Dirty Tricks Have Long History in American Politics

Article excerpt

Some Democrats are righteously indignant over alleged attempts by members of New Jersey Gov.-elect Christie Whitman's campaign to suppress the black vote by supposedly paying off some ministers. While they sputter about investigations and lawsuits, they conveniently ignore their own history.

In fact, for some who regard the phrase "dirty politics" as redundant, and for those with a knowledge of political history, attempts to buy or influence votes are legion for both parties, though Democrats seem to have had more practice.

Author Jack Mitchell has compiled a long history of underhanded election practices in his book, "How To Get Elected: An Anecdotal History of Mud-Slinging, Red-Baiting, Vote-Stealing, and Dirty Tricks in American Politics."

The political bosses of New York's Tammany Hall dominated Democratic politics in the early 1900s. Those who didn't vote as they were told often lost their jobs.

Among the imaginative tricks designed to ensure that Tammany opponents had no real chance of winning against their hand-picked candidates, writes Mitchell, was the development of the "sniff" test. A chemical with a strong, long-lasting odor was put on Democratic ballots, and Tammany flunkies were assigned to sniff the exiting voters' hands. Those who didn't smell right would soon find themselves unemployed or suffer other reprisals.

Tammany also perfected the "repeat" voter. These were men who showed up with facial hair, voted, went to a local barber for a shave or otherwise altered their appearance, and returned to vote again, having fooled inattentive or bribed poll watchers.

In early 20th century Chicago politics, chronicled by Ben Hecht in his play, "The Front Page," poll monitors were to make sure the voter was not "unduly influenced." The monitors used "free liquor, a free flop, a free lunch in the saloon, a patronage appointment, or when flattery failed . . . assault and battery. Most of the election judges were ruffians wearing badges," wrote Hecht.

"A day before the election," he wrote, "the vital wards of the town filled up with hordes of drunks, hopheads and bearded hoboes" eager for free booze, prostitutes and voting bonuses of several dollars each. …