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chapter 66: Elections and Their Machinery - Viscount James Bryce, The American Commonwealth, vol. 2 
The American Commonwealth, with an Introduction by Gary L. McDowell (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1995). Vol. 2.
Part of: The American Commonwealth, 2 vols.
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Elections and Their Machinery
I cannot attempt to describe the complicated and varying election laws of the different states. But the methods of conducting elections have so largely influenced the development of machine politics, and the recent changes in them have made so much stir and seem likely to have such considerable results, that the subject must not pass unnoticed.
All expenses of preparing the polling places and of paying the clerks and other election officers who receive and count the votes, are borne by the community, not (as in Britain) by the candidates.
All elections, whether for city, state, or federal offices, are in all states conducted by ballot, which, however, was introduced, and was long regarded, not so much as a device for preventing bribery or intimidation, but rather as the quickest and easiest mode of taking the votes of a multitude. Secrecy had not been specially aimed at, nor in point of fact generally secured.
An election is a far more complicated affair in America than in Europe. The number of elective offices is greater, and as terms of office are shorter, the number of offices to be voted for in any given year is much greater. To save the expense of numerous distinct pollings, it was long usual, though by no means universal, to take the pollings for a variety of offices at the same time, that is to say, to elect federal officials (presidential electors and congressmen), state officials, county officials, and city officials on one and the same day and at the same polling booths. Presidential electors are chosen only once in four years, congressmen once in two. But the number of state and county and city places to be filled is so large that a voter seldom goes to the polling booth without having to cast his vote for at least eight or ten persons, candidates for different offices, and sometimes he may vote for thirty or more.
This gave rise to the system of slip tickets. A slip ticket is a list, printed on a long strip of paper, of the persons standing in the same interest, that is to say, recommended by the same party or political group for the posts to be filled up at any election.1 For many years, the universal practice was for each such voting ticket to be printed and issued by a party organization, and to be then distributed at the polling booths by the party agents to the voters and placed by them in the box. The voter usually voted the ticket as he received it, that is to say, he voted en bloc for all the names it contained. It was indeed open to him to modify it by striking out certain names (“scratching”) and writing in others, or by placing over a name a bit of paper, gummed at the back for the purpose (called a “paster”), on which was printed the name of some other candidate. But the always potent tendency to vote the party list as a whole was naturally stronger when that whole list found itself on the same piece of paper in the voter’s hands than it would have been had the paper contained in alphabetical order the names of all the candidates whomsoever, making it necessary to pick and choose among them. This, however, was the least of the evils incident to the system. When (as often happened) the two great parties had bad names on their respective state or city tickets, the obvious remedy was the formation of a “citizens”’ or “independent” organization to run better men. The heavy expense of printing and distributing the tickets was a serious obstacle to the making of such independent nominations, while the “regular” ticket distributers did all in their power to impede the distribution of these “independent tickets,” and generally to confuse and mislead the independent voter. The expenses which the regular parties had to bear were made by their leaders a pretext for levying “election assessments” on candidates, and thereby (see ante, ) of virtually selling nominations. And, finally, the absence of secrecy, for the voter could be followed by watchful eyes from the moment when he received the party ticket from the party distributer till he dropped it into the box, opened a wide door to bribery and intimidation. A growing sense of these mischiefs roused at length the zeal of reformers. In 1885 a bill for the introduction of a really secret ballot was presented to the legislature of Michigan, and in 1888 such a measure, resembling in its outlines the ballot laws of Australia and those of the United Kingdom, was enacted in Massachusetts. The unprecedented scale on which money was illegitimately used in the presidential election of 1888 provoked general alarm, and strengthened the hands of reformers so much that secret, or, as they are called, “Australian,” official ballot laws are now in force in all the states except Georgia and South Carolina; but in Tennessee and North Carolina the ballot law is not statewide, i.e., applies to certain counties only. Missouri and New Jersey have halfway measures embodying certain features of the Australian system.2 It may cause surprise that the Southern states, communities which lived in alarm at the large Negro vote, did not sooner seize so simple a method of virtually excluding the bulk of that vote, but the reason is doubtless to be found in the fact that a secret ballot, unaccompanied by provisions for illiterate voters, would have excluded many whites also. Georgia and South Carolina may probably ere long follow their sisters in the enactment of secret ballot laws, and the strength of the movement is witnessed by the fact that in eleven states provisions on the subject have been embodied in the constitutions.
The new laws of these forty-six states are of varying merit. Nearly all the laws provide for the official printing of the voting papers, for the inclusion of the names of all candidates upon the same paper, so that the voter must himself place his mark against those he desires to support, and for the depositing of the paper in the box by the voter in such manner as to protect him from observation. Thus secrecy has been nearly everywhere secured, and while independent candidates have a better chance, a heavy blow has been struck at bribery and intimidation. The practice of “peddling” the ballots at the polling place by the agents of the parties, which had reached portentous dimensions in New York, has in most places disappeared, while the extinction of the head of expenses incurred for this purpose, as well as for ballot printing, has diminished the pretext for levying assessments. Elections are far more orderly than they were, because more secret, and because the attendant crowd of those who peddle and hang about the polls, disposed to turbulence and ready for intimidation, has been much reduced. And it is an incidental gain that the most ignorant class of voters, who in the North are usually recent immigrants, have been in some states deprived of their votes, in others stimulated (as happened to the more intelligent Negroes in parts of the South) to improve their education, and fit themselves to vote. Even where provision is made for the voting of illiterates, a certain disgrace, which citizens desire to escape, attaches to him who is forced to have recourse to this provision. No one proposes to revert to the old system, nor has the ingenuity of artful politicians succeeded, to any great extent, in evading the salutary provisions of the new statutes.
So much for what may be called the machinery of voting. There are, however, several other questions that may be asked regarding an election system. One is, whether it is honestly carried out by the officials? To this question no general answer can be given, because there are the widest possible differences between different states; differences due chiefly to the variations in their election laws, but partly also to the condition of the public conscience. In some states the official conduct of elections is now believed to be absolutely pure, owing, one is told, to the excellence of a minutely careful law. In others, frauds, such as ballot stuffing and false counting, are said to be common, not only in city, but also in state and more rarely in federal elections. I have no data to determine how widely frauds prevail, for their existence can rarely be proved, and they often escape detection. They are sometimes suspected where they do not exist. It is however clear that in some states they are frequent enough to constitute a serious reproach.3
Another question is: Does the election machinery prevent intimidation, bribery, personation, repeating, and the other frauds which the agents of candidates or parties seek to perpetrate? Here, too, there are great differences between one state and city and another, differences due both to the laws and to the character of the population. Of intimidation there is now but little, save in a few cities, where roughs, or occasionally even the police, are said to molest a voter supposed to belong to the other party, or to be inclined to desert their own party. But till the enactment of the secret ballot laws, it sometimes happened that employers endeavoured to send their workingmen to the polls in a body in order to secure their votes; and the dislike to this was one of the motives which won popular favour for these laws. Repeating and personation are not rare in dense populations, where the agents and officials do not, and cannot, know the voters’ faces; and these frauds are sometimes organized on a grand scale by bringing bands of roughs from one city to another.
Bribery is a sporadic disease, but often intense when it occurs. Most parts of the Union are pure, as pure as Scotland, where since 1868 there has been only one election petition for alleged bribery. Other parts are no better than the small boroughs of Southern England were before the Corrupt Practices Act of 1883.4 No place, however, not even the poorest ward in New York City, sinks below the level of such constituencies as Yarmouth or Sandwich used to be in England. Bribery is seldom practised in America in the same way as it used to be at Rome, by distributing small sums among a large mass of poor electors, or even, as in many English boroughs, among a section of voters (not always the poorest) known to be venal, and accustomed to reserve their votes till shortly before the close of the poll. The American practice has been to give sums of from $20 to $50 to an active local “worker,” who undertakes to bring up a certain number of voters, perhaps twenty or thirty, whom he “owns” or can get at. He is not required to account for the money, and spends a comparatively small part of it in direct bribes, though something in drinks to the lower sort of elector. This kind of expenditure belongs to the category rather of paid canvassing than of bribery, yet sometimes the true European species occurs. In a New Hampshire rural town not long ago, $10 were paid to each of two hundred doubtful voters. In some districts of New York the friends of a candidate will undertake, in case he is returned, to pay the rent of the poorest voters who occupy tenement houses, and the candidate subsequently makes up the amount.5 The expenses of congressional and presidential elections are often heavy, and though the larger part goes in organization and demonstrations, meetings, torchlight processions, and so forth, a part is likely to go in some illicit way. A member of Congress for a poor district in a great city told me that his expenses ran from $8,000 up to $10,000, which is just about what a parliamentary contest used to cost in an English borough constituency of equal area. In America the number of voters in a congressional district is more than five times as great as in an average English constituency, but the official expenses of polling booths and clerks are not borne by the candidate. In a corrupt district along the Hudson River above New York I have heard of as much as $50,000 being spent at a single congressional election, when in some other districts of the state the expenses did not exceed $2,000. In a presidential election great sums are spent in doubtful, or, as they are called, “pivotal,” states. Indiana was “drenched with money” in 1880, much of it contributed by great corporations, and a large part doubtless went in bribery. What part ever does go it is the harder to determine, because elections are rarely impeached on this ground, both parties tacitly agreeing that bygones shall be bygones. The election of 1888 was one of the worst on record, so large was the expenditure in doubtful states. In that year well-informed Americans came to perceive that bribery at elections was a growing evil in their country, though even now they think it less noxious than either bossism or election frauds.
This alarm has favoured the movement for the enactment of laws against corrupt practices. More than half the states have now passed such statutes. New York requires every candidate and the treasurer of every political committee to file an itemized statement of receipts and expenditure. Every payment exceeding $5 must be accounted for in detail; and expenditures are restricted to certain purposes. The provisions vary from state to state; on the whole they seem to be working for good. The practice, so general in America, of conducting elections by a party committee, which makes its payments on behalf of all the candidates running in the same interests, renders it more difficult than it is in Britain to fix a definite limit to the expenditure, either by a candidate himself or upon the conduct of the election. However, some of the new laws attempt this, fixing a low scale for “campaign expenditures,” and imposing severe penalties on the receiver as well as giver of any bribe, whether to vote or to refrain from voting, a form in which bribery seems to be pretty frequent. Other but much lighter penalties are imposed on the practice of treating. It seems probable that the blow struck at electoral corruption by the secret ballot laws will be followed up by a general limitation of expenditures. Another important advance has been made by a federal law which requires the publication of the sums received by party committees in federal elections, and by another which seeks to end the pernicious habit into which large corporations had fallen of making contributions, usually kept secret, to party campaign expenditure.
On the whole the shadows have not darkened; the presidential election of 1912 cost relatively less than preceding contests had done for many years. The Republican National Committee returned its total receipts at $904,828, while those of the Democratic National Committee were $1,159,446, and those of the Progressive National Committee $676,672. These figures, however, do not include the sums received and expended by state committees, part of which went to the conduct of the national campaign.
It is always difficult to estimate the exact value of laws which propose to effect by mechanical methods reforms which in themselves are largely moral. This much, however, may be said, that while in all countries there is a proportion (varying from age to age and country to country) of good men who will act honourably whatever the law, and similarly a proportion of bad men who will try to break or evade the best laws, there is also a considerable number of men standing between these two classes, whose tendency to evil is not too strong to be repressed by law, and in whom a moral sense is sufficiently present to be capable of stimulation and education by a good law. Although it is true that you cannot make men moral by a statute, you can arm good citizens with weapons which improve their chances in the unceasing conflict with the various forms in which political dishonesty appears. The value of weapons, however, depends upon the energy of those who use them. These improved ballot acts and corrupt practices acts need to be vigorously enforced, for the disposition, of which there have been some signs, to waive the penalties they impose, and to treat election frauds and other similar offences as trivial matters, would go far to nullify the effect to be expected from the statutes.
Strong arguments have been adduced in favour of another reform in election laws, viz., the trial of contested elections, not, as now, by the legislative body to which the candidate claims to have been chosen, but by a court of law. The determinations of a legislature are almost invariably coloured by party feeling, and are usually decided by a party majority in favour of the contestant whose admission would increase their strength. Hence they obtain little respect, while corrupt or illegal practices do not receive their due condemnation in the avoidance of the election they have tainted. Against these considerations there must be set the danger that the judges who try such cases may sometimes show, or be thought to show, political partisanship, and that the credit of the bench may thus suffer. The experience of England, where disputed parliamentary elections have since 1867 been tried by judges of the superior courts, and municipal elections since 1883 by county court judges, does not wholly dispose of this apprehension; for it happens every now and then that judges are accused of partiality, or at least of an unconscious bias. Still, British opinion prefers the present system to the old one under which committee of the House of Commons tried election petitions. In the United States the validity of the election of an executive officer sometimes comes before the courts, and the courts, as a rule, decide such cases with fairness. The balance of reason and authority seems to lie with those who, like ex-Speaker Reed, have advocated the change. It was proposed as a constitutional amendment by the legislature of New York to the voters in 1892, but rejected. Latterly it seems to have dropped out of sight.
Not satisfied, however, with the purification of election methods, some few reformers go further, and have proposed to render the ballot box a more complete representation of the will of the people by making voting compulsory. The idea is not quite new; in some Greek states citizens were compelled to attend the assembly; similar provisions were to be found in parts of the United States in last century, while in modern Switzerland several cantons fine electors who fail to vote at elections or when laws are proposed under a referendum. The Swiss evidence as to the merits of the plan is not uniform. In St. Gallen, for instance, where it was introduced so far back as 1835, it seems to have worked well, while in Solothurn it proved ineffective, and was ultimately abolished. On the whole, however, the effect would seem to have been to bring out a comparatively heavy vote, sometimes reaching 83 and even 84 per cent of the registered electors, though it deserves to be noticed that the cantons in which the plan exists are, speaking generally, those in which political life is anyhow most active.6 In the United States, however, abstention from voting does not appear to be a very serious, and certainly is not a growing, evil. City and state elections sometimes fail to draw even three-fourths of the voters to the polls; but in the presidential election of 1880, a year coinciding with that of the national census, and therefore suitable for investigation, 84 per cent of the qualified voters in the whole United States actually tendered their votes, while of the remaining 16 per cent fully three-fourths can be accounted for by illness, old age, necessary causes of absence, and, in the case of the Southern Negroes, intimidation, leaving not more than 4 per cent out of the total number of voters who may seem to have stayed away from pure indifference.7 This was a good result as compared with Germany, or with the United Kingdom, where 77 per cent is considered a pretty high proportion to secure, though at some recent British elections the figure has gone above 80 per cent. In the presidential election of 1892 the total number of votes cast showed only about half the increase on 1888 which the estimated growth of population ought to have given. This abstention, however, may have been largely due not to indifference, but to an unwillingness in one party to support the party candidate. In the election of 1900 the percentages varied much in different states, but do not seem to have reached on an average, 80 per cent. In 1912 the total popular vote was about a million and a half more than in 1900. The increased proportion of the population of aliens and disfranchised Negroes makes it difficult to form an estimate.
The plan of compelling men to vote on pain of being fined or incurring some disability is not likely to be adopted, and one of the arguments against it is indicated by the cause suggested for the abstentions of 1892. It is not desirable to deprive electors displeased by the nomination of a candidate of the power of protesting against him by declining to vote at all. At present, when bad nominations are made, independent voters can express their disapproval by refusing to vote for these candidates. Were voting compulsory, they would probably, so strong is party spirit, vote for these bad men rather than for their opponents, not to add that the opponents might be equally objectionable. Thus the power of party leaders and of the machine generally might be increased. I doubt, however, whether such a law as suggested could, if enacted, be effectively enforced; and it is not well to add another to the list of half-executed statutes.
The abuse of the right of appointing election officers can hardly be called a corrupt practice; yet it has in some places and notably in New York City, caused serious mischiefs. There elections were for a time under the control of the Police Board, but this plan gave rise to great abuses, and now elections have by statute been placed in charge of a special board of four commissioners, two of whom must be Republicans, two Democrats, there being also in each district four election inspectors, again two Republicans and two Democrats, with a ballot clerk from each party.8 The selection of shops or other buildings as polling places is made by the board on the recommendation of the parties, each being allowed a half share.
The particular form of evil here described, now checked in some states, still flourishes like a green bay tree in others. But on the whole, as will have been gathered from this chapter, the record of recent progress is encouraging, and not least encouraging in this, that the less honest politicians themselves have been forced to accept and pass measures of reform which public opinion, previously apathetic or ignorant, had been aroused by a few energetic voices to demand.
 A ticket includes more names or fewer, according to the number of offices to be filled, but usually more than a dozen, and often far more.
 West Virginia permits the voter to choose between the open, sealed, or secret ballot.
 They were specially frequent, and are not extinct, in some of the Southern states, having been there used before recent amendments to the state constitutions had debarred the vast majority of the Negroes from the suffrage. It was here that the use of “tissue ballots” was most common. I was told in San Francisco that elections had become more pure since the introduction of glass ballot boxes, which made it difficult for the presiding officials to stock the ballot box with voting papers before the voting began in the morning. After the election of 1893, nearly one hundred election officers in New York City, about twenty-five in Brooklyn, and a good many in the smaller cities were indicted for offences against the election laws, and especially for permitting “repeaters” to vote, for accompanying voters into the booth on a false pretence of their blindness or physical incapacity, and for cheating in the counting of the votes. Many were convicted. Repeating has been profusely practised in New York and (it is said) largely by professional criminals, in some subsequent elections. However the official management of elections has there and elsewhere improved.
 The British general election of 1880 gave rise to no less than ninety-five petitions impugning returns on the ground of some form of corruption, and many were sustained. After the election of 1886 there was not a single petition. After that of 1892 there were ten petitions alleging corrupt practices, and in three of these the election was declared void on the ground of such practices. More recent elections have brought very few petitions, and the boroughs in which bribery still exists are probably less than a dozen. This improvement must, however, be partly ascribed to the Redistribution Act of 1885, which extinguished the small boroughs.
 At an election in Brooklyn, a number of coloured voters sat (literally) on the fence in front of the polling booths, waiting to be bought, but were disappointed, the parties having agreed not to buy them. There is a good deal of bribery among the coloured voters in some of the cities, e.g., in those of Kentucky and Southern Ohio, and in Philadelphia.
When there is a real issue before the voters, bribery diminishes. In the mayoralty contest of 1886, in New York, the usually venal classes went straight for the Labour candidate, and would not be bought.
 I quote from a paper by M. Simon Deploige in the Belgian Revue Générale for March 1893. The plan is now being tried in Belgium.
 The subject is examined with care and acuteness by Professor A. B. Hart in his Practical Essays on American Government.
 This statutory recognition of party as a qualification for office is not unusual in America, having been found necessary to ensure an approach to equality of distribution between the parties of the posts of election officers, for the fairness of whose action it was essential that there should be some sort of guarantee.