We have been blanketed with news of voter suppression in recent years. A glance of the past makes modern efforts to suppress the vote look like child’s play. Witness, for example, the fact that Maine did not have a secret ballot until 1891. This jewel of the democratic process clearly did not arrive with the Mayflower.
As early as 1831, Maine employers were reported to have exerted pressure on their employees to “vote right” and hired only those whose political views coincided with their own. In Portland, the Democratic newspaper Eastern Argus was quick to denounce “The reign of terror” as it described the actions of a merchant in the city who publicly stated that he would not employ a “Shipmaster, Mechanic, or Labor[er] who was opposed to him in politics.”
The partisan Argus also noted that Republican employers on the eve of the Civil War warned their employees “if they did not vote the Republican ticket, they would have no further employment for them!” It was “a queer way,” the paper noted, “to vindicate the great doctrine of human freedom and the independence of the franchise. Is this not freedom for ‘n——-s’ and slavery for the white men?”
In 1860, an employee in the Portland Sugar House echoed the message of voter intimidation when he reported, “EVERY WORKMAN in that establishment who dares to vote the Democratic ticket on Tuesday next will be discharged from the concern!”
Note also reports from Kittery in 1868 that suggested the regimentation of workers: “The Kittery Navy Yard vote factory is being put in order for the Maine election.”
This pattern of voter suppression and the theft of one of the cardinal values of the democratic process was revealed in 1868 as news items reported that in the textile and shoe centers, “Hundreds in Lewiston, Auburn, Little [Lisbon] Falls and other towns would gladly vote the [Democratic] ticket were they permitted to do so, but as it has been customary in the past to dispense with the services of those who so vote, they are afraid to go to the polls except to vote the ticket of their superintendents…”
Or note the signs of voter intimidation in the remarks of a granite cutter who, in the 1870s moved from Hurricane Island to Blue Hill, wondered about his freedom to vote: “We shall see whether the men are marched up like Chinese gangs to vote at the dictation of some officeholder as on Hurricane [Island].” Or glance at the remarks of the Rockland Opinion, no friend of the “Granite Ring,” the leading granite quarry owners, that referred to the coercion of stonecutters to vote the Republican ticket in 1875 and 1876, and reported that one owner “discharged everyone who did not vote the Republican ticket.”
The reform-oriented journal further also noted that workers who joined the Greenback Party in 1878 were dismissed. In Rockland, a local resident lamented: “And even there [the ballot box] poor men have a hard chance, for they have to meet their employers at the polls, keenly watching to see how they vote. They even get up colored ballots, contrary to law, to enable them to spot those who vote against the [Granite] Ring that they may persecute them and punish them for so doing.”
The growing concern for voter intimidation was reflected in Democratic Gov. Alonzo Garcelon’s message to the Legislature in 1879 in which he took note of the necessity to protect “the freedom and purity of elections.” His remarks have a very contemporary ring to them.
During the surge of unionism in the state in the mid-1880s, a local member of the Knights of Labor remarked of the importance of the crusade for the secret ballot: “There will be an end to the superintending of the votes of employees by overzealous underlings of manufacturing concerns who, not satisfied with controlling the bodies and labor of their workmen, would deprive them of their rights as citizens, and make them vote according to their sweet will.”
The secret ballot put an end to this blatant species of political serfdom, contributed to the purification and expansion of the democratic process, and provided workers with a means to secure economic justice.
Labor quickly turned its attention to securing the citizen initiative — enacted in 1908 — as a means of returning “power to the people,” stoking fears among opponents of the referendum process that such political reforms would open the floodgates of “mob rule” and ensure a requiem for the republic.
Charles A. Scontras is an historian and research associate at the Bureau of Labor Education at the University of Maine in Orono.
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