I went to see Uncle Cecil, who had told me that he was about halfway through writing his treatise, The Art and Practice of Vote Buying in Eastern Kentucky: The Golden Age. He had gotten as far as the chapter on the use of absentee ballots for vote buying, and it had reminded him of when they decided that his cousin Houston, perhaps on the strength of his first name, could run for constable in the fourth district.
Houston had wanted to run for county judge, but Uncle Cecil thought that a bit ambitious and started him slow, entering him into the equivalent of a $10,000 claiming race to see if he had the speed and endurance for faster company.
Cecil said that he’d already written the part on how to use absentee ballots to buy votes, and he was getting down to the fine points that come up in a local contested primary. The basic premise is simple. The politician obtains absentee ballots, typically under the table from the local county clerk, fills out the ballots as desired, and persuades pliable local citizens to plan to be absent, at least from the actual polling places, on election day and to sign the absentee ballots marked as directed.
Absentee ballots solve two of the biggest problems that came up during the “Golden Age of Vote Buying”: how to make sure the purchased voter remains purchased throughout the transaction and getting the vote to the polls.
Vote hauling has been the most prevalent form of vote buying in the mountains for eons and is equally simple in concept. A vote hauler, equipped with a vehicle, typically a few half-pints of whiskey, and a little cash, picks up voters who need rides to the polls, and with or without the help of the whiskey and cash, persuades them to vote the right way.
Confirming that the voter “stayed bought” is a bit more complex. My favorite technique was described to me by an old lawyer from Mt. Sterling, who told me that when he started in the ’40s, his job was to lie on the floor in the restroom above the polling booth, and if the voter voted the right way, he flushed the toilet (by pulling a chain), a signal to the voter as he exited. Modern polling places were more secure.
Houston had been working one of the precincts himself, having driven there in his new Buick Electra, of which he was quite proud. Cecil told Houston that he needed to use his car to haul a few extra votes, and with visions of that constable’s badge, he tossed Cecil the keys.
“Do you remember the Moseleys?” Cecil asked me. I had a vague recollection of an entire family of auto mechanics who worked on cars informally in their home, which had come to resemble an auto shop. When Cecil got there, they had engines taken apart all over the house, and the living room was full of little buckets of gasoline and kerosene with greasy engine parts soaking in them.
“I always had a couple of cigars in my pocket to give out,” Cecil said, “But I kept them there. If you’d struck a match in there, the place would have blown up.” The Moseleys had five registered voters in the family, each of whom voted as instructed by the family’s patriarch, Arch Moseley.
“Well, the Moseleys could have used a little soaking in that kerosene themselves,” Cecil said, which is why he’d borrowed Houston’s car to haul them in. Cecil remembered decades later the plush seats of that Buick, and the dark stains laid down by the grubby overalls of the Moseley family, old Arch seated in the front passenger seat, the mother and two sons filling up the back seat. It was a cool spring that year, and Cecil said he rolled up the windows and turned the heat up. “You should have smelled it!” he cackled.
As he passed by the polling place, he saw Houston walk outside and stare at his beloved Buick, full of Moseleys and their aroma. Because the windows were rolled up, Cecil and the Moseleys couldn’t hear the curses Houston was shouting, but Cecil encouraged them to wave at Houston, which only made him shout louder.
Uncle Cecil and I talked some more about Houston and the Buick, until I realized that he’d never quite gotten to his point about the use of absentee ballots in a contested primary. “In a primary, where you’ve got, say, three candidates for sheriff, you’ve got to divide up the votes on your absentee ballots among them,” Cecil explained. “Otherwise, if you put in a bunch of ballots for your own man, and favor one of the candidates in another race, his opponents will try to get you. So you even them up, so that your ballots don’t affect anyone else’s race.”
But even that bit of wisdom is not always easy to follow. “That same race, I bought 10 absentee ballots under the table from the county clerk, had to pay him $20 apiece for them. The Boggs family had four registered voters, and I arranged to go to their house that afternoon, took them the ballots and the money; they were good Christians and didn’t drink, so I saved a little on the whiskey.”
Everything went fine, Cecil said, till they got to the part about marking the other races. They were all for Houston, but one of the sheriff’s candidates had sued George Boggs over a water pump, and he wasn’t going to be a party to anyone in the family’s casting an absentee ballot for him. “We argued around awhile about it, and finally old George grabbed up all four ballots, and said, ‘I will not have this type of argument in this house” and threw them all into the fireplace.”
“You should have seen me jump up and grab them back out of that fire, and damned if one of them wasn’t half burned, but I fished out the other three, and having burned the one they didn’t like, they calmed back down.”
Did the other ballots survive the fire intact? “Well,” Cecil said, “Two of the three left were a little bit singed, but the clerk took them.”
Robert L. Treadway is senior policy analyst at Kentucky First Strategies, LLC, a full-service political consulting, lobbying and governmental relations firm. In his role as a legal consultant, he also provides legal research and writing services to attorneys and law firms throughout Kentucky. Bob has a lifelong interest in Kentucky history, which he pursued as a student at Transylvania University, where he graduated with a major in history and minor in political science, and was an award winning editor of Transy’s student newspaper, The Rambler. He is a graduate of Harvard Law School, where his media activities included scriptwriting for Harvard Law Professor Arthur Miller’s TV series, and for Prof. Miller’s role as legal editor on ABC TV’s Good Morning, America. He writes, posts, and Tweets about Kentucky history. Look him up on Facebook; his Twitter feed is @rltreadway.
To read more from Robert Treadway, click here.