Author Edgar Allan Poe, the 19th-century master of American macabre fiction, may have died of dirty politics. According to legend, a gang of party “poll hustlers” kidnapped and drugged him. They forced him to vote, then abandoned him near death. Details are murky, but we do know Poe died in Baltimore days after the Oct. 3, 1849, election.
The story, though likely untrue, is certainly plausible. Election Day in 19th-century America was a loud, raucous, often dangerous event. Political parties would offer food, drink and inducements ranging from offers of bribes to threats of beatings to encourage voters to cast the party’s official ballot.
Reforms at the end of the century – particularly after an especially dirty 1888 presidential election – aimed to stop the shenanigans, assure the safety of voters and elevate the act of voting.
That is why the U.S. now has secret government-printed ballots rather than party-provided ballots. And all 50 states have laws that ban potentially intimidating behavior at polling places.
Yet there appears to be increasing risk of such voter intimidation. The Washington Post reports that the Republican Party has held “thousands of training sessions around the country on how to monitor voting and lodge complaints about … midterm elections.” Former President Donald Trump’s ally and conservative firebrand Steve Bannon has urged followers to head to the polls, claiming “We’ll challenge any vote, any ballot.” And Axios reports that “Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers are looking to sway the upcoming midterms in favor of their preferred candidates by signing up as poll workers and drop-box watchers.