Big cities in the Gilded Age were faced with many problems. Rapidly growing populations raised the need for better sewers, cleaner water, new bridges, more efficient transit, improved schools, and suitable aid for the sick and poor.
Local government officials had a limited resources and personnel to deal with the problems. Many political bosses arose willing to make corrupt deals to address these problems in order to increase their power bases. The people and institutions the bosses controlled were called the political machine.
To maintain power, a boss had to keep voters happy. Most political bosses appealed to the most needy groups, the immigrants. For example, they might open soup kitchens to receive votes. Neighborhood leaders were sometimes given city jobs in return for the loyalty of their constituents.
Bosses also had to satisfy big business. The political machines offered lucrative contracts for construction of factories or public works. In return, these industries would invest money back into keeping the political machine in office. Bringing diverse interests together in a large city required great political skill.
Many political machines broke their own laws to achieve their goals. They awarded contracts to illegal gambling and prostitution rings. City officials often benefited from profits from these unlawful enterprises, as well as from public tax money and bribes.
Voter fraud was also widespread. Registered voter lists might include many phony names. Members of the machine would "vote early and often," traveling among polling stations to place illegal votes.
Source: Corruption Runs Wild
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