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Radical Mainers: When Maine Bosses Marched Workers to the Ballot Box

Voter intimidation and suppression in 19th century Maine

by | Mar 11, 2021

In the weeks before Election Day last fall, Uber drivers in California were spammed with political ads from Uber when they logged into the company app to start working. The graphics and videos that popped up on the screen — not dismissible until the user clicked to confirm they had seen it —promoted Proposition 22 and warned of dire economic consequences if the state ballot initiative didn’t pass.

Prop 22 did pass, handily (Uber passengers in California were also compelled to acknowledge the company’s ads in order to access the service). The new law classifies app-based drivers as “independent contractors,” rather than employees, which greatly benefits the bottom line of corporations like Uber. These gig workers can’t get overtime, paid sick days, paid parental leave or unemployment insurance, they’re not protected by state labor laws and they can’t form a union to advocate for their rights.

The technology is novel, but there’s nothing new about bosses pressuring workers to influence their vote. Before voting privacy laws were passed, it wasn’t uncommon for companies to fire or punish workers for voting against ownership’s interests. In Maine, where no secret-ballot law was on the books until 1891, allegations of voter intimidation by bosses were made throughout the nineteenth century.

In the early days of the republic, voting was not a private act. Men would stand during town meetings and announce their choices or otherwise have their vote publicly recorded.

If you were a white man who owned property and collected a respectable income, you could vote in the 1819 election for Maine’s statehood. But as researcher Lee Webb noted in a 2017 dissertation, Maine’s government was dominated during its first decade by what critics at the time called a “Junto” of political elites — the wealthy men who’d led the campaign to separate from Massachusetts.         

In 1831, the Maine Legislature banned viva voce voting and required the use of printed ballots deposited into locked boxes. Thus began the practice of voting using “party tickets” — ballots printed by political parties, with their candidates’ names checked off — which were handed out on Election Day. The parties’ ballots often had distinctive colors or markings (in violation of the 1831 law, which stipulated only plain white paper be used), so “everyone could see which ticket the man took and put in the ballot box,” Webb wrote.

“Among those surrounding the ballot box were the powerful men in the community: landowners, mill owners, merchants, and powerful patronage holders,” Webb continued. “While men of independent means could hide how they voted from peering eyes, many men — mill workers, the poor … — had to display their choice to the men they were obligated to. The potential for abuse was significant.”

In 1834, Maine businessmen aligned with the Whig Party pressured workers to support candidates who favored the establishment of a federal bank. Portland newspaper The Eastern Argus reported that year on a merchant who’d declared he would not employ any “Shipmaster, Mechanic, or Laborer” who opposed his pro-bank politics.

A few months later, the Argus published allegations that James C. Churchill, described as a “run down candidate” for Congress (who also supported a federal bank), had fired 10 workers for voting against him. Churchill was the owner, along with Nathaniel F. Deering, of a ropewalk: a long, narrow building where workers twisted strands of hemp or manila to make rope.      

In a letter to the paper, Deering disputed the charge against his business partner, but admitted he’d told the foreman of the ropewalk that Churchill was entitled to the workers’ votes because they knew him to be a person of unimpeachable character. Deering also declared he had “no hesitation in saying” he would prefer to hire only men who shared his political beliefs.

Many stories of voter intimidation appeared in the highly partisan newspapers of the day, so their veracity should be evaluated in that context. For example, the Argus, which aligned with the Democratic Party*, referred to political bullying by Whig bosses in 1834 as a “Reign of Terror.”

In the presidential election year of 1868, the Argus claimed men laboring in Maine factories were embracing the Democratic Party because “they generally agree that the cause of all their troubles is the maladministration of public affairs by the dominant radical party.” That “radical” party was the Republican Party — the party, the paper said, of most factory bosses.

The Argus quoted a report published in the New York Herald: “Hundreds in Lewiston, Auburn, Little Falls and other towns would gladly vote the Conservative [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, lest they should be thrown out of employment and their families suffer.”

For its part, the Republican-leaning Lewiston Evening Journal reported on an incident at the Kittery Navy Yard. It alleged that seven soldiers, each of whom had lost a limb during the Civil War, were fired because they would not promise “to vote the [D]emocratic ticket and to make the vote of one South Carolinian worth two of theirs.”

In 1875, a letter from a stonecutter on Hurricane Island, published anonymously by the pro-Democrat Rockland Opinion, alleged that granite baron Davis Tillson kept account of all the voters on the island (which he owned with two partners) and made them attend meetings during which he pressured them to vote a straight Republican ticket.

In testimony during the defamation case Tillson subsequently brought against the newspaper, stonecutter PW Henrick said Tillson told workers “any man who voted the Democratic ticket was his personal enemy and the men’s interests were his.” Tillson’s interest was to keep getting government contracts to supply granite for federal monuments and buildings. Henrick said he voted for Democrats before working for Tillson, but “Democracy has been scared out of me.”

In September of 1875, Tillson suspected a stonecutter named Timothy McQueeny had penned the letters to the Opinion, so he told the owner of the boarding house where McQueeny lived to break into the stonecutter’s locked trunk. Incriminating letters were found inside.

Tillson promptly fired McQueeny, had all his belongings thrown into the street, and ordered him to leave the island aboard a steamer to Rockland. According to one account, Tillson then called out to other workers in the street, declaring that McQueeny was “a convicted thief, liar, reptile, perjurer” and other epithets not fit for print.

“He authorized that any of us who found McQueeny on the island should eject him,” the witness recalled. “That if we hurt him a little it was all right and if we hurt him a great deal he would pay for the damages. He said he would fire anyone who read the Opinion or [was] sympathetic” to the Democratic Party.

McQueeny said he’d told Tillson he would leave when he was “good and ready” — after all, he paid taxes on the island and had a right to stay.

“To hell with the law,” Tillson reportedly retorted. “I own this island and I will be master here. You get off of it.”

Two years later, in 1877, Maine granite cutters formed the International Granite Cutters Union to fight for fair wages, shorter workdays and safer working conditions, as well as abolition of the company store on Hurricane Island and other demands. Labor movement members and organizers helped push for political reforms in the years that followed, including the 1891 law instituting Maine’s secret ballot.

*The Argus embodied the best and worst aspects of Democratic politics during that age. In the 1830s, it printed columns by anonymous worker correspondents, like a local artisan who expressed support for a 10-hour workday and asked readers “unused to physical labor, to imagine themselves out-door workmen … compelled to work beneath the hottest summer sun, from half-past four o’clock in the morning until eight o’clock in the evening.” But in the 1860s, the paper was prone to racist screeds and scapegoated minorities for the problems of white workers. For example, in the summer of 1866 it complained of “shiftless blacks” hired to rebuild city property damaged by the Great Fire — allegedly over white Civil War vets who wanted the work. A few days later, the work crew in question was discharged after striking for higher wages — the first known strike among black workers in Maine — prompting the Argus to “indulge in hopes that white folks may now have a chance.”

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