Election fraud! It makes headlines, and it has many faces. When I was a young boy growing up in Clinton County near the Canadian border, I overheard stories from adults talking about election fraud in nearby towns. With a wink, it was mentioned that so-and-so, an annual candidate, would once again be standing by the door at the polls all day long to greet the electorate―that’s just how dedicated he was to representing the interests of locals. He was, it was said, “greeting” them with $5 bills.
I never forgot the image that placed in my head―votes for sale at five bucks a pop. Years later, when I neared voting age, I assumed those stories were exaggerations, but as it turned out, they were right on the money (an excellent choice of terms, as we’ll see).
Of all the counties in New York, a Plattsburgh newspaper editorial in 1912 cited Clinton County’s achievement: “… the wholesale purchase of votes of former years, and the stigma which has for years been attached to Clinton, the most corrupt in the state.”
That corruption can be traced at least to the years following the Civil War, when complaints about fraud and vote buying were rampant across the country. In Clinton County, those said to be the biggest buyers are some of the most noted and respected names from the region’s early history: Smith Weed, Christopher Norton, and John Rogers.
Just like today, the political parties back then disagreed on everything, but in Clinton County, there was one striking exception: both sides believed that if they didn’t buy votes, the other side would. For decade after decade, that position was adhered to by Democrats and Republicans alike, making vote buying the common method of winning elections. Of course, no matter who won, the losing side always claimed a fraud had been perpetrated upon the public.
The 1880s and early 1900s provide prime examples of the level of corruption in Clinton County. In fact, in 1878, the Plattsburgh Sentinel proudly noted, “There probably has not been an important election in Clinton County for fifteen years in which there has been so little money used …”
In the 1880s, it was believed that fully one-third of the county electorate was for sale on any given election day. Some buyers purchased with cash, some with dry goods, and many bought drink after drink for voters before escorting them to polling places for the payoff.
In 1881, the Plattsburgh Republican lamented the state of things: “You, citizens of Clinton County have seen this … go on year after year … you have seen professional politicians … getting their neighbors drunk for the purpose of stealing their votes; you have seen the money handled openly at the polls with which the votes have been purchased; you have heard men solemnly swear at the polls, one after another, with up-raised hands … that they have received no money or promise of money for their votes, and you knew they were perjuring themselves before God and man … these things have been going on for years before your eyes, you standing by, feebly protesting, perhaps, and perhaps tacitly consenting for the sake of party advantage or personal gratification.”
But it made no difference: the practice continued. In fact, the Plattsburgh Republican itself supported the Democratic candidates (go figure), and among the top Democratic Party financiers were the aforementioned Weed, Norton, and Rogers, who had the deepest pockets in the North Country.
In 1882, payment for a man’s vote came in many forms. A snippet from Dannemora tells the tale: “Election has come and gone, and some of the voters who were in town that day returned home plus a pair of new boots, a sack of flour, or if they were inclined to be intemperate, perhaps they carried home some of Dannemora’s invigorator (booze). But of course, there is no buying of votes in Dannemora. The men were only paid for their day.” (For the times, it was an excellent bit of sarcasm.)
In 1883, vote-buying brokers were getting 50 cents a head, but with big spenders in the mix, some votes sold for as high as $25 (equal to over $500 today). Most often, though, the price was $5. Anyone seen handing out money explained that it was for transporting other voters to the polling site.
One county representative spent $1000 to buy over 300 votes. Some men were said to have auctioned their vote to the highest bidder. Irregularities in vote totals were common as well: “It is safe to say that not 50 men voted during the half hour the polls remained open, and yet over 400 votes were polled. … The number of men who voted is nearly double the whole number of enrolled voters in the district.” One man was said to have voted twelve times.
As the country recovered from a depression (the Panic of 1893), the growing economy led to higher prices. Votes were a hot commodity, and in 1899, the return to prosperity was evident in election spending. In Clinton County, the two parties spent a total of $40,000. Early on, the Plattsburg Republican noted: “… well-posted men agree that 6000 votes are purchasable at $5 per vote.”
For anyone in Plattsburgh reading this, here’s a reference to the small community once located at Scomotion Creek: “More than two-thirds of the voting population of the town of Plattsburgh can be bought like cattle on election day at $5 per head. There is a community in the north part of the town … on the lake shore, known as the ‘Creek’ district, in which the male members are said to eke out an existence for their families by fishing and ‘voting!’ ”
That same year, one Plattsburgh district featured a Republican crew that outsmarted their Democratic counterparts by instructing “undecided” voters to “go to the Democratic workers and get $5 by agreeing to vote their ticket.” The voters were told to complete the ruse by voting Republican, after which they would receive another $5!
Whether the following story is true or not, it made the rounds and was published in the Plattsburgh Republican, suggesting the great level of corruption in the county.
“They tell a story about a prominent member of Tammany Hall who came up to Clinton County to make a few campaign speeches a few years ago. He … was so much impressed with the astuteness of Clinton County’s politicians that he decided to spend election day in Plattsburgh, even at the risk of losing his vote, in order that he might get a store of information which would be useful for Tammany in coming years. The story goes that he went back to New York, made his report to Tammany on Clinton County methods, and the very next fall, Tammany’s majority in New York City was 20,000 bigger than ever before.”
We’d like to think the times are long past when voters would so casually sell what is a core component of democratic principles. We’d like to think that, but it would be naïve.
In 1956, the Press Republican ran a column by 63-year-old radio broadcaster George Sokolsky, who said, “Back in my childhood, I used to see the politicians buy votes. The going price was two dollars. A father with three sons would try to get $10 if he could, but the politician preferred to give him $8.”
As noted earlier, I heard such stories about certain towns in my youth, stories that were instantly recalled in 1985 when two officials of one of those small towns were arrested for vote buying.
On the plus side, it was a bipartisan effort: one was the Republican Town Supervisor, and the other was the town’s Democratic Party Chairman. County officials said that rumors of vote buying had persisted over the years, but no one could recall any formal charges having ever been brought.
In a nod to longstanding tradition, the town supervisor offered this explanation for handing out $5 bills to “potential voters” in his town: “The money was intended to reimburse drivers to take voters to the polls.”
Ahhh, the good ol’ days.