Elections in Western North Carolina years ago always meant a certain amount of vote buying would happen, undercover and shameful, but always present and always approved. By both parties.
Folks selling their votes considered it something of a windfall, like an income tax refund, a small benefit that could be counted on anytime there was a city or county election.
They were paid in alcohol and/or cash. Absentee votes were bought and cast well before election day. Haulers brought in the vote sellers personally on election day for the transaction.
It was fairly simple. The voter who wanted to be paid told officials at the polling place that he needed assistance in marking the paper ballot and he was then assigned a person of his own party, Democrat or Republican, to go behind the curtain into the booth to help him.
Once behind the curtain, his paper ballot was marked properly, and he was given a token. He took the token outside the polling place to the party’s “bag man” to prove that he had voted the right way and get his pay, sometimes a shot of liquor and, say, $20. But suppose there was a hot race for sheriff and the two candidates were thought to be running neck-and-neck as election day progressed. Late in the day a careful voter might sell his vote for $100.
Some were loyal to their own party and simply saw it as a “get-out-the-vote” deal, selling their vote to their own party. Others were despised and desired by both parties. They were the ones who were pure capitalists, often telephoning late on Election Day to see whether the Democrats or the Republicans would pay the most for their votes.
In the 1970s in Cherokee County, the two sides were almost evenly matched in registration numbers. Both parties collected cash, unrecorded, and it was poured into getting out the vote, buying where necessary. They watched each other, each knowing who the key players were on the other side. And each party was afraid to go into an election without buying votes, because in a close race it might cost them the race. They knew it, and I knew it.
So as editor of the Cherokee Scout newspaper, I wrote an editorial challenging both parties to take a public pledge to abstain from vote buying in the upcoming election. I suggested that they spend their money on buying more ads, maybe even setting up a hospitality tent where voters could drink beer after voting the right way. But don’t give out cash or alcohol for votes.
At that time I had a good Democrat friend who was a county commissioner with a distinctive gravel voice. We met on a sidewalk in Murphy a few days after that editorial was printed. “That was a nice piece you wrote in the paper,” he growled. “But your timing is bad. We’ve already started buying absentees....Maybe next time.”
Some of the Democrats who participated in it told me the story years ago of a squeaky clean town election in Murphy, a rarity at the time. They said the Democrat incumbents on the town council were being challenged by a full Republican slate of hopefuls.
But the Republican leaders came to them and said the Republicans didn’t have any money and suggested that neither side buy votes for this particular town election. We agreed, they told me, and so we had a gentleman’s agreement in place. And it stuck.
In the early 1980s, disaster struck in the form of a U.S. attorney in Asheville, who started enforcing the laws against vote buying. He listed his witnesses, all of whom had sold their votes and were to testify against the vote buyers.
So the state district attorney in Sylva promptly charged each one of the federal witnesses with violations of the state law against selling your vote. And it went down hill from there, as they say, pretty much along party lines. The federal district attorney was a Republican, and his most prominent targets were Democrats. The state district attorney was a Democrat.
Sheriffs from two counties went to federal prison, and there was great embarrassment. And it ended the widespread local practice of vote buying.