Jennifer Just

Voters all along the political spectrum are anxious about the possibility of voter fraud or intimidation – or worse – at the polls next Tuesday. I don’t know that it helps to know that threats to a secure election process aren’t new, but it may help to see that if the need is dire and the will is strong, even the most recalcitrant of voting districts will institute reform.

I speak, of course, of nineteenth-century Chicago.

Election tampering was so ingrained in the American political process that there was a whole lexicon to describe the various troops and tactics employed that fell, shall we say, outside of voting procedures considered ideal in a functioning democracy.

Before the early 1890s, a Chicago voter faced a gauntlet of obstacles to casting his (and yes, back in those days, it was always “his”) vote. Because the government didn’t yet provide ballots, you could get one in several ways. Partisan newspapers printed the party slate, so you could cut it out of the paper and use it as a ballot. Political parties often mailed or printed out the slate, also known as party “tickets.” Opposing parties might send you a duplicate slate on which they glued a “paster,” a sticker with their candidate’s name pasted over their opponent’s name. No laws stopped you from crossing out a candidate’s name and writing in someone else’s name. Neither were there any restrictions to campaigning at a polling site.

A ward “heeler” or “hustler” would approach you to ensure you were voting the right way and to buy your vote if you were going the wrong way. Ticket peddlers also crowded polling places, shoving party tickets at you. Pistol-carrying thugs or “bulldozers” were there to double-check your ballots. If you made it past the heelers, the peddlers, and the thugs, you still faced the partisan election judge, who may or may not be a member of your party. If you couldn’t read or write, you depended on the judge to help you mark your ballot. The peddlers and hustlers might hover nearby, telling the judge what you intended to vote.

You weren’t even safe if you were from another town – or country. A “plugger” would size up a pedestrian – especially at a rail station – and approach with an offer of room, board, and cash, in exchange for a vote, or two, on behalf of an out-of-town or deceased Chicagoan. Because of the liberal use of this practice in saloons, fist fights and even gunfire often broke out around the polls; voters in these wards risked bodily harm to cast their vote.  (“The Fighting 29th,” as the moniker suggests, was known for Election Day pugilistics.)

Once you’d been fed and watered, Pluggers might hire you to be a “repeater” or “floater” – someone who went from polling place to polling place, voting at every one of them.

You might also work as a ballot box stuffer, which was exactly what it sounds like. Election clerks, who tabulated the votes after the judges had reviewed them, could also be bought and frequently stuffed the ballot boxes themselves.

What changed? By 1891, even Chicago had had enough. That year, the city implemented the “Australian secret ballot,” a system the country had used since 1854, and American cities like New York since the 1880s. The government took charge of printing ballots, and officials now handed them out – one at a time – to voters at the polling place. Moreover, the ballots included all the candidates running for office, not just one party. Additional reforms put campaign workers at least 100 feet away from the polling places. Instead of bringing your ballot to a window to turn over to a judge who then handed it to a clerk, you voted by yourself in a “voting booth” equipped with a privacy curtain. You then deposited the vote yourself into the ballot box.

The reviews were glowing:

“…In point of fact it was pleasant yesterday…The voter had leisure to arrange his ticket to suit himself. He was not interrupted in doing so. A nice desk, a pencil, a clean, new ballot were furnished him…He was able to perform his full duty in two minutes…

“…The Democratic candidates’ friend, the groggerykeeper, suffered also. The ward bosses and the precinct Captains were not around to refresh the boys before they voted. The saloon back door which easily opened to the pressure of the thirsty citizen was not often disturbed, therefore, and the bartender almost slept at his post. The bummers who hung around at a distance from the polling places were seldom able to quench their thirst at the expense of the visiting statesmen, therefore. There was a consequent absence of drunkenness and disorder…” Chicago Tribune, November 4, 1891

Chicago Tribune editorial cartoon from Nov. 4, 1891, edition
Clipped from the Nov. 4, 1891, edition of the Chicago Tribune. Credit: Courtesy image / Chicago Tribune clipping via

These reforms, of course, did not end political corruption in Chicago, but they did ensure the right to a secure and secret voting process, something unheard of before then. We need to be vigilant this Election Day, ensuring that everyone has the chance to vote. If the worst happens – as it often did back in Gilded Age Chicago – we can make this a more perfect election system. If Chicago could do it in the 1890s, this country can do it in the 21st century.

Sources for the above information: “A History of Chicago: The Rise of a Modern City 1871-1893 (Volume Three)” By Bessie Louise Pierce; The University of Chicago Press (Chicago), 1957; and the following newspapers: Chicago Tribune, The Daily Inter Ocean, the Chicago Chronicle, all researched via

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Jennifer Just

Jennifer Just lives in Woodbridge andis writing a book on politics and the press in Gilded Age Chicago, featuring Mayor George B. Swift, her great-great-grandfather.

The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of or any of the author's other employers.