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Where I grew up in Richmond, Virginia, I had to read a lot of Edgar Allan Poe’s gothic poetry and short stories. Richmond claims Poe proudly as one of its native sons. I was told as an article of faith that Poe died in Baltimore on October 7, 1849 (true) and that he was committing voter fraud (maybe not so true). Examining this myth about Poe gives some insight into how the tall tale of voting fraud tends to spread.
The story I was taught as a child is that Edgar Allan Poe had a drinking problem, and that in exchange for a drink, he’d do just about anything, including committing voter fraud. As the Poe Museum reports: “Poe was found semiconscious in a Baltimore polling place just a few days before his death.” The myth was that Poe had been given drinks in exchange for voting multiple times and by the end of election day, he had voted so many times that he got alcohol poisoning which killed him at age 40.
But what actually happened to Poe is still a matter of huge dispute. The Smithsonian lists at least nine theories of how he died. While the Smithsonian agrees that Poe was found in a gutter outside of Gunner’s Hall, a polling place in that Baltimore election, wearing a stranger’s clothes and clinging to life, they note that it’s completely a matter of debate how Poe ended up in that state. One of the theories is that “Poe fell victim to a practice known as cooping, a method of voter fraud practiced by gangs in the 19th century where an unsuspecting victim would be kidnapped, disguised and forced to vote for a specific candidate multiple times under multiple disguised identities.” And indeed, cooping was a problem in the mid-1800s elections, but it is unclear if Poe was actually a victim of cooping.
Another possibility: if Poe voted in Baltimore, he may have been “treated” to alcohol as a reward for just one vote. Though interestingly, Maryland did have a law on the books banning treating voters with alcohol as early as 1811. This Maryland law is sometimes considered the nation’s first campaign finance law. Whether this law was being vigorously enforced on election day in 1849 in Baltimore is another matter.
One of the things that gave the Poe voter fraud myth legs was at the time voters brought their ballots to the polls. Typically voters got their ballots from a political party and frequently ballots were color coded such that if one party had yellow ballots, then the opposing party had pink ballots (or another color).
In my new book “Political Brands” I look at the mechanics of political myths. Characteristically, the public will believe a myth is true if it comes from a trusted network and the myth will then solidify if it appears and reappears from more than one source. As commercial advertisers and propagandists have known for a long time, repetition breeds familiarity and familiarity breeds trust. It is much easier to get a child to buy into a myth because they are exposed to fewer sources of information — most children are in an information silo and thus are easier to trick.
So why did I fall for the Poe voter fraud myth? For one, I learned it as a kid. And I learned it from a network I trusted — a few English teachers at my private school, who typically told me the truth. It was reinforced when I heard the myth not just once but from several teachers. By the end of high school, I was convinced Poe was a drunken election cheater. As it turns out, Poe had joined the temperance movement a year before his death and no one knows for sure how Poe ended up in that Baltimore gutter.
Regardless of what actually prompted Poe’s death, the myth of rampant voter fraud continues to this day. In contrast to Poe’s day, where voters had color coded ballots from political parties, one of things that makes paying for votes much harder is the reform known as the Australian ballot or secret ballot. Now ballots are printed by the state not the political parties. And every ballot is on the same colored paper — typically white. Voters have privacy booths to add to the anonymity of voting and paying for a vote is a federal crime as is double voting. As most election law experts will tell you, voter fraud is exceedingly rare.
So why does the myth of widespread voter fraud persist? It works like any other political myth. A voter hears about it through their trusted network and they hear it not just once but multiple times and suddenly the lie seems real. If the voter is in an information silo that contains President Trump saying voter fraud is real, and former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach saying voter fraud is real and pundits on Fox News saying voter fraud is real, then the myth takes on the air of truth. And voters fall for the voter fraud myth just like I fell for the myths about Poe.
So how do we fix this problem of political myths festering into what seem to be facts? For one, breaking out of our information silos is key. Do basic fact checks. Dig around to see if the source (even and especially the President) is telling the truth. We don’t have to be so gullible as citizens. As Poe himself wrote, “Quoth the Raven: Nevermore!”
Ciara Torres-Spelliscy is a law professor at Stetson University, a Brennan Center Fellow and the author of “Political Brands.”