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Wed 16 October 2019
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John Mitchinson on the not-so-recent history of rigging the vote, bribing voters with booze and voter suppression – using whisky.

On 3rd October 1849, Edgar Allan Poe was found wandering the streets of Baltimore in a delirious state, wearing clothes which weren’t his own.

He died in hospital four days later, and the mystery of his final hours was never solved.

One theory is that he’d been a victim of ‘cooping’, a variety of electoral fraud where voters were ‘cooped’ in rooms, plied with strong drink and then hauled out to vote. Crude, but effective.

“Swilling the Planters with Bumbo”

Bribing voters with drink is as old as democracy itself.

It reared its ugly head as recently as 2016 when the alt-right website The Right Stuff boasted that volunteers would be going out to the ‘ghettoes’ of Philadelphia handing out bottles of whiskey to render the poor black residents incapable of voting.

In the UK general election of 2017, as an incentive to the indolent, Brewdog offered a free beer to anyone who voted.

Neither would be legal under US law: Section 597 of Title 18 of the United States Code prohibits anyone or any business which ‘makes or offers to make an expenditure to any person, either to vote or withhold his vote.’

‘Those who cast the votes decide nothing. Those who count the votes decide everything.

Joseph Stalin

This injunction is born of long experience: even George Washington recognised the effectiveness of a good bribe. In his second – successful – attempt at election to the state assembly in Vermont his agents handed out 144 gallons of rum, punch, hard cider and beer –roughly half a gallon for every vote he received, a common practice known as ‘swilling the planters with bumbo.’

The early history of democracy in the US is just as much a history of how democracy was continually undermined.

Tammany Hall, the New York Democrats’ institutionally corrupt vote-winning machine, was so successful it became the paradigm for many other American cities. The US even contributed a new word to the history of electoral fraud. In the Massachusetts state senate elections of 1812 Governor Elbridge Gerry so grotesquely re-drew the boundaries of electoral districts to his advantage that one – in Essex Country – ended up looking like a lizard. The combination of his name and ‘salamander’ gave us ‘gerrymander’.

Where there is Voting, there is Fraud

But the USA hardly has a monopoly on vote rigging. Shirley Porter’s Conservative victory in the 1990 Westminster Council elections in London turned out to have been as a result of gerrymandering (selling off council houses to stuff the borough with Tory voters). The European Parliament elections held in Bulgaria in June 2009 introduced the term ‘Bulgarian Train’ to describe the process by which 350,000 voters (mostly Roma) were paid to swap pre-filled out ballots for blank ones at polling stations. And then there’s the Russians…

Whatever the outcome of Mueller’s investigations or those of the UK Electoral Commission, the use of digital bots and hijacking of personal data to influence elections sits in a long and murky analogue tradition. Where there is voting, there is fraud. And we would do well to remember Stalin’s famous dictum: ‘Those who cast the votes decide nothing. Those who count the votes decide everything.’

John Mitchinson is a writer and publisher and co-founder of Unbound, the world’s leading crowdfunding platform for books. He was one of the founders of BBC’s QI.

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