Journal of Policy History 15.3 (2003) 269-300
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Machine Politics, Police Corruption, and the Persistence of Vote Fraud:
The Case of the Louisville, Kentucky, Election of 1905
Tracy A. Campbell
Although vote fraud is an acknowledged component of American political culture, scholarship on the inner workings of stealing elections is rather thin. Despite popular exposés by nineteenth-century muckrakers, the functioning dynamics of vote stealing remains somewhere beneath the visible layer of political analysis. The Gilded Age has been the recipient of some extensive studies of ballot corruption, but scholars have generally concluded that the extent of fraud in changing the actual outcome of a specific race was exaggerated, and with the advent of the Australian, or secret, ballot in the early 1890s, American elections took on a decidedly freer and fairer tone. The scholarship surrounding vote fraud has also tended to focus on a secondary issue: Did the secret ballot diminish fraud to the point where earlier turnout levels could be seen as inflated? Following the lead of Walter Dean Burnham, numerous scholars have answered decidedly in the negative—the level of fraud was so insignificant as not to change turnout totals in any meaningful way. 1
The focus on voter turnout has served to minimize the impact of flagrant fraud on the process of conducting fair elections and the counting of votes, and has subsequently diminished our understanding of the corrosive nature of election fraud on American political history. This article explores the electoral history of one American city—Louisville, Kentucky—to provide a corrective to this circumstance. The high point of the electoral corruption in Louisville occurred seventeen years after it became the first American municipality to adopt the secret ballot in 1888. The 1905 Louisville [End Page 269] municipal election was one of the rare moments in American history when an entire city government was thrown out of power by a court decision, even after the incumbent administration had served in office for well over a year. As such, Louisville provides a case study of systemic voter fraud and challenges the prevailing notion that the secret ballot was a definitive cure for an assortment of election "irregularities." By using court records, rare police files, and the testimonies of hundreds of Louisville's citizens who were effectively disfranchised because of their partisan loyalties, this article will provide a more complete understanding of the dynamics of vote fraud.
Many scholars have had some difficulty in defining the exact scale and scope of Gilded Age election fraud. Paul Kleppner and other scholars have stated that in assuming various modes of historic election "irregularities"—padding registration lists, stuffing ballot boxes, or buying votes with cash or liquor—may have been widely used, in the aggregate they probably were of little significance. Since both parties engaged in such activities and watched each other with considerable care, or in cases where the election was decided by a comfortably wide margin, many scholars claim that fraud had minimal or no impact at all in determining the outcome of a given election. Political scientists, building on the pioneering work of Burnham, have mostly credited the secret ballot with having diminished fraud, and have concentrated more on the role of election reform in the decline of voter turnout after the 1890s. Others have demonstrated that the Australian ballot had other consequences, intended or not, on the body politic. Historian J. Morgan Kousser convincingly demonstrated how the secret ballot was used to disfranchise African-Americans and consequently establish the Democratic Party as the only viable party in the South. John F. Reynolds and Richard L. McCormick have shown that in one northern state the major parties were motivated to initiate the secret ballot for purposes far removed from the reformist impulse. The new ballot saved them the expense of printing ballots and also placed severe challenges to independent and third-party challengers trying to get their names on the ballot. Yet the weight of Gilded Age scholarship on the role of ballot reform...