Sept. 9, 1931: Pittsburgh’s great voting scandal
Poor Clayton Swisher. He had the misfortune of being broke and hungry in 1931, one of the worst of the Depression years. Swisher was hanging around outside the Pittsburgh Association for the Improvement of the Poor when he thought his luck had changed. He met a “big-hearted” man who gave him 10 cents for a meal.
There was a catch. The man was a ward politician and wanted Swisher to vote in the primary election scheduled Sept. 15, less than a week away. He handed Swisher a small piece of paper. Register using this name, Swisher was told.
So Swisher dutifully went to a polling place and stood in line. Then things went bad. Swisher was arrested by state police and sent to jail. He had company — man named William Lapinska was arrested at the same location. He gave authorities four different names before coughing up the real one.
The next day, Swisher’s picture ended up on the front page of the newspaper. “A 10-Cent Vote,” the headline snickered.
His was a small part of a much bigger story the investigators and newspapers had been unpeeling for months. Padding of voter lists in the early 1930s was so widespread as to be laughable. The Pittsburgh Press indicated 50,000 illegal tax receipts had been issued in preparation for the 1931 primary election.
Sometimes political gangs stole votes by paying taxes in the names of unsuspecting citizens and then securing a receipt to register. The citizen would discover the fraud, only to be told duplicate receipts were not allowed. No vote for you, they were told.
“Ghost” voters were commonly registered at false addresses — vacant houses, parking lots, boiler yards, hotels. Eleven thousand more people were assessed for taxes than the total population of Pittsburgh.
The primary that year was a mess of riots, kidnappings, voting machine failures and arrests. It made great headlines, if not great democracy. “Stop This Wholesale Election Steal!” pleaded The Pittsburgh Press.
Pittsburgh at the time was awash in corruption. Mayor Charles H. Kline would prove to be one of the city’s most dapper and dirty politicians. Indicted, tried and convicted of malfeasance, he’d escape jail only by dying of ill health before he could be sent to the pokey.
And poor Clayton Swisher? He was charged with conspiracy to violate the registration laws and held on $1,000 bail. The newspaper story failed to indicate whether he got his 10-cent meal.