The Vote That Failed

Old style ballots cast illegally in Indiana helped topple a president then he helped topple them

Campaign banner for the ill-fated ticket of President Grover Cleveland and Senator Allen Thurman. (Library of Congress)
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Near the campaign's close a suspicious Indiana railway postal agent intercepted one of the incriminating missives. Newspaper headlines followed. Dudley and Quay rallied to blast the Democratic "forgery," and Dudley slapped libel suits on the newspapers that printed it. The vote buying rolled on. Party faithful even brought voters over from Pennsylvania, which was safely in Harrison's column. With the whole nation watching, Dudley brazenly bought blocks of votes in Indiana. But instead of going to prison, where his personal knowledge of Dudley’s doings could have put him, Harrison went to Washington.

As President he boosted the already staggering protective tariff and depleted the U.S. Treasury with an orgy of pork barrel boondoggles approved by what Democrats called his Billion Dollar Congress. He turned Cleveland's civil service into a joke. Meanwhile, in defeat Cleveland flourished. He practiced law in New York. Frank gave birth to "Baby Ruth," a celebrated tyke whose name was bequeathed to a candy bar. Cleveland was content, save for a nagging sense of duty about balloting. Normally he dodged banquets and barbecues requesting "a few words," but when the Merchants' Association of Boston offered a forum, he rose to the occasion. In 1888, the city of Louisville, Kentucky, and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts had adopted the secret ballot system of New South Wales, then a territory in Australia. In a single year, 1889, nine states adopted the Australian method, including Indiana. There was a chance that the reform would catch on nationwide.

The most celebrated martyr to ballot fraud and vote buying, Cleveland lashed out against the "vile, unsavory" forms of self-interest that "fatten upon corruption and debauched suffrage." He called upon good citizens everywhere, to rise above "lethargy and indifference," to "restore the purity of their suffrage." And they did. A ballot-reform landslide swamped the nation’s legislatures. By the 1892 elections, citizens in 38 states voted by secret ballot. That year, they also returned Grover Cleveland and Frank to the White House.


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