Leo Morris: Yes, politics is a joke

In preparation for the upcoming general election, how about an awful political joke?

What’s the definition of a presidential pork sandwich?

Answer: a slab of Benjamin Harrison between two slices of Grover Cleveland.

OK, you were warned it was awful. But, consider a little background, which has the added benefit of explaining Indiana’s contribution to the election integrity most voters take for granted today.

Grover Cleveland won the presidential election of 1884 by the slimmest of margins, despite opposition reports that he had dodged the draft and fathered a child out of wedlock.

But his policies – which today we might call “conservative” though he was a proud Democrat – were popular with voters, who were especially impressed with his integrity and reform proposals, and he seemed destined to win a second term.

So, supporters of Hoosier Republican candidate Benjamin Harrison, whose many pork barrel projects gave us the first $1 billion federal budget, did the only sensible, logical thing they could in 1888 – they set out to steal the election. And by most historical accounts, they probably did.

It was going to be a close call in the electoral college where it counted, so they set out to make sure they won Cleveland’s home state of New York and, just for good measure, Harrison’s Indiana. Republicans took New York by appealing to protectionists, who liked the high tariffs supported by Harrison.

Here in Indiana, they used a different tactic.

For most of U.S. history until then, elections had been raucous affairs, with voting very much a public event, everyone knowing exactly who voted for whom. Sometimes, the vote as crude as having all the men for one candidate moving to one side of the room and all the ones for the other candidate moving to the other side.

By 1888, there were printed ballots, but ones easily manipulated by politicians such as those backing Harrison. Here in the Hoosier state, the scales were tipped by the “blocks of five” scheme devised by W.W. Dudley, a former U.S. marshal and treasurer of the Republican National Committee. In those days, the parties in each ward of each state printed their own distinctive ballots, which made secret voting all but impossible and fraud easy to commit.

In an incredibly indiscreet memo to his party, according to Smithsonian magazine, he instructed his “floaters” (those in charge of buying votes) to divide into blocks of five “and put a trusted man with necessary funds in charge.”

Though Cleveland won the popular vote, Harrison took the electoral vote 233-168. If Cleveland had taken his home state, he would have won the presidency. Losing Indiana didn’t mean much for Cleveland in the long run, but there were far-reaching consequences.

Nationwide outrage at the vote selling led to calls for reform and the adoption of the Australian style of secret balloting. In a single year, 1889, according to Smithsonian, nine states adopted the Australian method, including Indiana. By the 1892 election, citizens in 38 states voted by secret ballot, and Cleveland won his second term convincingly.

By now, all you lovers and haters of Donald Trump (there seem to be few Americans in between) are wondering if history will repeat itself.

Trump certainly wants to do what Martin Van Buren, Millard Fillmore, Ulysses S. Grant and Theodore Roosevelt attempted but only Cleveland accomplished, winning another term while out of office.

On the plus side for Trump fans is the fact that Joe Biden’s presidency certainly equals Harrison’s in its awfulness. On the other hand, Cleveland’s second term was so awful it almost destroyed the Democratic Party and led to longtime Republican ascendancy.

Awful, all the way around. Welcome to politics. There is no punchline to that joke.

Leo Morris, columnist for Indiana Policy Review, is winner of the Hoosier State Press Association’s award for best editorial writer. Morris, as opinion editor of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, was named a finalist in editorial writing by the Pulitzer Prize committee. Contact him at [email protected]. Send comments to [email protected].