Democracy's Dirty History

Luc Melanson
Luc Melanson / Luc Melanson

Democracy is a privilege—but it’s also kind of a pain in the butt. It involves long lines, an avalanche of fliers, and the lingering smell of baked ziti in public school cafeterias (or maybe the ziti is only at my polling station?).

But be thankful. In centuries past, voting wasn’t just a metaphorical pain. It was a literal one. Consider the common 19th-century custom called “cooping”: Party thugs would kidnap a voter, get him drunk, then make him vote multiple times, often disguising him in different clothes and wigs.

It sounds like fun and games, but it was anything but. If the voter didn’t comply, he was beaten or killed. Though the evidence is far from certain, some think Edgar Allan Poe was killed in a cooping incident. (He was found in a state of delirium on Election Day in 1849, wearing an un- Poe-like straw hat. He died soon after.)

In New York City, the best-known election riggers were from the notoriously corrupt Tammany Hall machine. One Tammany thug recounted a strategy for voting four times—once with a full beard, then with mutton chops, followed by only a moustache, and finally, totally clean-faced. Around the same time, Andrew Gumbel writes in Steal This Vote, Philadelphia’s Gas Ring gang drummed up votes from dead people, fictional characters, and pets.

If you did make it to the polls, casting the vote itself was something of a hassle, as historian Jill Lepore pointed out in The New Yorker in 2008. For starters, you had to bring your own ballot. You had to spell your candidate’s name correctly (write John instead of Jon and your vote was tossed). In fact, our forefathers regarded secret ballots with suspicion, arguing that they made voting for selfish interests too easy. Some states even required oral votes— you had to say your candidate’s name loud and proud.

On the upside, if you were shy, it was easy to find some liquid courage come voting day. Even George Washington knew the importance of getting voters totally wasted. When he ran for the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1758, he provided voters with 28 gallons of rum, 50 gallons of rum punch, 34 gallons of wine, 46 gallons of beer, and two gallons of hard cider, which amounted to about a half-gallon of booze per voter. He wasn’t alone. Getting voters sauced was so common, it had a name: “swilling the planters with bumbo.” (Bumbo was a rum cocktail.) William Henry Harrison went so far as to dub himself the “hard cider candidate” and bring barrels of cider to parades for attendees to imbibe.

Even working at the polls was a risky endeavor. Election officials were subject to kidnapping, Gumbel writes, and even having their coffee spiked with laxatives “so they would be otherwise engaged during the most important phase of the count.”

My hope is that one day we’ll vote hassle-free online. Yes, there’s a risk of hackers—but no smell of leftovers.