Beacon Street Diary blog

How the Puritans dealt with voter fraud

By the 1640s Massachusetts had already moved beyond paper ballots.

Not that they had any voting machines; it was just that paper was too expensive. So in a cost-cutting move the government went to "Indian beanes" (kidney beans). Their voting law stipulated that in the annual election for Assistants (who comprised the fledgling upper house of the Commonwealth's General Court), "the white beanes manifest election, the black for blanks." (September 7, 1643)

Enter Mighill Smith. On May 26, 1647, the government voted to make Mr. Smith a freeman. That meant he had attained a coveted status in early New England. From the original handful of persons named in the Bay Company charter, the Puritan settlers quickly expanded the right to vote to include a much larger population, namely, all (male) church members. So Mr. Smith proudly joined the ranks of the freemen; and it appears he voted that very day in an election for the Colony's Assistants. It may have been the first time he ever voted in his entire life.

It isn't clear that Mr. Smith believed in voting early and often — but he did drop three beans into the receptacle. A poll watcher caught him. He was accused of violating the October, 1643 law against voting more than once. As a result, in what may have been the first case of voter fraud on these shores, a £10 fine was levied on Mighill Smith. That hefty sum could have amounted to almost half of his yearly income.

Justice was swift. In that same session of the Great and General Court, maybe even on the very next day, the Court reached a judicious and compassionate verdict. "For his puting in of three beanes at once for one mans election," says the record, "it being done in simplicity, & he being pore & of an harmles disposition," Mr. Smith's fine was suspended.

-David M. Powers


photograph of an early ballot box using ballottas courtesy of the National Museum of American History of the Smithsonian Institution, via Wikimedia Commons