrong,” he told the Times. “They were urged to it by the men they would naturally follow—their fathers, preachers, and teachers.”
Judge Blair’s crusade to rid one swath of southwestern Ohio of boodling was a great success. But it hardly brought the practice to an end. The large-scale selling of votes has not been a rare phenomenon in American history. Adams County wasn’t alone in its malfeasance—the popular press reported on similar situations at the time in New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, Michigan, and elsewhere. (A January 1911 article published in the Marion Daily Mirror noted that Blair “had received letters from all over the United States commending him for his stand and in most cases the letters declared that the same condition in Adams County existed in their counties.”) And while bald-faced boodling was eventually rooted out, vote-selling has never entirely disappeared from the American landscape. In 2000, vote-auction.com popped up in order to provide U.S. citizens a clearinghouse for auctioning off their votes in the presidential election. It was against the law to do so, of course—and after numerous fraud lawsuits, the site was taken down. The same goes for efforts to sell one’s vote on eBay, which cash-strapped individuals have attempted to do each cycle since the site launched, only to have their auctions ended by site administrators. (Those disgusted by the amount of money spent by the Obama and Romney campaigns and their allied super PACs, particularly in swing states like Ohio, may feel that votes are still, in essence, bought and sold—though it’s local television stations, not voters, who reap the monetary rewards.)
Despite its unambiguous illegality, vote-selling persists; in fact, when it comes to categories of voter fraud, the selling of votes is still among the most common offenses—more prevalent, for instance, than voters masquerading as someone they are not. And while much has changed since 1911, some things remain eerily the same. After a recent vote-buying scandal in eastern Kentucky during a local magistrate election, reactions by some public officials and commentators, who described vote buying as a sad but ingrained local tradition, harkened back to the Adams County affair of more than 100 years ago. In an opinion piece for Kentucky’s Hazard Herald newspaper, its editor, Cris Ritchie wrote that, “vote buying in Eastern Kentucky simply became ingrained in our culture over the years.” Ritchie then lamented: “It’s telling that people can dispense with their right to vote for so cheap a price. Poverty plays a role, but it’s mostly because they don’t care, and they likely weren’t taught to care by their uncles, fathers or other family members who were doing the same thing decades ago for a very small short-term gain.”
Matthew J.X. Malady is a writer and editor living in Manhattan. You can follow him on Twitter @matthewjxmalady.