Political biographers and historians have continued to emphasize that the competitive political system in the Gilded Age is characterized by fraud and corruption. Others have a contrary view, arguing that the considerable decline in voter turnout statistics since the early 20th century is an indication of significant reduction or elimination of widespread election fraud that characterized earlier periods. The validity of these two opposing allegations has not been analyzed or documented carefully. While the higher voter turnout is some regions has been associated with massive electoral fraud and corruption, some have claimed that such high turnout reflects the voter’s genuine attachments to the political parties and the respective values they represented.
The victory or defeat dichotomous approach by traditional political historians in the analysis of election returns is believed to be the major cause of persistent electoral fraud claims (Argersinger 679). Recent studies have embraced sophisticated quantitative analyses, where numerical data are analyzed in terms of central tendencies, variances, and relationships among interval variables. Although massive fraud can introduce distortion into any analysis, the election fraud in the Gilded Age was mainly strategic, rather than massive in nature. This was mainly attributed to the close divisions of parties in several states, where victory was guaranteed through the purchase of a relatively small number of votes. The agents of the two great parties took advantage of such temptations to commit electoral fraud.
Apart from the highly competitive nature of the political system, the structure of the election process encouraged electoral fraud. Instead of using a secret ballot, voters often used party tickets that were printed by different parties. They contained the names of their own candidates and varied in size and color. Since partisan peddlers distributed these tickets, they influenced the voter’s choice of party, a public undertaking that made voters vulnerable to various forms of intimidation and influence while facilitating vote buying. Third, the political culture that appeared to accept or tolerate electoral corruption made election fraud possible.
It is evident that the issue of election fraud not only represents a challenge to the methodology employed by new political history, in terms of establishing the data validity problem, but has also raised critical questions regarding the portrayal of political culture and party system. Electoral fraud constitutes both the violation of voters’ rational will through malpractices such as falsification and altering of returns, to those that do not violate voters will, for instance, heavy-handed political campaigns, which includes actions like bribery and employer warnings (Argesinger 673).
A wide range of contemporary literature provides new evidence of electoral fraud during the Gilded Age. The confessions by numerous former influential political figures in their autobiographies and the newspaper article headlines are a clear illustration of electoral fraud during the era. While the relative lack of legal citations regarding electoral fraud indicates such malpractices were limited, some scholars have emphasized that such inadequacies reflect the failure of partisan juries to indict or convict the electoral and party officials that were obviously guilty. Apart from inflating the election turnout statistics, the new political history scholars believe that deflationary fraud was also committed, particularly through the discarding of actual ballots, violence and intimidation at the polls, and partisan arresting of voters of the opposing party by law officers to keep them from the polls.
In conclusion, it is evident that the Gilded Age elections were characterized by electoral fraud and corruption in different forms and levels, which was rooted in the political system. It was encouraged by the relations among the institutional framework, the competitive prejudiced stability of the party system, and a more lenient or tolerating political culture. However, its widespread nature can be attributed to the insufficient election laws, rather than any inherent tendency to fraud and corruption.
Political Paralysis in the Gilded Age
The chapter on “Political Paralysis in the Gilded Age” provides a different perspective on the election fraud in the Gilded Age. Unlike Argesinger’s perspective that attributes the electoral fraud in the political system characterized by a competitive partisan balance of the party system and an indulgent political culture, the book illustrates that electoral fraud was rooted in the civil war and its aftermath, which encouraged waste, extravagance, speculation, and graft.
After the Civil War, the people were tired of the wrangling between professional politicians, hence believed that a good general would make a good president. Ulysses Grant, a great soldier during the civil war was nominated to vie for the presidency. His campaign slogan “Let us have peace” was quite intimidating, as it reminded people of the war. Other Republican slogans during his campaign, for instance, “Vote as you shoot” and the “waving the bloody shirt” revived the horrific memories of the civil war. This might have compelled voters to vote for him, as they believed his defeat would instigate another civil war. When the republicans noted that Grant’s margin of victory was from the votes cast by former slaves who became free people after the war, the Republicans ensured increased registration among the freedmen to guarantee the party future victories.
While Argesinger claims that electoral fraud was caused by the insufficiency of election laws, rather than an inherent tendency to fraud, the era was characterized by massive corruption, especially by top government officials. This culture of corruption might have penetrated into the political system, thereby encouraging electoral fraud. Contrary to Argesinger view that the political culture encouraged electoral fraud, it appears that the sharp ethnic and cultural differences in the membership of the two parties, thereby producing raucous political contests at local levels. Therefore, the political paralysis in the Gilded Age was rooted in the civil war and its aftermath that made voters prefer presidents that were not professional politicians. The political campaign slogans based on the civil war revived horrific war memories that compelled people to vote in a particular way. The presidents during the era were unqualified as they were not professional politicians, thereby making the political system deteriorate further. The culture of corruption and sharp ethnic and cultural differences in the membership of the parties produced partisan party competition that encouraged electoral fraud at local levels.
Argersinger, Peter H. “New Perspectives On Election Fraud In The Gilded Age.” Political Science Quarterly (Academy Of Political Science) 100.4 (1985): 669-687. Print.