Liquoring Up the Electorate

Our long national tradition of handing out booze in exchange for votes

You are not allowed to give a person anything in exchange for their vote. This, as election law expert Rick Hasen notes, may be about the least controversial election law out there. But while buying votes with money, gifts, favors, or anything else has been illegal for a long time, it’s only recently that we’ve started to take it seriously. Early on in American history, when a trip to the polls might mean two days on horseback, people expected something for their trouble, and politicians were only too willing to oblige. There might have been food, gifts, or other treats, but mostly there was booze. A few days in the saddle will make a guy thirsty.

The most famous stories about “swilling the planters with Bumbo,” as it was known in the Revolutionary era,[i] come from our founding fathers. James Madison wrote that he had lost an election early in his political career not because he had been the lesser candidate, or because his message was not what the constituents were looking for, but because he hadn’t gotten the voters drunk enough. The idealistic Madison (who apparently drank about a pint of whiskey a day) had attempted to live his democratic principles by refraining from plying voters with alcohol on election day. That choice earned him a valuable lesson: picketh thy battles. A young George Washington learned the same lesson when he was stingy with the tipple during a campaign for a seat in the Virginia colonial legislature in 1755; the next time he ran, he handed out nearly a half gallon of alcohol for every vote he received—and he won.

In the 19th century, the election-season festivities only got bigger and better. From Andrew Jackson to Stephen Douglas, everybody was passing out favors to woo voters. The practice really peaked in the Gilded Age, the Gangs of New York era of exploding urban populations, political bosses, and patronage. In this golden era of American political corruption, elections meant huge BBQs with whole oxen roasting over giant fires in public parks. Democracy was at a low point, but at least the food was decent.

For Temperance reformers, whose movement was gaining steam around the same time, the corrupting influence of alcohol on elections was yet another log on the fire. The bosses often used saloons as a base of operations, and the intertwining of politics and drinking became a focal point of the Prohibition crusade.[ii] As the broad questioning of America’s relationship with drink spread through the culture, its role in elections began to fade. Over the next few decades, Swilling the Planters went the same way as everything else boozy – it disappeared, or at least went underground.

Prohibition fundamentally altered our drinking habits for decades, and there was never any real danger of reverting to our old planter-swilling ways. Nevertheless, in 1948 Congress passed a bill broadly banning any kind of “expenditures to influence voting.” As far as I can tell, before that this kind of thing had only been regulated at the state level.[iii] My semi-educated guess is that the timing of the federal law was mostly about early Cold War fears of Communist shenanigans, not saloons.

Today, exchanging alcohol for votes is a pretty solid no-no, as former Arkansas state rep Hudson Hallum can attest. You’re not even allowed to offer booze (or ice cream, or anything else) to people with an “I voted” sticker, civic-minded as that may be. And I suppose that’s a good thing. We’ve got to keep our elections free of outside influence. Right? …Right?

Honestly, today’s world of Russian bots and manipulative Super PACs kinda makes a guy yearn for the old days, when democracy subversion was more honest. Anybody want some bumbo?

**It’s worth noting that election fraud like that described here is exceedingly rare in the modern US. Really, as lurid as buying votes with booze might be, throughout our history we have spent a lot more energy trying to prevent people (minorities, women, criminals, immigrants, the poor) from voting than we have bribing people to vote a certain way.**

[i] Bumbo was a kind of rum punch popular at the time. It’s rum, water, brown/raw sugar, spices (nutmeg and/or cinnamon), and sometimes lime juice.

[ii] This is also when bans on alcohol sales on election day began to pop up. The last statewide ban, in South Carolina, was repealed in 2014. Australia, meanwhile, has actually just started closing bars on election day. Voting is mandatory there, and apparently pre-civic duty lubrication has become a bit of a trend.

[iii] Dinkin, pg. 13

Sources include Dinkin, Robert J. “Campaigning in America.” Greenwood Press, New York NY: 1989; Okrent, Daniel. “Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition.” Scribner, New York, NY: 2010; and articles by The Smithsonian and Vice, in addition to those sources cited within the text.

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