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.
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.”