The entirety of American political history can be found at an old polling place somewhere along the north branch of the Chicago River.
I spent way too long trying to find out the exact location of the Second Precinct of the 18th Ward in the 1884 presidential election, working myself into a lather of old maps from names like Mitchell, Cram, O.W. Gray & Son and something called “Rand McNally” before realizing it didn’t matter.
On Nov. 18, 1884, somewhere south of Division, west of Franklin and east of the river, election canvassers opened an envelope containing the returns from the recent state senatorial race in the Sixth District and found the lousiest election fraud in American history.
“The word ‘four’ in the sentence ‘Henry W. Leman had four hundred and twenty votes for State Senator,’ as it was originally written, had been erased, and the word ‘two’ had been written in its place. And the word ‘two’ opposite the name of Rudolph Brand, as originally written, had been erased, and the word ‘four’ written in its place, making the vote to appear to be four hundred and seventy-four instead of two hundred and seventy-four,” a later history of Chicago would recall.
The Chicago Tribune from the next day concurred with the memory, adding the even sadder detail that the new numbers were written “in a peculiar shade of ink differently colored from the rest of the writing.”
Maybe today it’s in the offices and yupscale bars of River North, or in that big community garden along Chicago Ave. Maybe it’s where the condos bloom by the former Cabrini-Green or in the last industrial holdouts on the southern half of Goose Island — it doesn’t matter. Wherever it was, someone committed a fraud parents would laugh at a grade schooler for pulling on a report card. They scribbled a two to a four and a four to a two in the wrong color.
If you know anything about American politics in 1884, you’re probably congratulating yourself for remembering Grover Cleveland had two non-consecutive terms. But elections were nasty affairs at the time.
A far cry from today’s grade-school gyms manned by sticker-dealing old ladies, elections were semi-secret, sometimes violent affairs held at saloons and other spots voters could be easily spotted and bullied into submission by poll-watchers and marshalls the parties picked for intimidation factor.
Down at State and Harrison the same election two became four, the race turned bloody after two poll watchers — one with the awesomely 1884 name of Black Jack Yattaw — drew guns after each tried to arrest the other for trying to sneak in the room where the ballots were kept. En route to the jail with a mob cheering murder, those guns went off and an election constable named Curran ended up dead.
“He may be a very bad man but he was not on trial for that,” his lawyer told the press after Black Jack was cleared of the killing.
Back in the 18th Ward, the sketchy con of two and four got sketchier. The Daily News found out that a few days after the two and four were spotted, the ballot box was taken to a saloon nearby the old courthouse at Dearborn and Hubbard to be stuffed with hastily added ballots to confirm the hastily scribbled numbers. They were all new and clean, recently printed and folded in the exact same manner.
The forgers even put down Leman’s father-in-law and brother-in-law as having voted for Brand.
The race was vital in setting the razor-thin party majority down in Springfield, and the precinct was vital in the race since, overall, Brand had “won” by 10 votes. The legislature and the governor later flopped the results, giving Leman his likely rightful seat. The printer who forged the hasty ballots flipped on the conspirators, there was a trial, jail, fines and a later pardon.
“He is not as pretty as he once was, but he knows a heap more,” the Trib wrote of one pardonee.
And that is the sum of American political history. All it’s ever been, from bloodshed by Black Jack to the modern fiddling and finagling with district boundaries, is a battle to switch two to four and four to two.
They used to scribble twos into fours and get all Black Jack gunplay if someone deigned to stop them. Nooses were brandished and often used against black voters to make sure those fours never got to a polling place. Political hacks would slip beers and bribes to rum bums to add to columns early and often, just so the lesser candidate would get the nod, four and office.
Then we grew up and got all fancy about it. We screamed over hanging chads and electronic voting machines that maybe are hackable I’m not sure. We learned to rig the game on a macro level so we didn’t even have to bother with stuffing ballots. We even learned to use fraud to create fraud, harnessing the specter of the bad old days to invalidate reforms that would allow millions more low- and moderate-income citizens of color to access democracy.
A president who lost his way into office now screams three million to five million of the votes he didn’t get were super phonyfake. Some believe him. Some will just capitalize on his jeers to force-feed the nation new voter ID laws, tighter restrictions on polling tech, locations and hours, other new methods of disenfranchising voters and turning that four into a two that I’m neither clever nor evil enough to concoct.
At its core, all this statistical, technological and legislative hugger-mugger amounts to fancy modern ways to swap a two and a four to get the race to come out how you like.
You have to use the past imperfect a lot when writing about history, because it was. They used to do this. They used to do that. But don’t think the game has changed that much, that we’ve somehow gotten more clever or noble.
They’re still swapping twos and fours, and we’re still here, watching, waiting and fighting tooth and nail to stop them.