“That most potent of all sheets of paper, the ballot”*… 

 

800px-The_County_Election,_Bingham,_1846

The County Election,” George Caleb Bingham, 1854.

 

Before there were paper ballots in America, there was the human voice. Per the viva voce system, a practice with roots in Ancient Greece, eligible voters would call out the names of their preferred candidates to a government clerk, who registered votes in a pollbook. Sometimes bodies would suffice: in Kentucky, until the early nineteenth century, some elections were decided by counting the number of supporters lined up on opposite sides of the road. In some colonies, people would cast their votes with corn and beans—corn for yea, beans for nay.

Though voting “by papers” gained in popularity during Colonial times, state governments made little effort to standardize ballots until the early nineteenth century. Ballots often required voters to write their preferred candidate’s name on a scrap of paper, which might only be counted if the name was legible and correctly spelled. By the end of the eighteen-twenties, the sheer number of elected offices became too much for a scribe to list, paving the way for the legalization of printed ballots provided by party workers and candidates themselves. As political parties grew and the lists of candidates became longer, the ballots began to resemble the timetables on railway tickets—hence the term “party ticket.”

Despite regulations in some states that required ballots to be printed in black ink on white paper, parties would use distinctive graphic layouts and production methods that allowed party enforcers to monitor voting by visually determining the allegiance of the voter…

On Election Day in nineteenth-century America, party enforcers actively sought out citizens to bribe or coerce. Campaigning often took place in the local taverns that doubled as polling locations. Votes could be bought with ready cash, a ladleful of rum, or even a set of plates. Party enforcers often employed a kidnapping strategy called “cooping,” in which drunk and indigent men were rounded up, locked away in a room until Election Day, and forced to visit polling sites to repeatedly vote for a candidate. Fake or counterfeit party ballots with some or all of the names of another party’s candidates were distributed to mislead the inattentive voter. When interrogated about election fraud, the infamous Boss Tweed once remarked that it wasn’t the ballots that rendered the result. It was the counters

Technological innovations have reshaped the secret-ballot system many times in the decades since. By 1920, gear-and-lever machines with privacy curtains were serving a growing, post-suffrage electorate as the official voting method in several states. From the late fifties to the early seventies, the struggle against discriminatory voting practices and a newly enfranchised youth population further increased the size of the electorate, creating a wider demand for punch-card voting machines, which allowed votes to be counted by a computer. In 2002, after the so-called hanging chad scandal of the 2000 Presidential election, federal funds helped spread the use of electronic voting machines that are still in use today

In this age of recrimination and recount, a look at the history of the ballot– with lots of fascinating pictorial examples: “This is what democracy looked like.”

* Philip Loring Allen

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As we fortify our franchise, we might recall that it was on this date in 1916 that Margaret Sanger, fresh back from a stint in the Raymond Street jail, reopened the Brownsville Clinic in Brooklyn, NY– the first birth control clinic in the U.S.  Sanger had been shut down and arrested before for obscenity (she offered a booklet called “What Every Young Woman Should Know,” explaining the female reproductive system and several contraceptive methods).  This time, the police leaned on her landlord to evict her, and the clinic closed almost as soon as it reopened.

Sanger (center) at the Brownsville Clinic

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