You’d have to have been in a coma the past several weeks to not be aware that today is Election Day in the United States. Being an American in the UK, I voted by post several weeks ago, but for the majority of my fellow citizens, some part of today will be spent in a queue at a polling station. This particular presidential election has been incredibly vitriolic, with one of the many contentious arguments being about electoral fraud and the outcome being ‘rigged.’ The reality is that very little voter fraud has ever been documented in modern American elections, but what about Rome?
One of the issues I keep coming back to again and again in my work on the Roman electoral process is that of identification. How did the officials overseeing a vote know who could vote? How did they prevent someone from voting who wasn’t legally permitted, or how did they keep someone from voting twice? This came up again recently when I gave a paper to the Birkbeck History Society about voting in Pompeii.
In the simplest terms possible, the physical act of voting involved the eligible citizens being divided into their units and tribes, separated in some way from others, who were then called to vote using a ballot (once the written vote was introduced by the Lex Gabinia in 139 BC) which was then deposited in an urn for counting. Voting could be successive or simultaneous, with counting and results read out either progressively or all together once the vote was complete by a magistrate, who would give the name of the candidate and break down the number of votes received by unit and tribe. There is no concrete evidence on how ballots were distributed or how or even if the qualification to vote was ever checked.
Whilst there is no specific evidence checks of voting eligibility were made, it is certainly clear that enfranchisement, particularly in the earlier years of the Republic, was jealously guarded, thus leading to one scholar to conclude that ‘it is impossible that the Romans, who were so jealous of their group voting machinery and of the timocratic class structure of the centuriate assembly, should not have taken some precautions to ensure that a citizen did not cast his vote in the wrong tribe or century nor cast it more than once.’ Some scholars have suggested that tribal leaders carried out informal checks whilst their members were waiting to vote, but as citizen numbers increased over the years this becomes improbable. It is possible some sort of identity token that contained name, tribe, and property qualification was in the possession of every citizen, which then could be shown to a rogator or custodes at some point in the voting process, much like our modern voter registration or electoral roll.
One scholar of Roman electoral processes has suggested this is a possible explanation for a coin minted in the first century BC, that it actually depicts a voter turning in an identity token, but all this is circumstantial – there is no written or physical evidence to support theory.
This coin, a denarius of Publius Nerva dated to 113-112 BC, is probably the best depiction of voting that survives antiquity. It illustrates the process used both for the oral vote and the written vote, where the voter crossed a pons to either state his choice to a rogator or deposit the ballot on which he wrote. One voter is depositing an object into the urn used to collect ballots, whilst the other, to the left, is handing something to a rogator. This could well be an identity token used to identify an individual’s eligibility to vote. Unfortunately, as good an explanation for this image as this may be, it doesn’t make fraud prevention any clearer. There are no photo IDs, and unless the rogator is keeping a record of who has already presented their token for voting, it is impossible to prevent someone from voting twice, or passing his token on to another.
Ancient literature does provide evidence of fraud at elections, but these instances record the ballot box being stuffed (Varro Rust. 3.ii ff) or numerous ballots appearing in one handwriting (Plutarch Cat. Minor 46.2). I’ve yet to come across an account that speaks to issues of repetitive voting or voting when not legally permitted. On one level, this suggests that it isn’t recorded because it never happened. However, considering the well-documented issues of bribery and intimidation in electioneering (particularly in the later years of the Republic), I find it difficult to believe other kinds of meddling with voting processes didn’t occur.
Whilst I continue to dig for information about ancient voter fraud, let’s all hope (for the sake of my sanity if nothing else) that modern instances are nothing more than the hyperbolic ranting of a desperate candidate.