The Vote That Failed

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

Grover Cleveland and Allen Thurman campaign banner
Campaign banner for the ill-fated ticket of President Grover Cleveland and Senator Allen Thurman. Library of Congress

By the gaudy standards of 19th-century American political ballots, it's not terribly impressive: a flimsy 3-by-13-inch oblong paper. Except for the typographical flourish at the top, the Smithsonian's 1888 Republican ballot from Hendricks County, Indiana, is a pretty ordinary version of the ballots Americans all over the country used to cast.

It lists the nominees for President and Vice President, followed by candidates for Indiana's 15 members of the Electoral College — the slightly arcane body that still actually elects our chief executives — and finally, the candidates for state and local offices. Indiana Democrats dealt with comparable tickets, each with its own distinctive graphics and design. Back then many ballots sported a more elaborate mix of slogans, typefaces, pictures and colors than the one shown here. Yet G.O.P. ballots from Indiana in 1888 may be the most significant in American politics. They were distributed wholesale to rascals who were divided into "blocks of five" and paid to cast them illegally. The public reaction to the scandal helped to change electoral history and establish the secret ballot.

In Colonial times Americans mostly declared their votes at the polls, out loud and in public. In 1888, voters in some states, notably Kentucky, still did so. The cerebral Pilgrims wrote their votes, a process that Rhode Islanders streamlined into what was known as a prox (or ticket) printed by each faction. By 1888 each party in each ward of most states produced its own ticket.

This method and the ward bosses who used it thrived because district ballot designs made secrecy impossible. In some states, politicos could buy votes confident of knowing whether the voters stayed bought; they could watch at the polls as their conspicuously marked ballots descended into glass-sided ballot boxes. Sometimes voters handed their votes to election clerks for deposit, inviting further fiddling with the results. Apparently, ballot fraud was so common it developed its own vocabulary. "Colonizers" were groups of bought voters who moved en masse to turn the voting tide in doubtful wards. "Floaters" flitted like honeybees wafting from party to party, casting ballots in response to the highest bidder. "Repeaters" voted early and, sometimes in disguise, often. In Indiana, the absence of any voter registration especially invited such doings.

By September 1888, Indiana Republicans knew that native-son Presidential nominee Benjamin Harrison was in trouble. Harrison was a Hoosier and a high-tariff man, the darling of big business. His party was rich, rich, rich, but to win in the Electoral College where it counted, he needed to carry New York, the home state of President Grover Cleveland, and, for insurance (and honor), his own state.

Both states looked bad for Harrison. "Grover the Good" had won in 1884 despite sneers that he was a draft dodger and a womanizer. Famously charged with having had an illegitimate son several years earlier, the bachelor candidate did not deny it.

Cleveland's integrity and reform policies (promoting low tariffs and a civil service overhaul) impressed voters. The Republican campaign taunt "Ma! Ma! Where’s my Pa? Gone to the White House, Ha! Ha! Ha!" proved prophetic. Warned at various times that his stand on tariffs would cost him votes — in his day tariffs paid the government’s bills (there was no income tax) — Cleveland eventually shot back, "What is the use of being elected or re-elected unless you stand for something?"

Yet one of the most brilliant triumphs of his first term was marrying his pretty 21-year-old ward, Frances Folsom, the daughter of his late law partner. Poised yet unaffected, "Frank" became our first style-setting, superstar First Lady. Everywhere she went, she drew adoring crowds. Women copied her hairdo and, on the mere rumor that she was against them, banished the bustles encumbering their dresses.

Cleveland, with a respectable record and a spectacular First Lady, became the first Democrat renominated for President since 1840. Then the robber barons began flooding Republican coffers with campaign boodle. In New York, Republican National Chairman Matt Quay spent lavishly to buy the support of renegade Democratic bosses in the big cities. The Republicans, it would seem, managed to finagle enough votes to control the election. Harrison was confident he would carry Cleveland's home state, where Cleveland was expected to run well behind his party’s victorious gubernatorial nominee. But Indiana still looked like a big problem.

For one thing, the state was already famous for ballot chicanery, which the Republican state platform roundly condemned. Ten years before, a U.S. marshal named W. W. Dudley had rounded up scores of Democrats accused of violating election laws. But at the time the special prosecutor, future Presidential candidate Benjamin Harrison ("Little Ben"), managed to secure only one conviction. Now, ten years later, "Little Ben" was at the top of one ballot, running for President, with Dudley as treasurer of the Republican National Committee. To Republican delegations trekking to Indianapolis, Harrison made honest voting — "a pure, free ballot ... the jewel above price" — a leitmotif of his campaign. He exhorted one and all to free Indiana elections "from the taint of suspicion." But Dudley had other ideas. He was buying ballots wholesale. In a fabulously indiscreet circular on Republican National Committee stationery he instructed local leaders in Indiana: "Divide the floaters into blocks of five, and put a trusted man with necessary funds in charge," being sure to "make him responsible that none get away and all vote our ticket."

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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