The midterm elections are coming up! On Tuesday, November 6, most Americans who choose to participate (and that number is far too small) will show up at a polling station to vote. Nowadays, voters fill out a paper ballot and run it through a scanner. Or votes can cast ballots early or using absentee ballots. But how did citizens vote before scanners? Many kids and adults will be surprised to know that over the course of American history, there have been huge changes not only in who could vote, but how people voted. Here we’ll take a peek at three major trends US voting since the 1780s. As you read, ask yourself: What are the pros and cons of voting in different ways?
Early American Voting: Loud, Proud and Probably Drunk
American voting was first conducted viva voce—meaning “with living voice.” In other words, voters would cast their choice out loud! Typically, voting would take place at a large public function, like a community fair, where there would be tons of food and drink. (In fact, voters would often be drunk by the time they voted! Yikes.) Voters would state their name and address aloud, then they would say who they wanted to vote for. An official would stand on a platform and record the names of the eligible voters and who they voted for.
Why vote out loud like this? Today we consider voting to be a confidential act, but that was not the case in the early years of the United States. The reasoning reflects voting attitudes at the time: A person was supposed to cast their vote for the candidate who would best serve the public, not the candidate that would best serve themselves as voters. Because this was supposed to be a vote in the public’s best interest, it was cast in the open for all to hear.
It is also important to note who could and could not vote during this era. At this time, only white, land-owning men over the age of 21 had the right to vote. Because of this, only 1.3 percent of the nation’s population could actually vote in the first election in 1789. Was this tiny percent of the population really looking out for all Americans? Enslaved people, women, and American Indians would probably have said no.
People actually voted out loud well into the 19th century until the ballot box was introduced. That means that George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and even Abraham Lincoln all would have voted aloud, too!
Fun Fact: Today, members of the public elect all congressional representatives for both the Senate and the House of Representatives. But it hasn’t always been this way. Until the 1910s, the public elected members of the House of Representatives, but senators were chosen by state legislators. That practice continued until the passage of the 17th Amendment in 1913 which changed how senators were elected.
Voting After the Civil War and Before the Civil Rights Movement: Voting Transparency and Suppression
By the late 1870s, voting methods had changed. Now people cast their votes using paper slips placed in ballot boxes. This shift in voting created a lot of anxiety about voter fraud—people were afraid that the ballot boxes could be “stuffed,” or filled with phony ballots. This fear was only exacerbated by the design of the ballot box—it was dark brown and wooden, so many perceived that it was easy to stuff. In response to these anxieties, New Yorker Samuel Jollie constructed a new type of ballot box—a glass ball! His new design was meant to accentuate the virtuous nature of the American voting system. Because it was literally transparent, it made voters feel the system could not be cheated. Glass ballot boxes weren’t used everywhere, but they were popular nonetheless. In fact, they were so popular that people would carry replicas of crystal balls mounted on long staffs during “voting parades,” which were celebrations held on election night.
During this era, voters didn’t have to write anything on their paper ballots since each political party had its own ballot called a “party ticket.” Voters simply chose the party they wanted then dropped the party ticket into the glass box. These tickets were often printed on different colored paper, which helped both voters and the vote-counters clearly distinguish between ballots.
In 1870, the 15th Amendment was ratified, giving every male citizen—regardless of race—the legal right to vote. But many racist Americans were upset by this measure of equality and took steps to make sure African Americans, Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans, and other minority groups could not vote. Voter suppression was done in a variety of ways, from threatening violence at the voting booth to implementing unfair rules and exams. For example, some people forced voters to take “literacy tests,” which were usually impossible for former slaves to pass, and instated “grandfather clauses,” which said that in order for you to vote, your grandfather would also have had to be able to vote. This meant that all former slaves and the descendants of slaves couldn’t cast their ballots. You can learn a lot more about voting rights for African Americans by visiting our exhibition Black Citizenship in the Age of Jim Crow, on view through March 3.
Fun Fact: In the 1872 presidential election, Victoria Woodhull ran as the first female candidate for the presidency! She was a radical social reformer and suffragist. In fact, when Woodhull ran for president, women didn’t even have the right to vote yet, which was granted through the 19th Amendment in 1920.
Machines, Secrecy, and Federal Oversight Take Over in the Mid-20th Century
In 1869, Thomas Edison invented a switch-and-lever machine electrographic vote recorder that could tally yea and nay votes, which was meant to improve voting accuracy and prevent ballot counters from wondering who a person actually intended to vote for. But it was Edison’s first patent—and a total flop. Voting machines like this were later perfected, but they wouldn’t be officially used until nearly a century later in 1959.
So, starting in 1890, U.S. citizens switched to using secret ballots since the public voting systems of the past did not do enough to inhibit corruption—in fact, political parties and factions bullied people and punished those who voted against them. This is how the infamous Boss Tweed and his Tammany Hall cronies controlled New York City politics for decades!
Secret voting meant that glass ballot boxes were gone, and so were colorful party tickets. The United States adopted the “Australian ballot,” first used in Australia, of course! On this ballot, candidates from all political parties were presented in a list. Voters had to go down the list and mark which candidate they wanted to vote for.
In 1964 and 1965, respectively, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. Together, these two pieces of legislation outlawed unfair voting practices on the grounds of race, color, religion, or national origin. These acts were meant to undo and prevent mostly Southern states from passing legislation that privileged white voters and kept racial minorities from voting. Under the Voting Rights Act, certain states or jurisdictions had to seek “preclearance” from the federal government before passing laws that could affect voting rights.
Not-So-Fun Fact: Controversially, the Supreme Court invalidated the heart of the Voting Rights Act in 2013. Since then, several formerly federally supervised jurisdictions have passed laws that have led to voter disenfranchisement, even though lawmakers have argued that was not their intention.
Voting History: The Results of All These Changes
Over time, we can see many changes that have ostensibly been made to make voting more trustworthy, less corrupt, and open to more people. But we still have a long way to go. Today, more people than ever before have the right to vote, but most citizens don’t exercise that right. For the 2016 presidential election, only about 60 percent of eligible voters turned out to vote! And midterm voter turnout is usually much lower than presidential elections. Plus, politicians have very different ideas about how to make voting freer and fairer: Some advocate for automatically registering people to vote, making it easier to vote early or from home, and restoring the voting rights of formerly incarcerated people. Others don’t think these measures will work and are concerned that some reforms will encourage voter fraud, even though there is no evidence of meaningful voter fraud.
The young visitors we serve at DiMenna Children’s History Museum can’t vote yet, but we think the more they learn about voting rights and systems past and present, the more they’ll fight for and use their precious right to vote when they can. And in the meantime, we know all the grown-ups out there reading this will set a good example and, if they are eligible, vote this Tuesday. See you at the polls!
Written by Rachel Walman
Assistant Director, DiMenna Children’s History Museum