The city of Baltimore has a history of election riots, but the rise of the Know-Nothing Party in the 1850s further exacerbated election violence. One affiliated gang, the Blood Tubs, took barrels of blood from butchers, threw Germans and Irishmen into them, and then chased the bloodied victims down the street. By 1856 Know-Nothings had won local, state, and national contests.
The contentious relationship of the two Roman consuls of 59 bc, Julius Caesar and Marcus Calpurnius Bibulus, culminated in the former arranging to have the latter attacked in the Forum in order to prevent him from voting against an agrarian law Caesar supported. The next day Bibulus tried to censure Caesar formally but found no support among the senators. “From that time until the end of his term,” wrote Suetonius, Bibulus “did not leave his house, but merely issued proclamations announcing adverse omens.”
A cuneiform tablet dating to around 1950 bc describes residents of the Assyrian merchant colony of Kanesh, situated in what is now central Turkey, resolving conflicts by majority vote. This early example of a protodemocratic decision-making process is a sharp contrast with the consensus-based systems more commonly found in primitive societies, where “the restoration of social harmony is the primary goal,” notes Assyriologist Mogens Trolle Larsen. “This was clearly not a realistic aim for the Old Assyrian merchant society.”
In June 2020 the city council of Sturgis, South Dakota, mailed surveys to determine whether residents favored proceeding with or postponing the annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in August. Nearly 63 percent of respondents wanted the event postponed, while 37 percent voted for it to proceed. Despite the democratic results, the council went ahead with the rally, which attracted 460,000 people to the city of 7,287. The state of South Dakota confirmed 124 residents had become sick from coronavirus after attending the rally.
“The ancient Roman class struggle was only fought out within a privileged minority,” wrote Karl Marx in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, “between the free rich and the free poor, while the great productive mass of the population, the slaves, formed a purely passive pedestal for the combatants. People forget J.C.L. Simonde de Sismondi’s significant expression: the Roman proletariat lived at the expense of society, while modern society lives at the expense of the proletariat.”
“By the end of the fifteenth century, when the power of theology was exhausted and the patriarchal understanding of the origin of kingship no longer satisfied people’s appetite for science, politics started to develop as a science,” wrote political theorist Carl Schmitt. “Dictatorship, in particular, is described as a specific arcanum dominationis of the aristocracy. Its purpose is to create an institution that frightens the people into believing that it constitutes an authority against which there is no possibility of provocation…In the state certain events are always necessary that conjure the impression of freedom, simulacra or decorative occasions designed to pacify the population.”
“A republican state based upon universal suffrage,” wrote the Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin in 1869, “could be exceedingly despotic, even more despotic than a monarchic state when, under the pretext of representing the will of everyone, it bears down upon the will and the free movement of every one of its members.”
It is often said that Edgar Allan Poe’s death was the result of the electioneering practice known as cooping. In his Maryland: A Bicentennial History, Carl Bode describes cooping as “the shutting up of men, usually derelicts, in rooms or coops on Election Day and then dragging them from polling place to polling place to cast their votes. To make them more docile while voting again and again, many were drugged or made drunk.” Poe may have been captured in Baltimore by an election gang, drugged, and made to vote in several places. “He was picked up unconscious near one of the rum shops used for voting,” wrote biographer George Woodbury, “and taken to Washington Hospital,” where he died on October 7, 1849.
In a 1985 election for the Victorian Legislative Council in Australia, candidates Bob Ives and Rosemary Varty tied at 54,281 votes each. Ives won the seat with a casting vote provided by an official who drew Ives’ name from a hat. The Court of Disputed Returns voided the result after determining that forty-four votes had not been counted. Varty won a subsequent special election.
From History of Dearborn, Ohio, and Switzerland Counties, Indiana (1885): “It has been repeated time and again that the annexation of Texas was carried in the U.S. Senate by one vote; that Edward A. Hannegan, then the U.S. senator from Indiana, was elected to the Senate by one vote, and that that one vote was given Hannegan by Daniel Kelso, then senator from Switzerland County, who was elected by one majority. This is an error, for Kelso, when he voted for Hannegan, represented Switzerland County by virtue of a majority of about 150 voters of the county, over Samuel Howard, at the August election of 1842. In 1843 David Henry was elected over Kelso by one majority. Kelso contested the election, and the Senate declared that neither was elected and sent them back to the people for decision, and at the August election, 1844, Henry was elected by a small but decided majority.”
Paul Biya has been president of Cameroon for forty-four years—the second-longest tenure for a nonroyal elected leader. Biya won his seventh term in 2018, with 71 percent of the vote. Since taking power in November 1982, he has placed his country 148th in the world in terms of economic output per capita and 163rd in the World Bank’s Doing Business rankings. The longest-serving leader is Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, president of Equatorial Guinea since 1979.
In democratic Athens, writes classicist Victoria Wohl, “the communication between the law courts and the comic stage ran in both directions: each adopted language and themes from the other,” and plays “constituted a trial in which the theatrical audience was the jury. In this sense, comedy functioned as a kind of counter-jurisdiction, where issues of justice and social order could be debated and resolved, all with a wink and a giggle.”
“Why was it the custom for those canvassing for office to do so wearing the toga without the tunic underneath?” the second-century writer Plutarch asks in his Roman Questions, referring to the custom in the Roman republic of candidates campaigning in a state of relative undress. “Was it in order that they might not carry money in the folds of their tunic and give bribes?…Or were they trying to commend themselves to popular favor by thus humiliating themselves by their scanty attire, even as they do by hand shaking, personal appeals, and fawning behavior?”