How Politicians Ply American Votes With Food and Liquor

The surprising historical connections between booze, barbecue, and ballots

By Dan Q. Dao

Published on November 9, 2016

As election day starts to taper off, we're pouring ourselves some drinks, which gives us time to reflect on the surprisingly direct historical links between food, drink, and elections in America.

In this soon-to-be-over campaign season, Munchies reports that prominent Trump endorser Andrew Anglin of The Daily Stormer and the members of alt-right website the Right Stuff plotted to hand out 40s and weed in "the ghettos," in order to get local residents so buzzed that they stay home instead of voting. Seriously. Is nothing sacred anymore?

It's an attempt to fight what Trump and his supporters consider to be a rigged election—the candidate has openly encouraged monitoring of polling centers across the country for any suspicious activity (but clearly, manipulating the opposition is fair game). It may seem like a nefarious scheme—it’s also illegal—but apparently, influencing voters with things to eat and drink is as old as the practice of voting itself.

According to the Smithsonian magazine, "the practice of wining and dining the electorate can be traced back to Britain and, even earlier, to ancient Rome and Greece." Fast forward to the dawn of America, where 24-year-old George Washington, father of this country and candidate for Virginia's House of Burgesses, handed out a whopping 144 gallons of rum, punch, hard cider and beer in a totally acceptable practice known as "swilling the planters with bumbo."

In the late 19th Century, the tactic reached an all-new level as politicians looked to curry favor by hosting epic live-cooking feasts. Naturally, campaigning before the advent of digital media necessitated different types of interaction with voters: throughout the South and West, it was commonplace for political rallies and events to be well-stocked with food and drink options for attendees. In a particularly notable instance in New York City in 1876, Republicans literally paraded two oxen through Manhattan and Brooklyn before cooking them whole and serving sandwiches to over 50,000 people in Myrtle Avenue Park. In 1870, city Dem's held a similar live roasting event with an ox, sheep, calf, and hog, but the turnout was so high that they were unable to feed everyone.

This type of trading food for votes has been outlawed since 1948, per Section 597 of Title 18 of the USC, which states that making, offering, accepting, and receiving any "expenditure to any person, either to vote or withhold his vote, or to vote for or against any candidate" could land you in jail for up to two years.

Still, hosting free barbecues for the masses at least seems like a forgivable offense (and now we're hankering for a meat sandwich)—by contrast, even the implication that minority residents in low-income neighborhoods would be coerced to stay home by white supremacists handing out malt liquor and marijuana is, to us, nothing short of deplorable.

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