Simanaitis Says

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A RIGGED ELECTION? I’ll show you a rigged election, 1888-style. It makes today’s conspiracy theories sound like Sunday School play.

A bit of background: The concept of ballot as we know it didn’t exist until the Ballot Act of the British Parliament in 1872. What’s more, the Act’s primary target was Australia.

Even today, according to Merriam-Webster Online, “an official ballot printed at public expense on which the names of all the candidates and proposals appear and which is distributed only at the polling place and marked in secret” is an Australian ballot.

The U.S. didn’t adopt anything similar for nearly two decades. A full story is given at’s ”The Vote That Failed,” by S.J. Ackerman, November 1998. I offer a few tidbits here.

In U.S. colonial times, eligible voters (i.e., white male property owners) went to designated polling places where they declared their choices aloud for all to hear. As late as 1888, Kentucky continued this practice.

In the other states by the 1880s, each political party printed its own “ticket” for each voting district. Voters got tickets from the party and, at election time, put these tickets into the voting boxes at polling places.

There was no secrecy. Voting boxes had glass sides. Party tickets were easily recognized. What’s more bizarre, there were generally recognized techniques of stuffing these voting boxes.

For example, Colonizers were hired by political parties to go into hotly contested districts and vote appropriately. Floaters were enterprising individuals who flitted from party headquarters to party headquarters to get the best financial deal. Repeaters started voting early in the day and kept it up, often changing disguise.

It reminds me of Gracie Allen’s comedic run for the U.S. presidency in 1940. Her campaign song was priceless: “Even big politicians don’t know what to do/Gracie doesn’t know either/But neither do you!” and also “Vote for Gracie/Keep voting all day long!”


Image from

The presidential election of 1888 pitted Democrat incumbent Grover Cleveland against Republican Benjamin Harrison, grandson of William Henry Harrison, winner of the equally bizarre 1840 election.

“Grover the Good” had won in 1884 despite being an alleged draft dodger and womanizer. He was rumored to have an illegitimate son, something Cleveland never denied.

Benjamin Harrison was the big business choice, and was the favorite-son nominee from Indiana, a state rich in political sculduggery.


Benjamin Harrison, 1833–1901, 23rd President of the U.S., grandson of William Henry Harrison, 9th President of the U.S.

The treasurer of the Republican National Committee was William Wade Dudley. The RNC had lots of money and Dudley had an idea how to use it.

Notes Smithsonian author Ackerman, “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.’ ”

Once the story broke, Dudley claimed the instructions were Democrat forgeries and he filed law suits against the newspapers printing it.

Indiana Republicans even brought in faux voters from Pennsylvania, already in Harrison’s pocket. Writes Ackerson, “With the whole nation watching, Dudley brazenly bought blocks of votes in Indiana.”

Benjamin Harrison became the 23rd President of the United States. Grover Cleveland became what Ackerman calls, “the most celebrated martyr to voter fraud and vote buying.”

The country reacted. Following the election, the city of Louisville, Kentucky, and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts both adopted the secret ballot system used in New South Wales, Australia. Nine states, including Indiana, followed suit in 1889. By the presidential election of 1892, 38 of the country’s 44 states had voting by secret ballot.


Stephen Grover Cleveland, 1837–1908, 22nd and 24th President of the U.S.

The tale ends happily. Grover Cleveland is unique in American political life: He is both the 22nd and 24th President of the United States. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2016


  1. Duane
    August 22, 2016

    Historical comment I recall…
    Based on the definition of US colonial voter noted above, and that a Jackass was considered property at the time. Didn’t some colonist ask?
    “Who voted? The man or the ass?”

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