My wife and I voted early this morning at our precinct on the northside of Indianapolis. It was the first time I could remember having to wait in line to vote in an Indiana election. The whole process went very smoothly and the wait in line was no more than ten to fifteen minutes.
While I was waiting to vote, I could not help but think of how voting used to be practiced in the Hoosier State. Perhaps it was the fact that Indiana might be a key state in the national presidential contest, something it hasn't been for quite some time, but I couldn't help but think of the 1888 presidential election pitting Indiana's own Benjamin Harrison against Grover Cleveland. (For more on this election, see my biography of Indiana historian Jacob Piatt Dunn Jr., where the following information is from.)
Voting in Indiana during the late nineteenth century usually involved a simple process. Under the state's election laws ballots were controlled and furnished to voters by political parties, and not to state officials. These "party ticket" ballots, as they became known, contained the names of only a particular party's slate of candidates. The only state law regarding ballots required that they be printed on plain white paper three inches wide.
The practice of allowing political organizations to furnish ballots, a common one throughout the country in the 1880s, made it easy to bribe a class of voter known as a "floater," a person with no fixed party allegiance who sold his franchise to the highest bidder, be it Democrat or Republican. Party workers could buy these votes for as little as two dollars or as high as twenty dollars in tight elections. These workers could ensure that once a floater was bought, he stayed bought, because, according to Eldon Cobb Evans's history of the Australian voting system in the United States, the workers were "permitted to have full view of the voter's ticket from the time it was given him until it was dropped in the ballot box."
The number of floating votes in Indiana was estimated to have been ten thousand in the 1880 election and as high as twenty thousand in 1888. Indiana University professor R. H. Dabney, in a letter to The Nation, went as far as to assert that the floating vote in Indiana during the 1888 election reached as high as thirty thousand. He told of one Bloomington resident who attempted to buy butter on election day but was told by a storekeeper that none was available—it had all been bought the day before to "butter sandwiches for floaters—for it would seem that even the Hoosier floater cannot live by free whiskey alone."
Indiana party workers went to unusual lengths to capture the floating vote. Thomas R. Marshall, Indiana governor and vice president, noted in his memoirs that it was not unusual “to corral what was known as the floating vote, fill it full of redeye, lock it up the night before election and march it to the polls early the next morning." A veteran poll watcher, Marshall knew of one Republican who planned to keep a floater in his room all night to guarantee that he voted the GOP ticket the next day. An enterprising Democrat, however, set fire to a nearby woodshed and cried out that the Republican's store was on fire. When the Republican ran off to make sure his business was safe, Marshall said, "the Democrats stole his chattel."
Attempts by both parties to capture the floating vote played a key role in the 1888 presidential contest in Indiana. In spite of Harrison's favorite son status, the state was up for grabs with both sides maneuvering desperately to win. The Indianapolis Journal reported in a November 2, 1888, editorial that it was the floating vote "that the machinery and work of the contending parties are designed to influence . . . and nobody but a ninny-hammer would dream of anything else." Walter Q. Gresham, who had battled Harrison for the Republican presidential nomination, was informed by Chicago attorney Robert T. Lincoln that W. H. H. Miller, Harrison's law partner, and Harrison's son, Russell, had visited Lincoln and asked for money to use for bribing Indiana voters. "The purchase of votes," Gresham wrote Noble Butler, "is carried on by both parties with little effort at concealment. If the thing goes on unchecked a catastrophe is inevitable. What is to become of us?"
With Cleveland and Harrison running neck and neck, the Republican campaign in Indiana and throughout the country was rocked by the uncovering of the infamous "blocks of five" letter from William Dudley, a Hoosier Civil War veteran who served as GOP national committee treasurer in the 1888 election. In the letter, which was sent to Indiana Republican county chairmen, Dudley warned that "only boodle and fraudulent votes and false counting of returns can beat us in the State [Indiana]." To counter this threat, he advised GOP workers to find out which Democrats at the polls were responsible for bribing voters and steer committed Democratic supporters to them, thereby exhausting the opposition's cash stockpile. The most damaging part of the letter appeared in a sentence that became synonymous with political corruption. Dudley advised: "Divide the floaters into blocks of fives, and put a trusted man with necessary funds in charge of these five, and make him responsible that none get away."
This political dynamite in Dudley's letter managed to find its way to the opposition camp, albeit with a little help. A Democratic mail clerk on the Ohio & Mississippi Railroad, suspicious about the large amount of mail being passed from GOP headquarters to Indiana Republicans, opened one of the letters, recognized its value to his party, and passed the damaging contents on to the Indiana Democratic State Central Committee chairman. The letter was printed in the Indianapolis Sentinel on October 31, 1888, under a banner headline reading "The Plot to Buy Indiana." Although an indignant Dudley and other top Republican officials declared that the letter was a forgery—and later claimed, correctly, that someone had been opening their mail—its contents received nationwide attention.
Fanning the partisan flames even further, the Sentinel offered Dudley one thousand dollars if he came to Indianapolis and swore that the letter published by the newspaper was a forgery; an offer Dudley never accepted. The letter's revelations about political underhandedness, however, came too late to derail Harrison's campaign. The Hoosier Republican eked out a 2,300 vote plurality in Indiana. Cleveland won the nationwide popular vote, but Harrison handily captured the electoral college (233—168), and with that victory became president.
After the election Harrison seemed blissfully unaware that political shenanigans might have played a role in his election. He told U.S. senator Matt Quay of Pennsylvania, GOP national chairman, that "Providence has given us the victory." Quay, a veteran politico who considered the new president a "political tenderfoot," was unmoved by Harrison's oratory. He later exclaimed to a Philadelphia journalist: "Think of the man! He ought to know that Providence hadn't a damned thing to do with it." The president, Quay said, might "never learn how close a number of men were compelled to approach the gates of the penitentiary to make him President."