Saipan — I experienced my first NMI election in 1993. The voters headed to the polling centers on Nov. 6, and I, like most people on island, learned the results two days later. NMI elections were still held on a Saturday in an odd-numbered year. But now that the NMI has a U.S. congressional delegate, elections here have been “synchronized” with the rest of the U.S. Election day now falls on a Tuesday.
Why are U.S. elections held on, of all days, Tuesday? Because “that’s what made the most sense 173 years ago.” (See https://qz.com/1418567/us-elections-are-held-on-a-tuesday-thanks-to-19th-century-farmers
Today, because of the internet, people can know the results as they are tallied regardless of the day of election. History no longer unfolds. Raw bits of it can be posted, re-posted, tweeted and re-tweeted. And then turned into memes or YouTube clips.
I, however, can’t say that elections were much better in the good old days — unless you like to have a good time while performing a civic duty.
In the 18th century, when the northeastern states were still British colonies, election day was virtually a fiesta. In her book, “Election Day: An American Holiday, An American History,” Kate Kelly wrote: “Voters [in the 1700’s] expected to be ‘treated’ throughout the day…. [L]arge quantities of rum punch, ginger cakes and barbecued beef or pork were used to persuade voters to cast their ballots for a particular candidate.” In 1758, Kelly added, when the future father of the nation, George Washington, was a candidate for the Virginia legislature, he purchased 28 gallons of rum, 50 gallons of rum punch, 46 gallons of beer and two gallons of “cider royal” which were then freely distributed to happy voters.
(During the administration of another great American president, Abraham Lincoln, a congressman complained to him about the questionable government contracts signed by Secretary of War Simon Cameron. Lincoln supposedly said: “Why…you don't think the Secretary would steal, do you?” The congressman answered, “Well, Mr. President, I don't think he would steal a red-hot stove.”)
By the 1870s, American democracy was as vibrant as ever, and “the sale of public office wasn’t the exception; it was the rule,” said Jack Mitchell, author of “How to Get Elected.” In those days, he said, “candidates desiring office were expected to ante up a ‘contribution’ to the party’s coffer. Judgeships typically were priced at around $15,000, a seat in Congress at $4,000 (one judge apparently being worth almost four congressmen,) and a place in the state legislature at a more modest $1,500….”
In Chicago in the 1920s, this was a typical scene at a polling place: “The voter stepped gingerly into a curtained-off space, sat down at a rickety table, and with heart in mouth, marked his vote on the ballot with a pencil. His heart was in his mouth because there was always a likelihood that a hefty ‘election watcher’ might dart in and catch him voting for the wrong side.” While counting vote tallies, some election officials would deface opposition ballots so they wouldn’t count. The fun, however, usually began a day or two before the election as “ ‘the vital wards of the town filled up with hordes of drunks, hopheads and bearded hoboes’ eager for free booze, prostitutes and voting bonuses of several dollars each.”
Here on 21st century Saipan, on election night, I and some reporters will be at the multi-purpose center in Susupe to learn the results as soon as they are announced by the election commission so we can post them online. The rest of the reporters will be at the campaign headquarters of the Republican and Independent-Democratic camps.
While waiting for the latest vote tally, and in the spirit of the moment, I will re-read PJ O’Rourke’s “Don't Vote: It Just Encourages the Bastards.”
Zaldy Dandan is editor of Marianas Variety, the NMI’s oldest newspaper.