This scandal is shocking enough that I’m surprised it doesn’t come up during election years. It’s a small but ugly anecdote in American history, and I can find very little mention of it online. For the most part it seems to have been swept under the rug.
For decades, the nice people of Adams County, Ohio openly sold their votes to the highest bidder.
The air in Adams County is clean and bracing. The stars shine larger there in the frosty Winter 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.
The country folk there are simple. The men wear faded blue shirts, felt boots, and slouch hats. They drive little box buggies through the country. They look innocent. But they do like to boodle…
Elections were clean in the county until thirty years ago when “Calico Charley” Foster ran for Governor. He sent agents through the county buying votes. The traffic was a secret one then, done in whispers and in the dark. Votes sold for $1.
Elections came and were bought. The citizens had a taste of boodle money and they liked it. In the 80s elections became more openly corrupt. Politicians still talk about the “good times” of the 1887 election. That year Ed P. Leedom and Ed Silcutt, two Federal office holders, came from Washington with a carpet bag full of bank notes. Thirty thousand dollars was spent to carry Adams County Democratic that year…
The stories of past campaigns are told, with names, by the actors in them. The stories, for pure civic turpitude, would make a burglar turn pale with envy, but the matter of fact way in which they are related is astounding. One of these citizens who unblushingly tells of his boodle experience is perhaps the wealthiest man in the county. he is certainly the most influential. He was willing to talk if his name were not used.
“Frequently I handle $16,000 in an election,” he said coolly. “It is the only way you can carry an election here. I back candidates as other men back racehorses. It’s fun to win. Wrong? It is the only way, I tell you. The voters demand money. They won’t vote unless they get it.”
In a town where that’s the norm, reaching voting age was like hitting the jackpot:
One of the leaders in the vote-buying movement [says], “Adams County people look upon the matter of buying and selling votes as a business proposition. The average boy waits patiently until he is 21. He knows that after he has become of age he will be able to get sufficient money every year from the party workers to buy his Fall suit. He does not lie, steal, gamble or drink to a greater extent than the boy of the city. His vices are few.
“He knows that he can sell his votes and still keep his position in society. But he also knows that if he breaks other laws he will be ostracized. He takes money from the election worker without a quiver of conscience and takes a prominent part in the next prayer meeting following election day.”
The man who finally blew the whistle was a federal judge named Blair. He had served as Chairman of the county’s Democratic and Republican committees, and he quietly watched this go on for a long time. He even bought votes himself. But at the end of 1910, he convened a Grand Jury to finally put an end to Adams County’s vote sale.
“I have seen the Mayor of West Union, the prosecuting attorney, and other officials watch a farmer’s vote auctioned. He stood on a soap box in the Public Square and the politicians bid against one another.
“When I was Chairman of the Democratic Committee frequently we made agreements to have clean elections. But, while we might have one clean election, the boodlers would kick over the traces the next year.
“These people down here, many of them, 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.
“When I was a young fellow, anxious to get ahead, I bought some votes. But I always felt mean when I did it, and I quit. I made up my mind I would break up the practice, and I’m going to if I have to disfranchise every voter in the county.”
Judge Blair put a notice in the newspaper encouraging people to confess voluntarily in order to avoid jail when they are eventually discovered anyway. People came by the hundreds, hoping that they might be able to just pay a small fine and keep their bribe money. As many as 180 indictments were brought in a single day, and the final number totaled more than 1,000.
That’s more than 1,000 people in a single county indicted for selling their votes. And yet today, with all the stories in the news every election cycle about voter fraud and disenfranchisement, I’ve never heard about this incident before.
A COUNTY WHERE SELLING VOTES IS UNIVERSAL: Even the Women of Adams County, Ohio, Market the Ballots of Their Husbands, Sons and Sweethearts — A Minister Among the Guilty. (PDF)
From January 15, 1911