The Long History of How Free Alcohol Has Influenced America’s Elections

Using booze or food to sway an US election—either by bribing people for votes (assuming that voters will do anything for a little swill) or by suppressing votes (the idea being that voters will get too drunk to actually vote)—is definitely nothing new.

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09 November 2016, 3:57am

What a glorious whirlwind of debauched patriotism and partisan hatred the past 12 months have been! Dreams have been shattered, lives have been ruined, and the world was unfortunately forced to remember that Rudy Giuliani is still alive and kicking. And who could forget the countless baby heads that have been generously lubricated with the caring spittle of grandstanding politicians?

But now that there are less than 24 hours until Election Day is finally upon us, tensions are most certainly at a boiling point—and along with that comes some disturbing talk about the underhanded and absurd ways in which some partisans are aiming to swing the vote in favor of their candidate of choice. According to Politico, some white nationalists and neo-Nazis are seriously hoping to suppress the black vote by handing out free 40s of malt liquor in the quote-unquote "ghetto" on Election Day.

The plan fits into a much larger movement by alt-right groups to fight back against what Trump is predicting will be a "rigged election." Trump has been beseeching his minions to "monitor" the polling in precincts across America, predicting all manner of bad behavior—with no real factual basis for these accusations.

The tactic of using alcohol to ply the masses is being spearheaded by one Andrew Anglin, a prominent neo-Nazi figure and the founder of The Daily Stormer website, along with representatives of the Right Stuff, another popular alt-right website. They're intent on getting the inner cities of America so lit that they'll be far too preoccupied to actually go out and vote.

The Right Stuff claimed, "We... have some teams going into the ghettos in Philly with 40s ... to give out to the local residents, which we think will lead to more of them staying home."

Using booze or food to sway an election—either by bribing people for votes (assuming that voters will do anything for a little swill) or by suppressing votes (the idea being that voters will get too drunk to actually vote)—is definitely nothing new.

In fact, the practice dates back in this country to the days of our very first president, George Washington, and it even has a name: It's called "swilling the planters with bumbo"—bumbo being a type of rum, and planters being the landowners who could vote. Today, it may take the shape of plying minorities with 40s but the idea is the same.

Back in GW's days, supping with your constituents—and paying for the meal and booze— was cool. Sure, it was illegal (even then) to give "gifts" in exchange for votes, but a free round at the local pub for your closest hundred pals was considered legit. In fact, it was de rigeur.

Apparently, Washington learned his lesson after running for Virginia's House of Burgesses in 1755 and taking the high road; he complained at the time that the local populace was "incessantly drunk" and refused to use the tavern as a campaign stop. He lost that election—big time—but, according to Daniel Okrent's book Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, he learned from it, and henceforth used liquor to ply the masses on his next go-around for elected office. A half-gallon of booze for each voter—some 50 gallons of rum punch, 46 gallons of beer, 28 gallons of rum, and 34 gallons of wine in total—did the trick.

James Madison should have taken a note. In 1777, he lost an election purportedly due to his failing to use "the corrupting influence of spiritous liquors, and other treats." And it wasn't just liquor that made the votes go in early politicians' favor. In 1876, in advance of a local election, Republicans in Brooklyn held a barbecue for the locals that involved roasting two oxen for sandwiches for 50,000 people. The New York Times called it "one of the most magnificent affairs of the kind ever held in this neighborhood." Similarly, democrats roasted an ox, a sheep, a calf, and a hog in 1870—but so many people showed up that some constituents were pissed that they didn't get fed.

However, since 1948, the practice of rewarding people for their votes—with food, booze, or otherwise—has been explicitly illegal, as a chain of brewpubs, Capitol City Brewing Company, found out when it tried to give out free mugs of beers for anyone sporting an "I Voted" sticker a few years ago.

The problem came down to Section 597 of Title 18 of United States Code, which says, in part, that "Whoever makes or offers to make an expenditure to any person, either to vote or withhold his vote, or to vote for or against any candidate; and whoever solicits, accepts, or receives any such expenditure in consideration of his vote or the withholding of his vote—shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than one year, or both; and if the violation was willful, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than two years, or both."

So food or alcohol given "in consideration of" a vote is verboten. But by giving away food or drink to the public at large—not just to voters—businesses can avoid problems under the law. Ben & Jerry's learned that back in 2008, when they first offered to give free ice cream cones to voters and then amended the offer to free cones for all.

And don't think the feds won't crack down if they learn about food or alcohol bribes for votes: In 2012, for example, a Democratic State Representative named Hudson Hallum gave his constituents gifts of vodka because, he said, "I always heard... that's what everybody did." Along with nine other people also involved in the plan, he ended up pleading guilty to federal charges of conspiracy to commit election fraud.

The law prohibits an exchange: an expenditure for a vote. But the new style of swaying the vote favored by alt-right groups is to attempt to suppress votes—by getting people wasted. At one time, there were alcohol sale bans on Election Day in many states; but in 2014, South Carolina became the last state to repeal such a law.

Is the scheme just a publicity gamble, based on the racist notion that minorities are so entranced with hooch that they will easily be distracted from exercising their rights as citizens? We can only hope so.

In any event, people will undoubtedly continue to try to influence voting, using alcohol and food, for years to come.